The Curious Case of the Lady Cops and the Shots that Blew Them Away
T.V. Guide Oct. 8, 1983.
"We had a shot," says the man who crated Cagney & Lacey, "at television history." Maybe they did; the show about two women police officers was the first with two strong female characters working together in a traditionally male arena. The critics loved it, and recently the show and its two stars-Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless-were nominated for Emmys. The ratings this past summer were strong-but these are all just ironies now, because the series poor ratings last season led CBS to cancel it, effective this fall. Executive producer Barney Rosenzweig spent eight years on the project and now he is mourning it. Recently he talked about the rise-and eventually, the fall-of a TV series snuffed out, perhaps before its time. Here is some of what he said:
"I learned the news on May 10, just after 4 P.M. [CBS programming chief] Harvey Shephard called me at my new York office where I was passing the time looking at another producer's pilot. Harvel talked, I listened. The pilot droned on in the background. Shephard told me what a difficult decision this all was. You know how much I love the show,' he said. He didn't feel it could be made any better, not, quite obviously, that it should be given another chance.
"His disappointment in the performance of the show, I had felt for some time, was one he had accepted as a personal affront. Somehow, in some way, despite the acclaim, the reviews, the genuine affection for the show in the Hollywood community, Harvey Shephard had been embarrassed and angered. He was not angry now. He knew ‘we will be working together on other projects, soon.' He was most complimentary.
"I was low-key, telling him I understood, thanking him for the opportunity of making 28 episodes of the show, of which I am quite proud. I turned off the pilot, phoned Richard Rosenblum [the show's producer] and went to my cubbyhole to begin notifying all concerned. The conversations with the cast members were moving, albeit brief. Back at the hotel, I received my first condolences. My God, people already knew! I felt a twinge of pain."
Cagney & Lacey meant a lot to Barney Rosenzweig-more than just commerce. In 1974, after spending time with writer Barbara Corday, a feminist, he had commissioned Corday and her partner Barbara Avedon to write a movie script about two women police officers who were ‘buddies,' like Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Every studio in the town shot the movie down. Rosenzweig ended up marrying Corday.
"Then in 1929, I tried to itch it as a series. I went to every network twice and was unsuccessful at every network.
"So I thought if nothing else, I'll get a television movie made. And I went off to NBC and ABC and got turned own." CBS gave him a go." They called me up and said,'What do you think of Loretta Swit for Cagney?' I said, "Gentlemen, she's perfect. But you're blowing me out of the water, man-the gal's not available to do a series.' And they said, ‘We have a pay-or-play commitment with Loretta Swit. That's who we want. Unless you can come up with a name that's more acceptable to us, that's who you'd better cast.' In the contract, they have the right to do that.' Rosenzweig says that he tried to get Sharon Gless for Cagney, but that she was under contract to Universal, so they cast Swit. Tyne Daly was signed as Lacey.
"Now everybody expected that ‘Cagney and Lacey,' like most other television movies, would get a 28 or 29 share. Then the movie went on the air on Oct. 8, 1961, and got a 42 share. A 42 share! Within 36 hours, Harvey Shephard was on the phone to me-‘Do you think you can turn this into a series? And I said,'Watch me. But I can't have Loretta Swit.' He said, ‘That's okay-just recast.'
"We started a search for Cagney, and we were inundated with some of the top actresses in town. Why? Well, I would be interviewing women and I would say, ‘I'm not that familiar with your work. If I could see one example, what would it be? And they'd say,'Well, I was the lead in such-and-such.' And I would look at the picture, and they weren't lying; they were the female lead in that movie, but they were on the screen for nine minutes. They were the nurse, they were the secretary, the wife, the girl friend. I became so aware of the dearth of good roles for women.
"We narrowed it down to six or seven, and the least known of them-and in my opinion the best actress-was Meg Foster. Harvey Shephard had a better-known actress in mind. Ultimately, we reached an impulse. So Harvey called in some of his casting people and he said,'I'm not going to tell you who thinks what-now what do you think?' All three of them said,"Meg Foster.' So Harvey looked at me and said, ‘Okay-you win.'
"They put us on at 9 o'clock following Magnum. My God! IT was the most coveted time slot on the network-we were inheriting a possible 38 share. They we aired and got a 25 share. That was okay-no one believed it. There was no panic. It was a fluke. So the next week, we got a 24 share. That didn't mean they were turning us off-that meant they weren't even watching us. At 9 o'clock all over America, 12 million people were getting up out of their seats en masse and walking away, or leaving the network. It was unreal.
"Well, after two shows, I got a call from Harvey Shephard. ‘You,' he said, ‘are canceled.'
"Harv," I said, "Harv-look what happened here. Have you seen the demographics for the show? We're getting male adults. We're getting female adults. But we aren't getting the teen-agers. We're a 10 o"clock show! The kids watching Magnum are turning us off."
"Now this is late March, early April, and the program meetings, where they announce the fall schedule, are coming up. I said, "Harvey-you're got to put us on before th meetings. I know you've got two reruns at 10 o'clock on a Sunday and Monday, in late April, a Trapper John [on CBS's strong Sunday night schedule] and a Lou Grant [with a M*A*S*H lead-in]. Put us on. Give me those two spots and I'll spend $25,000 of my own money [actually, the production company's money] and send Tyne and Meg across the country. We'll use the slogan,"Cagney and Lacey are back to back!'
"Harvey said, "save your money." But he finally agreed to give us the Sunday. So I sent Tyne and Meg on the road. One went to the North, one went to the South. The show went on and got a 36 share-number seven in the ratings.
