Perhaps the tabloids were so busy, what with all the tales of coma babies and alien co-workers, that they missed this exclusive. So, hey, get this: DANA DELANY'S MOM UPSET WITH STAR DAUGHTER'S HAIR!!!!

Unbelievable, right? More amazing than Elvis being sighted in a Michigan supermarket? (C'mon, if Elvis were alive, of course he'd go to the supermarket.)But Delany, star of ABC's "China Beach," may just have the best hair on television with her shiny hennaed bob - it does amazing things, bouncing back and forth, even when her character, superhuman supernurse Colleen McMurphy, just stands there and pouts, which is pretty often. And yet her mother's not happy?

Well, her mother isn't really that upset. But in terms of adversity, her mother's mild distaste is about as rough as Delany's life gets. If you're the kind of person who gets ill reading about other people's good fortune and trouble-free lives, Delany's story may put you in the hospital.

With "China Beach," Delany has one of TV's more enviable roles. Although the drama about Vietnam nurses boasts a large cast, it is far less an ensemble effort than "thirtysomething" or "L.A. Law." Her character, McMurphy, carries the show and serves as its moral center. As Delany puts it: "There aren't too many days when I don't work."

The show's executive producer and co-creator, John Sacret Young, once said: "McMurphy is basically written like a hero in a western; what we're doing here is showing the war through one woman." Her character is so dominant that no other stars have emerged in the show's 1 1/2 seasons, not even Megan Gallagher, who proved so beguiling in "The `Slap' Maxwell Story" (and who recently announced that she was leaving "China Beach").

The way Delany tells it, her trip to the top of the television heap was remarkably easy, almost - dare she say it? - fun.

She comes from a Stamford, Conn., family that became wealthy making toilet valves. She went to George Bush's school, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and adored it so much that she couldn't wait to go to her 15th reunion two weeks ago. Then she went on to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where she was very happy.

After moving to Manhattan, she worked about two minutes as a cocktail waitress, and three hours selling tickets at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and assisting in an antiques shop, before landing a role in a daytime soap. (All right, it was a year, but for an actress in Manhattan that's like three hours and two minutes.) She played Amy Russell on "Love of Life," "a pretty good part because I was the bad girl," Delany says, sitting in her publicist's office.

She played the role for a year, until the show was canceled. What was next? Why, Broadway, of course. After appearing in "A Life," Delany quickly got another part on another soap, that of Haley Wilson on "As the World Turns." "I was the world's oldest living virgin," she sighs.

Other actresses would kill for a soap, but Delany was bored. "Well, I loved soaps in college, but when I was on them I found I was learning some bad habits that I thought were very detrimental to my career. You take shortcuts. You don't make the choices to try interesting things - at least I didn't. You just try to see how little work you can get away with. It was very dangerous."

So while Haley went off on a never-ending honeymoon, Delany, now 33, went to acting school. "I know, I sort of did it backwards: Broadway, soap operas, then acting school," she says. The lessons paid off: Delany landed another theatrical role, this time as the star of "Bloodmoon." The play moved to Los Angeles, and she went with it. Then the television offers started coming in. And not just any offers.

She played Bruce Willis' girlfriend on "Moonlighting."

She played Tom Selleck's girlfriend on "Magnum, P.I."

"I was everybody's girlfriend. I'm the type of girl you're supposed to marry," says Delany, who is single.

She wasn't complaining about playing opposite Selleck or Willis, who was a longtime friend, but "you do worry about being typecast. It can definitely be a death trap to be tagged so early as a certain type."

She starred briefly in the short-lived show "Sweet Surrender," and then "China Beach" came her way.

This was her first reaction: "Oh, no, not another Vietnam show."

This was her second: "I don't want to do a series. You don't have a life. The show becomes your life."

And this was her third reaction, after reading the script: "This is really good. How did the male writers know so much about women? This woman talks like I do. And the script doesn't have the women characters acting like girls, talking about their hair. They're substantial."

How she got the part is something Delany has told so many times and to such audible disbelief that she now does so on automatic pilot. "Well, the way the story went is that I showed up a day early for the audition," she says, shutting her eyes, reciting by rote. "It was a mistake. Honest. I have the date book to prove it. I was the first person who read for the part."

When she was offered the part, Delany resisted. She had already landed a role in the film "Patty Hearst." Her movie career was going well: She was featured in "Masquerade" and "Moon Over Parador." "My agent said, `Look, the bottom line with anything is whether the writing is good. The writing on this show is very good."'

The life of a television actress is not always glamorous. "China Beach" is shot an hour's drive northwest of Los Angeles in the Indian Dunes. "It's the desert, so in the summer it's over 100 degrees during the day," Delany says. "And in the winter, as soon as the sun goes down, it gets into the 30s." And she often has to be on the beach, at night, in a bathing suit.

"I've been in the water when it's been in the 40s. Half of the time on the show you're sick," she says. "But I'm getting smarter about this. One of the actors insists on wearing scuba gear or fatigues at the beach. I'm trying to do the same."

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Her days begin at 4:30 a.m. "when I do my yoga." She reports to makeup on the set 90 minutes later. Work can go as late as midnight, and rarely ends earlier than 6 p.m. "Just try having a social life," Delany says.

Wearing fatigues means the actress doesn't have to worry about her weight, although she does. "I gained 10 pounds the first season; now I have Pritikin diet food served on the set," says Delany, who is wearing a second-skin black dress that shows what terrific shape she's in.

She would just as soon skip the beach scenes, particularly the evening ones - the evenings her character McMurphy lives for. "What I really love are the medical scenes. I just love all that bloody stuff in the operating room," the actress says.

Most performers, once they land a plum television role, want to ride it out for five or six years. Not Delany. Though there was a chance that ABC would not renew the show for next season (it did, last month), Delany wasn't worried. "I'd be happy with just another year, then I'd like to try something different," she says. "I have great faith that things will turn out."

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