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Smiling Beyond Her Apocalypse : Television: Dorothy Lyman was a promising soap opera star and had a prime-time sitcom to boot, but then the bottom fell out. Now she’s writing, directing and taking the helm of ‘The Nanny’ in September.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Can a comedic actress all but forgotten by Hollywood still conjure up a laugh?

What was once such a common response has been almost unthinkable for Dorothy Lyman the past five years. Weekly therapy sessions and the perseverance to reinvent her career were all she could do to keep from crying over the lack of work.

It was an unfortunate chapter in a career that seemed so promising in the early 1980s, when Lyman won a pair of daytime Emmy awards for her portrayal of the outlandish Opal Gardner on the soap opera “All My Children,” then segued to prime time in the sitcom “Mama’s Family.”

Only now, after Lyman has discovered a career in writing and directing, can she talk about the intervening years with a smile.

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“I knew Hollywood could be cruel to women, but I never thought it would happen to me,” Lyman, 48, said recently from her Hollywood Hills home. “I always thought I was too gifted an actress to be out of work. I guess I thought I was different.”

Lyman joined “All My Children” in 1981 and was such a hit that network executives discussed a spinoff series for her. Before that could happen, however, she agreed to star with Vicki Lawrence and Ken Berry in “Mama’s Family.” The series went on in 1983 and for much of that season she did both shows, the ABC soap in New York, the NBC comedy in Los Angeles.

It was a demanding schedule but it helped make the versatile actress a household name.

“That was one of the happiest times of my life,” Lyman recalled. “For a couple of years, I never had to buy a cup of coffee. I didn’t have much privacy but I didn’t mind at all. In fact, I loved the attention.”

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Lyman gave up the coast-to-coast commute to devote more time to “Mama’s Family.” NBC canceled the show in its second season but it was revived in syndication a year later and aired until 1990.

In retrospect, Lyman believes that continuing in a supporting role on “Mama’s Family” for so long was a mistake.

“Comedic actresses don’t usually get a long life in Hollywood, and I spent most of my prime years on a show that belonged to Vicki Lawrence,” she said. “I should have been out there getting my own show.”

Lyman has done her share of soul-searching to figure out what went wrong. She attributes part of the problem to mismanagement--she’s been through seven agents in the past seven years--but another part is what’s offered to actresses her age.

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“I’m too talented to play nothing but social workers, nurses and mothers,” Lyman said. “But that’s about all Hollywood has to offer a middle-aged actress. It can age an intelligent person fast.”

Spending more time with her three children and husband, Vincent Malle, a producer and the younger brother of French director Louis Malle, has helped her get through the difficult period. Her pain has been softened the most, however, by the discovery of new talents.

A few lessons with her son’s word processor helped Lyman complete an ambitious script about the frustrations of an aging feminist. The play, titled “A Rage in Tenure,” is currently running at Theater Geo in Hollywood after receiving strong reviews. She is also starring in it through Labor Day weekend.

The part of disgruntled professor Louise Osterman seems tailor-made for Lyman, mixing intelligent wit with a fair share of anger about competing in a man’s world. Lyman claims the character is based on one of her close friends but admits it contains certain aspects of her own personality.

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“Do you know how rewarding it is to get on stage and utter words that actually have some importance?” she asks with a vengeful smile. “This play is actually giving a woman a forum to make important statements. Statements that need to be brought out.”

The reason she is leaving the show is to begin her new duties as director of the CBS sitcom “The Nanny.”

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Fran Drescher, the star of “The Nanny,” wanted Lyman, a personal friend, to direct the show when it was starting in 1993, but the network brass demanded a veteran. At that point, Lyman had only had one television directing job, a short stint on the now discontinued soap opera “Generations” in 1990. So the job went to Lee Shallat, who helped the show routinely win its time slot on Monday nights.

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To improve her credibility, Lyman spent four months observing Shallat at work last season for no pay. Countless quiet hours in the control booth paid off when Lyman was asked to direct an episode last February. She ended up doing two more in March.

And when Shallat stepped down at the end of the season to pursue other options, she was quickly replaced with Lyman.

“I sat in the back of the room for months watching Lee glance at four different monitors and wondering what exactly she was doing,” Lyman said. “But when I finally got my chance at the controls, it all made sense. My nerves settled and I was fine, because I’m not afraid to make decisions.”

Nothing would please Lyman more than to get back in front of the camera, but it’s no longer as urgent as it once was. She’s got the directing job and is working on a second play.

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Lyman considered relocating to Paris last year. Now she’s glad she stuck it out.

“I have always lived for the moment, so I can say this is the happiest I’ve felt,” she said. “I feel I am at the peak of my power because I am finally being taken seriously as a woman and creator. And I’ve learned that is no easy task in this town.”


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