"The thing you have to realize about Cagney & Lacey, is that it was not developed as a series, but as a movie for CBS. At CBS there are seven executives and three are movie executives. And not only do they not talk to each other in the hallways, they're in different buildings. Now, remember that the series people had all turned it down the first time around-it was developed by the movie people. So there was a whole group of executives at CBS who didn't want Cagney to succeed.
"I was called into Harvey Shephard's office to talk about the upcoming meetings. He said,'Barney, here's going to be a lot of naysayers who will say the 36 share was a fluke. Now, I'm not going to say that you pulled it off, you did what you said you'd do. I'm going back to New York and I'm going to fight for it."
"Then, he said, "But, you need something dramatic."
"I said, What, Harvey? You want some hotshot directors, writers?"
"No, no-I trust you to get the best people for that. It's just that I need some dramatic card to play at the program meetings."
"Like what?"I said.
"Will you recast?"
"Look," he said, " I went along with you before, but I feel that those two women are too similar, too ‘street'; they're both blue-collar. With Loretta Swit, you instinctively knew there was a contrast-if nothing else, one was blonde and one was brunette. Swit was somehow classier.'
"You want me to get some bimbo, some blond with big breasts?"
"No, no-I just want you to recast Meg."
"I can dye her hair!! I can rewrite her!" But I was thinking, a lot of my friends had said the same thing, And Harvey was our only friend at the network.
"I said, ‘Do you want me to draw up a list of potential actresses?'
"No," he said, "I might not have to play this card, and there's no reason to hurt Meg's feelings unnecessarily."
"So I did nothing."
Rosenzweig wasn't at the program meetings, but he imagines them this way; "When Harvey first brought up the show, they all said, ‘Boo, hiss,' so he dropped it and they moved on. Then he mentioned it again. ‘Forget it,' they said. Then Harvey played is card. He said, ‘they will recast' And that's when the put the show on the schedule. They gave us 13 episodes, not six, continent on recasting Meg was a scapegoat." [Shephard disagrees with this ‘dramatic-card' version, saying' all along I was distressed' with Foster in the role.]
"When I heard that the show had been picked up, the first thing I w\said was ‘Whoopee!' Then I called my wife, mo mother, Tyne-and Sharon Gless's agent."
Now I knew going in that Gless had gotten out of her contract with Universal in exchange for replacing Lynn Redgrave in House Calls. And I also knew that House Calls had been canceled. but it took me over three weeks of concentrated seduction to get Sharon to do it. She did not want to be known as the actress who went around town replacing other actresses. I impressed on her the fact that she was not replacing another actress; that, in this had always been her role-she had been offered it two years before. Ultimately, I enlisted the help of Tyne Daly. I thought if I could just get these two women to meet each other, it would work out. Tyne went to Sharon's house with a bottle of champagne. They talked and found out they really liked each other."
The show went on the air and ran for a year before it was canceled. ‘Harvey took a lot of criticism when he picked up Cagney & Lacey. A lot of the press was giving us a hard time because we were replacing Lou Grant, as if we had something to do with its cancellation. And then the show started to perform. It went up against Monday Night Football and it was performing, and Harvey started to feel good about it. He had done the right thing. But that hope was dashed by what happened later.
"It was a truncated football season, because of the strike, and then we lost numbers in the spring going against movies-Ann-Margaret giving away her babies from her deathbed, the Grace Kelly Story, herpes. People were turning us off to watch running sores! In a way, you can't blame the network, because the women of America deserted us given the choice between us and a sexy movie, they took the sexy movie.
If I have one complaint, it's that they didn't know how to sell the show. At first, the campaign was all screeching tires, guns drawn-it looked like' Women in Chains.' I pleaded with them.
"Then there's another level to this, which is business. They ran out of money to advertise Cagney & Lacey in January [even though] we were very cost-effective. Give me half the production money we saved and use it for advertising, and we would be around today."
In May 1983, when CBS executives met to determine their ‘83-83 schedule, Rosenzweig flew to New York for the program meetings and waited for word. Canceled. And then, in the summer, a lame duck, Cagney performed very well.
"It's ironic, and it's too little, too late. In the summer they tend to discount the ratings. They say,'It didn't have an audience before.' They give no credence to the summer, then they turn around and put shows in there and if they do well, they put them on in the fall. They make up the rules as they go along. With Cagney they're like jilted lovers. They supported it, it let them down. They took it personally.
"But it's very difficult for me to be embittered. CBS never interfered. It was my show and I got to do it my way. Hey, we had shot at making television history. Harvey Shephard was responsible for putting us on, and he was responsible for canceling us. He was the best friend this show ever had. I'm sorry he lost faith. We'll never know if it would have been a success. That's the sad part.
"The biggest pain for us is that the future position of women on television may have somehow been hurt by us. You could cancel T.J. Hooker and no one would go into an analysis of why the show failed, or attempt to dig out research as to the viability of shows about people in uniform. But what I'm sorry to see is people bringing up ‘research' now that says women had a hard time sang other women in traditionally male roles. What research? How many people did they talk to? I have my own research. I have thousands of letters/ typewritten, intelligent letters-that say women loved the show. I think it will be hard to go in now with a Cagney-type show without have a network exec say, ‘NO, that doesn't work.'
"I believe that had we stayed on one more year we would have had that shot at television history. There are so few shows that are based on reality. but there's virtually no limit to how long a show can stay on that's about real people. They are so rare I believe they need extra nurturing. Now it's a question of definition. Maybe Harvey Shephard did give us extra nurturing-he gave us another year. We'll never know if it was right or not.
"But it's only my opinion."
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