Lesbian Times July 1995 article on Sharon Gless
For six years in the 1980s, any self-respecting lesbian would have broken whatever law it took to be frisked by New York police detective Christine Cagney.
She was the TV character we loved to watch because she reminded us of us-irreverent, independent, sarcastic and perpetually premenstrual.
Perhaps as importantly, however, she looked kick-ass in jeans as she ran down the street chasing the bad guys.
So it's no wonder that lesbians have always adored, admired, lusted after and appreciated (pick one or all of the above) Cagney's alter ego, Sharon Gless.
But what we didn't know until now is that she loves us back
"I'm not unaware of the fact that probably my biggest audience is lesbians, and is probably the main reason why I've attained the success that I have," Gless says during a telephone interview from Canada.
"I love you, too," she says sincerely.
Not only do you want to believe it, but you DO believe it because she is so endearing, so effervescent and so engaging, even 5,000 miles away and filtered through a telephone satellite dish.
On this particular evening, she's in Toronto, where she's nursing a cold and "worn down" from shooting highly emotional scenes for the third and fourth Cagney and Lacey TV movies.
Although Gless is sipping on cranberry juice to wash down some antibiotics, you'd never guess she was feeling under the weather because she's so animated, especially about the slam-dunk success of the most recent Cagney and Lacey movie which aired in May.
"We were the highest rated TV movie of the year. The highest of all three networks, I think. Who woulda thunk it? Two old broads," the 52-year-old actress says, highly amused at the irony herself. "I must say, I was surprised with those numbers (the ratings), they were astronomical."
But even while Gless is thrilled with making such a huge score in the ratings game, she still seems genuinely flattered about being asked to chat with the LN.
"I'm very honored to be on the cover of your magazine," she says in a humble tone that flavors the rest of the hour.
Unlike other celebrities who would rather give their agents 25 percent than acknowledge their lesbian following, Gless honestly seems to dig dykes.
"Even as a young girl, I noticed that women liked me better than the boys did," she says. "I've always been very comfortable with that relationship. I love my lesbian following.
"I believe you. You make me feel good. I don't have to do anything to get you to accept me, it's unconditional. When people have asked me in the past if I'm gay, I've said, 'I'm not gay, but I am festive.'"
Gless jokes about this, saying that she's careful not to offend anyone because there's nothing wrong with being a lesbian. It's a remarkable attitude considering what happened to the actress five years ago.
A woman who was obsessed with Gless broke into one of her residences, wanting to kill herself in front of the actress. Fortunately, no one was home at the time.
After a prolonged SWAT stand-off, Joni Leigh Penn surrendered to police and was sentenced to six years in prison.
While this seems like a plot out of a police drama, Gless seemed to take it in the line of duty. It's one of those things that can happen when you've been a celebrity as long as she has.
Gless has been kicking around TV land for more than 20 years. Her career began in the early '70s, when she started out in sweet, young blonde roles on such shows as the short lived Faraday and Co, Marcus Welby M.D., Switch and, eventually, a lead on Housecalls.
Then in 1982, Gless took on her role of a lifetime in Cagney and Lacey.
But there is rich irony in her becoming a lesbian TV favorite. The network execs find the first Cagney, Meg Foster, claiming she was too butchy.
An unnamed TV executive was quoted at the time as saying the characters were "perceived as dykes."
In another ironic twist, the woman we now adore was originally blasted by lesbians and gays when she took on the role of Cagney. The Gay Media Task Force said that the beautiful blonde wouldn't fly because she was from the "Copacabana show of acting, very kittenish and feminine."
But Gless proved anything but kittenish in the role. In fact, she came off like a tigress and made Cagney uniquely her own. Through the years she came to know Cagney so well that Gless claims "I know her better than she knows herself."
And in some instances their lives are eerily parallel. Both Gless and her alter ego had drinking problems. Both the actor and the character cleared them up (Gless at Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota and Cagney through Alcoholics Anonymous).
"I know that those two episodes where Cagney faced her alcoholism after her father died caused people to relate," Gless says. "They came out of the closet with the booze and alcohol. I think that was important. It had an impact and it made it easier for some to discuss their problem. Some women would come up to me and tell me that they used to hide it in their iron!"
While Gless has stayed on the wagon, Cagney fell off during the May movie.
