Irene Dailey, a late-blooming actress perhaps best known for her roles in television soap operas and for her portrayal of the quick-witted, sensitive mother, Nettie Cleary, in the 1964 Tony Award-winning drama “The Subject Was Roses,” died on Sept. 24 in Santa Rosa, Calif. She was 88 and lived in Guerneville, Calif.
The cause was colon cancer, her friend Arleen Lorrance said.
From 1974 to 1986, and then again from 1988 to 1994, Miss Dailey played Liz Matthews in ANOTHER WORLD — an upper-class-bred matriarch of a middle-class family dealing with the convolutions of life in the fictional town of Bay City. For that role, Miss Dailey won a Daytime Emmy Award for outstanding actress in 1979.
In 1959, Miss Dailey appeared on the soap THE HOUSE ON HIGH STREET. For a year, in 1969, she played the role of Pamela Stewart in the crime-mystery soap opera THE EDGE OF NIGHT. Her many other television credits included appearances on shows like BEN CASEY, DR. KILDARE, THE TWILIGHT ZONE and THE DEFENDERS. Miss Dailey’s film credits include roles in No Way to Treat a Lady, Five Easy Pieces and The Amityville Horror.
It was only after appearing in a long series of Broadway flops that, in 1964, Miss Dailey received critical acclaim in the United States. It was for her portrayal of the mother in Frank D. Gilroy’s three-character drama, “The Subject Was Roses.” The play dealt with an incompatible couple’s love for their 21-year-old son (with Jack Albertson as the father and Martin Sheen as the son) after the son returns after three years in the Army.
“Miss Dailey’s Nettie is a luminous creation,” Howard Taubman wrote in The New York Times. “She can suggest hurt and desiccation with a stricken glance. Wearing a plain hat and coat and holding her purse, she can turn to walk out of her apartment so that her back conveys her utter defeat and despair.”
Miss Dailey was born in New York City on Sept. 12, 1920, the daughter of Daniel and Helen Ryan Dailey. Her father was the manager of the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan. Her brother Dan Dailey gained fame as a song-and-dance man and Hollywood actor.
At 8, Irene Dailey was dancing in vaudeville, and at 18 she was working in summer stock. With consistent bad luck, she kept winning parts in what she once said were 13 of Broadway’s worst shows. “Miss Lonelyhearts,” for example, had a nine-day run.
Miss Dailey ran a lampshade store and worked as a waitress while making the Broadway rounds. Then, in 1960, she tried her luck in London. She was the 47th actress to try out for the lead in “Tomorrow — With Pictures,” about an American woman trying to take over a British newspaper empire. She got the part and drew rave reviews.
“Every plummy-voiced English rose of an imitation actress should be dragged to see Miss Dailey,” The Daily Express critic wrote. “She sweats love, breathes hate, weeps desire.”
In an interview with Time magazine at the time, Miss Dailey said: “I shall be 40 in September. I have nothing, really nothing. I’m not married. I have no children.”
“All I really care about is the theater,” she continued. “But now, for the first time, I know in my stomach that my work is good.”