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After appearing in small roles early in her career, Delany received her breakthrough role as Colleen McMurphy on the ABC television drama China Beach (1988–1991), for which she twice received the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 1989 and 1992.
She received further recognition for her appearances in the films Light Sleeper (1992), Tombstone (1993), Exit to Eden (1994), The Margaret Sanger Story (1995), Fly Away Home (1996), True Women (1997), and Wide Awake (1998).
After growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, she attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, for her senior year and was a member of the school's first co-educational class, which included jazz composer Bill Cunliffe, software executive Peter Currie, artist Julian Hatton, poet Karl Kirchwey, writer Nate Lee, editor Sara Nelson, restaurateur Priscilla Martel and sculptor Gar Waterman.
She commented: 'It was just a little awkward to be Nellie at first because she hesitates to marry Emile since he had once lived with a Polynesian woman – I don't agree with her reasoning so that made things a bit hard at the beginning.'
After college, she found acting work in New York City in daytime soap operas including Love of Life and As the World Turns, and supported herself by acting in commercials such as for Wisk laundry detergent.
She starred in the Broadway show A Life and won critical acclaim in 1983 in Nicholas Kazan's off-Broadway Blood Moon, where The New York Times cited her 'skillful verisimilitude' handling a difficult part requiring two roles 'and she does them both with authority.'
She finally won the role after she showed up to her next audition with her 'long tresses cut into a bob' after the producers lost their first choice (she had cut her hair at the request of director Paul Schrader who had cast her in the film Patty Hearst).China Beach aired weekly from 1988 to 1991 and brought intense media attention to the actress.
Delany commented in a 2008 interview about the audience reaction: 'I had already got pilloried for playing the Exit to Eden dominatrix after China Beach because audiences had a certain image of me as Colleen and didn't want to see it change.'
The provocatively titled Live Nude Girls included frank discussion by women of their sexual fantasies at a bachelorette party using a low-budget improvisational comedy format with strong chemistry between the actors.
Delany declined the role partly after remembering the negative audience reaction she received with a similar film, Exit to Eden, a few years back.
Delany played a gun-toting mother in an episode of the TV series Family Law (1999) for which she earned a Primetime Emmy Award nomination, but the series was not rerun due to sponsorship withdrawal.
She played a doctor in the TV series Presidio Med (2002), described as a 'conventional but pleasant drama populated by characters dedicated to medicine who also have messy personal lives.'
Returning to theater, she played an artsy and incompetent woman who questions the 'imposed conventions of society' after discovering her husband's affair in the Pulitzer-prize winning Dinner With Friends (2000, New York City, Los Angeles, Boston);
They're absolutely convincing as rich, complicated Manhattanites and as parents who come face to face with the scary reality that they can't always protect their kids.'
Delany has become 'something of a heroine to the nurses who served in Vietnam', according to Los Angeles Times writer Susan King, who noted that the actress worked on a nationwide nurse recruitment program in 1990 called the McMurphy project.
But in 2007 she was again offered a role by producer Marc Cherry, this time as a supporting housewife, and she joined the cast of the well-established series for the 2007–08 season.
She commented about playing housewife Katherine Mayfair: 'The hardest thing for me was figuring out the tone of the piece because it's such a specific tone - so it was more of an acting challenge than anything else.'
In 2011, in Body of Proof, Delany played a brilliant neurosurgeon turned medical examiner after a car accident causes her to lose dexterity in her hands.
She appeared in June 2009 in an onstage meeting in New York alongside White House social secretary Desiree Rogers to discuss ways to promote American cinematic creativity.
Delany explained her support for the arts in an interview: 'I just think it's so important for children and the future of the country and people's general happiness.
Delany commented about her personal life in an interview in 2006: 'I turned 50 and I'm ready to get married... I don't know who he is yet but I'm ready... He has to be smart, funny and kind.'
She added a year later: 'Marriage has never been a big deal for me... But I think I’m ready now... I got to have all the fun in the world, to experience a lot of people and figure out what I really like.'
Delany, in 2003, tried having an injection of botox in her forehead, but the needle hit a nerve and created a bruise which affected the muscle in her right eye, causing it to droop slightly.
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