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The road to Hollywood fame is littered with the discarded dreams of aspiring actors, victims of a challenging and often brutal career path. But not even a youthful warning from her grandfather, a powerful entertainment attorney during Hollywood’s Golden Age, could prevent Sharon Gless from attempting the journey.
Neil S. McCarthy, who counted Howard Hughes, Cecil B. DeMille, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner among his clients, cautioned his young granddaughter that the movie industry could be a “filthy business.”
Aided by loyal friends and business associates, however, as well as possessing a fierce determination to succeed, Sharon beat the odds to find stardom as recounted in her December autobiography “Apparently There Were Complaints” (see sharongless.com).
Appearing in just a half-dozen feature films, Gless focused her career on television. Since 1970, she guest-starred in numerous TV movies and series and received wide acclaim for starring roles in several popular shows including the '80s CBS crime drama “Cagney & Lacey.”
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Changing the history of television for women
“It changed the history of television for women,” said Gless from her home on private Fisher Island, a seven-minute ferry ride from the coast of Miami. Gless portrayed New York detective Christine Cagney alongside Tyne Daly (detective Mary Beth Lacey). The tough but flawed duo regularly dealt with serious social concerns such as “date rape, female abduction, teenage sex, women’s health issues, alcoholism and domestic violence.”
Gless assumed the role of Cagney from Meg Foster who appeared in the first season’s six episodes, Foster having replaced Loretta Swit from the pilot. For the remaining six seasons, Gless and Daly dominated the Emmy Awards, winning for Best Lead Actress in a Drama each year (four for Daly and two for Gless).
“After the show ended, an actress came up to me and said she was glad we were canceled because maybe ‘the rest of us will have a chance to win an Emmy!’” recalled Gless with a laugh. “What also helped us win was the fabulous writing dealing with important issues.”
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Of her co-star for six years, Gless has only praise
“You might think we’d be competitive on the set, but not at all,” she said of Daly. “When you’re working, any sort of competitiveness is good for no one. She was a real pro and we were totally there for each other throughout the series. The only issue I recall was the initial billing order of opening credits, but we agreed to switch them every week. Since COVID, we talk on the phone almost every day.”
Long before the success of “Cagney & Lacey,” Gless teamed up with Monique James, head of the talent department at Universal Studios where Gless was under a seven-year contract. James was a force to be reckoned with.
“She was so tough I always felt she would protect me, and she did,” said Gless. “When I left the studio, she came with me as my manager for many years.”
And then there was Barney.
Barney Rosenzweig was the executive producer of “Cagney & Lacey” and with whom Gless began an affair towards the end of the show’s run. Despite their on-and-off-again personal relationship, Rozenzweig was a loyal supporter of Gless’s career. The couple would eventually marry and remain together today.
“After ‘Cagney & Lacey,’ Barney developed a series called ‘The Trials of Rosie O’Neill’ but initially didn’t want to do a series with me,” recalled Gless. “He’s very outspoken and thought it would prove difficult for our relationship if he came home and criticized how I looked in the daily screenings during production. But he eventually developed the show for me in the early '90s. We have an interesting history together that’s outlined in the book but love and respect each other enormously.”
'It hasn't always been an easy road'
Since then, Gless has been cast in hit series such as “Queer as Folk” and “Burn Notice” receiving multiple award nominations or wins, including another Golden Globe Award for Rosie O’Neill.
Despite coming from a wealthy family with Hollywood connections, Gless says she was never spoiled. She was required to earn her own money and make her own way to Hollywood, gaining her first professional acting role in her late 20s. Although she stumbled along the way (leading to the title of her book) with alcohol problems, weight issues, recurring pancreatitis and complicated relationships, she never found Hollywood to be the “filthy business” her grandfather labeled it.
“It hasn’t always been an easy road, but I made my own way helped by people who believed in me,” she says. “Television is an amazing medium and I’ve been fortunate to be part of it.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, in Alabama, and has written features, columns and interviews for numerous magazines and newspapers. See tinseltowntalks.com.
This article originally appeared on Mansfield News Journal: In memoir, actress Sharon Gless recounts 'Cagney & Lacey' and more