July 03, 1989 12:00 PM

Last April, in a cavernous midtown Manhattan studio, actress Tyne Daly was rehearsing her role as Mama Rose in the 30th-anniversary revival of Gypsy. “The stage manager calls for music, lights,” recalls Daly, “and I just sat there. Finally, I realized what was happening. I was waiting for someone to say ‘Action!’ I guess my old TV habits were getting in the way. It was this little moment of thinking, ‘I’m in the wrong venue here.’ ”

But four weeks later, when Gypsy opened in Chattanooga, Tenn.—the first stop on a 14-city tour that will wind up on Broadway in November—the critics had no doubts that Daly, 43, was right where she belonged playing the overbearing, and eventually delusional, mother of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. “A gutsy, dynamic entertainer bursting with personality and talent, [Tyne Daly] is a natural for the role of Mama Rose,” wrote the Chattanooga Times. The Chattanooga News-Free Press called her “a pure joy to watch….[Her voice] is rich and full.”

“If one more person says, ‘I didn’t know she could sing!’ ” says Daly, who has taken voice lessons off and on since her teens but has rarely sung in public. “I just saved a little stuff on purpose. Isn’t that what theater’s all about, surprises?”

Yet no one was more surprised than Daly to find herself cast in the larger-than-life role of Rose. After the demise of Cagney & Lacey in 1988, after 6½ seasons, Daly, who had won four Emmys for her portrayal of a tough-talking cop, found herself thinking, “What are you going to do now, girl?” Originally a stage actress (she debuted in a 1966 production of George S. Kaufman’s The Butter and Egg Man), Daly had done a number of plays during hiatuses from C&L. Her performance in the Los Angeles Theatre Center’s production of Come Back Little Sheba won her the prestigious Drama-Logue Award for outstanding actress of 1987. Then she did a guest spot singing on Dolly Parton’s short-lived variety show. Barry Brown, one of Gypsy’s producers, happened to be watching and knew he had found his new Rose.

It was a role Daly had had her eye on since she was a girl of 12. One of four children of the late actor James (Medical Center) Daly and his actress wife, Hope Newell, Tyne auditioned for the part of the young Gypsy in the original Broadway production, opposite Ethel Merman, in 1959. After seeing the show, “I wasn’t too sad they hadn’t hired me,” Daly recalls. “The young Gypsy was finished after the first act. What I really wanted to play was Rose. I had seen a lot of musicals, but never one where the heroine went crazy at the end.”

Crazy is what some might call the actress’s decision to take on a role that has become synonymous with the legendary Merman and was later revitalized by Angela Lansbury onstage and Rosalind Russell on film. Daly concedes those are hard acts to follow. “But if there was only one interpretation of Hamlet, we would have stopped at Edwin Booth. I want to be the definitive Mama Rose of this generation,” says Daly, who will also be seen on TV this September opposite Richard Crenna in Stuck with Each Other, a comedy directed by Georg Stanford Brown, her husband of 23 years. “I love Rose. I’m going to own her like Ethel and Angela once owned her,” says Daly. “And in 15 years, another actress will try it and you’re going to say, ‘Are you kidding? Remember when Daly did that? How dare you!’ ”

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