"I was a bit shocked, yet a bit delighted," Gless says about her character briefly reverting to alcohol. "Yet at the same time, I'm glad she's back because I don't want this whole story about this woman who can't stay sober."
When Gless talks about the fictional Cagney, she almost makes the character take on flesh and blood. It's as if Cagney were one of her best friends.
Perhaps that's why, when producers wanted Cagney to marry last season, Gless fought them.
"I never though Chris Cagney was cut from the right cloth to be selfless enough to make that kind of commitment," she says. "You need to be a certain type who is very good at sharing. Besides, here Chris is in her late 40s, so what would all of a sudden come over her and make her get married? Don't ask about me."
Gless laughs. She's referring to her own first marriage four years ago to Cagney and Lacey producer, Barney Rosenzweig.
"I didn't want Chris married" she quickly adds, almost as if she's making sure that reporters do not ask why she waited so long to wed. "I think there are some people in life who are not marriage material and Chris is one of them. I got married late in life (she was 47) and sometimes I still think that I'm not marriage material. I've told Barney many times in the past year 'I really love you, but I'm not sure I should be married."
While Gless and Cagney both got married later in life, Cagney's marriage fell apart last May and Gless' is still going strong. However, it almost ended unintentionally six months ago.
In December, while in Florida doing a play, Gless was diagnosed with the potentially fatal spinal meningitis.
"I thought I had a cold," she says. "Whenever I'd shake my head, it felt like there was something banging inside. But I didn't tell anyone, because I figured people would just say, 'Then stop shaking your head."
Although she didn't feel well, she went ahead to an island off Florida to keep her commitment in the play. But the illness kept getting worse. She remembers at one point wanting to tell Rosenzweig about it, "but he was out bonding with the boys" and she "didn't want to be one of those wives that would call their husband and say, 'Come home.'"
So she didn't. Instead, she called a brain doctor in Los Angeles who said it was nerves.
"I started sobbing," she says. "I knew I was sick. I told Barney that I needed help and to get me a painkiller, morphine, please. After a while I couldn't talk anymore."
When she finally got to a hospital in Miami, Gless recalls hearing doctors tell her she had spinal meningitis.
"In my mind I remember saying, 'Where did they get these fucking quacks in Miami?" she says. "This is a fatal disease. I looked at Barney, he had just buried his mother a month earlier. The hospital walls were green and he started to blend right into them. I knew somewhere inside me that it (death) wasn't going to happen, but I couldn't comfort him because I wasn't able to speak.
I was just wanting to have some more morphine and then we could all go home.
If doing an LN interview-with a cold doesn't say something about her resiliency, Gless still wanted to do the play, even though she almost died.
At least one friend, though, thought she was crazy.
"Tyne Daly called me and said, 'Are you nuts?'" Gless remembers. "They had a sack tied to me to feed me the antibiotics. Tyne says to me, 'I have two words to say to you.'
"I thought she was going to say, 'Fuck you.' Instead, she said, "Spinal meningitis'" Gless laughs hysterically.
Now that she's relatively healthy, Gless and Rosenweig have a deal with CBS to do an hour-long drama. While it's still unclear what she will star in, one of the projects she's taken a fancy to is a 'Whatever happened to Nancy Drew?"
"She's an old, tired, boozed out private eye watching over supermarkets," Gless says jokingly.
The other project she's keen on is a series from England about two ex-cons who open an employment agency for other ex-cons.
"It's very touching," she says, "and funny. But CBS said, 'We don't want ex-cons on our network.' What does that mean?"
It means we won't know what to look for until we see it, but we'll be lucky when we do because seeing a 50-year-old woman anchoring drama on television is rare.
"The whole tone now of TV is under 35 and directed toward males," Gless says while discussing the ageism in her business. "It's not the networks, it's the advertisers who want to appeal to the young males who go to the movies and buy all of this stuff."
While advertisers are encouraging this type of discrimination, the networks are buying into it to a certain extend. This is just another example of the same attitude that has kept other minorities from being equally represented on TV.
"Women and minorities have excelled beautifully in comedy, but very few women are the lead in a drama," Gless says, "But here we are, still fighting the same battle. I think it's embarrassing to have this conversation in the '90s, it's the same stuff we talked about in the '70s and '80s."
A perfect '90s victim of the networks' shallow thinking is Gless' last prime time series, The Trials of Rosie O'Neill, which her husband produced.
