Dorothy Lyman doesn’t mind that her Emmy-winning two years as the outrageous Opal on “All My Children” brought her more adoring fans than any of her several dozen TV roles, even those nine years as Naomi on “Mama’s Family.”
And it’s OK that her Hollywood film appearances and live theater performances get less attention than her soap opera persona.
At age 65, Lyman is out to change all that. She’s in Raleigh rehearsing for the lead role in Hot Summer Night’s production of Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “August: Osage County,” opening Thursday at the Fletcher Opera Theater. Although she hasn’t acted in live theater since 2003, Lyman hopes this performance will re-ignite her stage career, something she wants to pursue now that she’s doing less on-camera work.
The role of Violet Weston, the cancer-ridden, pill-popping matriarch of a large, Oklahoma-based family, is the kind that actresses would kill for, with its wide range of emotions and character quirks. The play’s darkly comic plot concerns the sudden disappearance of Violet’s alcoholic husband, bringing home their three daughters. Violet loves them deeply but can’t stop berating them for the paths their lives have taken.
Before heading to Raleigh, Lyman spoke by phone from her farm in New York’s Catskill Mountains about her varied career, the problems of aging actresses and her preparations for playing Violet. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation:
Q: You don’t have any resentment about being best known for playing Opal on “All My Children”?
Actors who wish people would not associate them with one famous role are just ungrateful and silly. They should thank their lucky stars. I don’t regret playing Opal because it opened every door.
Q: For example?
It led directly to “Mama’s Family” because Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence used to watch “All My Children” on their lunch breaks at the studio. When they came up with Vicki’s show, they said, let’s ask that woman to come out here to Hollywood.
Q: How did you become connected with “The Nanny”?
Fran Drescher was one of my acting students in Hollywood before she was famous, and we became friends. She remembered I wanted to direct some TV, so she offered me one episode of “The Nanny.” After that, they offered me the whole next season, and I ended up doing 75 consecutive episodes over three years. That job funded my retirement.
Q: You didn’t stay in Hollywood after “The Nanny”?
It’s no place for a woman to hang around once you get a little age on you. It can be pretty unforgiving. So I moved back East to my farm 10 years ago. I raise chickens now and sell eggs to the local hotel restaurant. I find I’m suited to it, and I think it’s a noble thing to do.
Q:But you continue to work as actor and director?
Yes. I feel more like an artist now. I’ve directed three films so far, including a documentary on aging. I’ve commissioned an updated version of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” that I want to direct. Now I’m excited about playing Violet.
Q: What would you say to your Opal fans about seeing you in this play?
Violet Weston is a close family relative of the women they have seen me play on TV. She is a country girl but extremely smart and funny. It’s a cynical play about family but it’s full of love, which I think I can particularly bring to it.
Q: How have you prepared to play this part?
I’ve watched every old movie with the word “Oklahoma” in the title, and I’ve been on websites about the area. I’ve researched cancers of the head and neck. I spoke to a psychiatrist friend about what’s wrong with Violet, and I have thought deeply about my own mother, who came from nothing and was pretty enraged about her circumstances.