"It was somewhat autobiographical" she acknowledges. "We also did it when women I knew were being dumped for younger women, so I wanted to do a show about this. The first line that comes out of her (O'Neill's) mouth is, 'I think I'll have my tits done.' I wrote that line because I wanted women to see that this wasn't their fault.
"I wanted her to be something so far away from Christine Cagney, but I fucked up. I lost some of the joy that I bring to the project by trying to be so unlike Cagney. She (O'Neill) was serious and not irreverent."
But when asked if it was really her mistake or network interference that caused the show to quickly disappear, she replies "In the second year, it had five time changes. Yes, it was politics."
Part of the reason why sexism exists in her profession is that there are very few women calling the shots in television.
"I'm not here to say that men are assholes, because they aren't," she says. "But they've been brought up to think a different way and they just haven't gotten it about women."
One of the things she appreciates about Rosenzweig is that he gets women.
"We both have a common goal of wanting to make women and their role in society better," she says. "I think he (Rosenzweig) understands women, but he's a difficult men. All men are difficult. I've come to learn that there is a real difference between men and women. It's genetic.
"I have a professional respect for him, but we're not tied at the hip. He gets women and if he doesn't, he wants to know why I came to that conclusion. He tries to understand. But then, he's also not above asking me if I've taken hormones, either."
While it's apparent that Gless genuinely loves men, it's also clear that she doesn't really get them or appreciate all of their unique characteristics.
"I think, on the whole, men are much more shallow than women," she says. "I'm not here to put down men, God love them and I'm married to one, but I do think they are more shallow. I kind of resent this attitude of men that we somehow must always look good."
She also seems to resent the attitude that unless you are paid for your work, your work is not valuable. She sees this a lot with her friends who have been busy raising children, yet are envious of Gless' career and sometimes feel guilty that they didn't get a job.
"There's no praise or acknowledgment paid to women who raise the babies," Gless says. "They often feel bad that they didn't go out and work instead of staying home and raising kids.
"Yet, they've done an incredible job. I couldn't do that job, honey. In fact I have nightmares about having children. I want to carry a baby and feel the life within me and in my dream, I do. But every time after it's born, there's this incredible fear, this pounding pulse of fear. It's a real bad nightmare.
"Yes, I am at peace with not having a baby, but that nightmare must be from my old, old nagging '50s upbringing."
And just like Gless has a hard time understanding the generation of women before her, she is bewildered by younger women who worship her.
"I was at a NOW (National Organization for Women) rally in Washington, D.C, and a group of young, young girls came up to me and this one was shaking and crying and she couldn't believe it was me." Gless remembers. "She told me how much she admired me and how much she loved what I'd done. So I asked her how old she was and she was 18 years old!"
She was amazed that these younger women had seen Cagney and Lacey and knew who she was.
"I just thought it was really wonderful that first, they came to the rally and then, that the were so affected by our show," she says with emotion. "I get it when women our age enjoy it, but 18 years old?
"My God, their mothers and grandmothers watched us. I kept wondering, what do they get from me?"
Perhaps age doesn't really matter when you're attracted to sincere souls, like Gless appears to be.
This month she's helping out an old boarding school chum in the Women's Shakespeare Co.'s fund raiser at the Artist Gardens July 30. Gless will be reading material at the event.
She thinks it's a great idea to have women play all of the parts in Shakespeare and believes that this event will help promote culture, which she says is part of any actor's job description.
"I think Shakespeare had a lot to contribute with his understanding of the human condition," she says. "I think that women have a little more to contribute to the understanding of the human condition, though. The fact that all women are playing the roles makes it more interesting to me. But then, I've always thought women are more interesting them men.
""You heard it here first."
(Captions by photos)
Cagney and Lacey ran from 1982-1988 on CBS. During its six year run, the show raked in 11 Emmy's, including four for Tyne Daly and two for Sharon Gless. In fact, each year the show ran, either Daly or Gless was named best actress.
Before Sharon Gless won the first of her two Emmy's as best lead actress in a drama, producer Barney Rosenzweig said she would never take home a statue. "This is drama and you're blonde and blondes don't win," Gless quotes Rosenzweig as saying. "But I said, 'It's gonna change now that I'm here.' When I won my first Emmy, I went up to Barney and said, 'See, a blonde can win an Emmy." He said, 'No they can't, just you can."
d, 'See, a blonde can win an Emmy." He said, 'No they can't, just you can."
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