Sharon Gless Interview: "Cagney & Lacey" and "Complaints"
Written by Marc Parker and Melissa Benefield Parker, Posted in Interviews Authors
Image attributed to Alexei Hay
Few actresses have the distinction of being recognized and revered worldwide for multiple iconic roles in groundbreaking television shows. Sharon Gless is one of them. Generations of TV viewers know and love the remarkable characters brought to life by this standout multi-Emmy and Golden Globe winning actress: Christine Cagney (Cagney & Lacey), Debbie Novotny (Queer as Folk) and Madeline Weston (Burn Notice), among many others. In 1991, Gless married Barney Rosenzweig, the producer of Cagney & Lacey.
On December 7, 2021, Gless released Apparently There Were Complaints, in which she tells all in this laugh-out-loud, juicy and touching memoir about her five decades in Hollywood, where she took on some of the most groundbreaking roles of her time. The book delves into Gless’ remarkable career and explores her complicated family, her struggles with alcoholism and her fear of romantic commitment, as well as her encounters with some of Hollywood’s biggest names.
"Now the truth is, Melissa, actors can’t take credit for chemistry. It’s either there on the screen with us, or it isn’t."
Sharon Gless: Hi Melissa!
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Hi Sharon! I had three books to scan this week, and yours is the only one I finished cover to cover. Well done!
Sharon Gless: Alright! Was it boring?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Anything but boring. I found it to be brutally honest, entertaining, funny and sad.
Sharon Gless: Oh, well, something to offend everyone (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is there anything you didn’t include in the book?
Sharon Gless: Yes. There are things I had to leave out because I was only given 300 and something pages. Simon & Schuster is very strict about what they want and what they don’t, so I had to follow their rules. But I’m proud of what I was able to leave in.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Your relationships with close family members, your grandmother, mother and father, were definitely complicated and perhaps rocky at times.
Sharon Gless: (laughs) Right. But my relationship with my mom wasn’t rocky. My mom was a very gentle soul. But we all were under the power of my grandmother.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes, and the weight of other people’s expectations and judgments can be very heavy. I was struck by the story you told about being a teenager and looking out a window on the fourth story. You said, “If I just leaned out a little farther, it would all be over.”
Sharon Gless: I was 15. It was that terrible age. My parents divorced, and then there was “the wounding” that apparently everybody has to go through at some time in their life. It usually happens in those teen years, and it’s a thing called “the wounding.” It is hard. I mean, now, obviously, I’m strong. I’m good. I’m a very fortunate woman. But I remember that day very, very well. I remember exactly what I was looking at. I even remember which window. I remember it so, so well.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you seriously contemplate suicide?
Sharon Gless: No. That’s just how I was feeling. I was raised Catholic. No. I don’t recommend that way out. But at the time, I was young. I guess I would say this to any teenager because, Jesus, the suicide rate is so high right now, “Hold on. Hold on because things do change.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was there a moment in your early career that you knew or that you realized you wanted to be in show business for the rest of your life?
Sharon Gless: I was the production secretary. I worked on the other side of the camera for many years. I dreamed about it all my life, so I can’t say it was like a light bulb went off. I dreamed about it all my life, but it was just something that, in my family, we didn’t do. Then I started working on the other side of the camera, and I was a very, very good production secretary. I worked with actresses. Then I lost the fear.
Working with actresses was really an eye-opener for me, and I did the best I could, you know, to make it good, so they could get the part. I realized that I thought I had the potential. I thought I had a gift. So all those childhood dreams started coming back again. It’s sort of always been there since I was about six. But then when I actually worked on the other side of the camera, I thought, “I can do this.”
I think there’s a story in the book about my grandfather whom I thought was one of the most powerful, most frightening members of my family. I got approval from him, and he treated me to my first three months of acting lessons. To a secretary who was out of work at the time, it was just like everything started falling into place, and there was a moment.
There was a very specific moment that I will never forget. I was flying back into Los Angeles after I confessed what I wanted, what I wanted to be and who I wanted to be. I was flying back into LA, and I just knew. I don’t know. There was like an angel on my shoulder whispering, “You will not fail. You will not fail.” I lost my fear, and I just went for it. I started studying acting, and within a year, I was being paid. But when I decided I wanted to be an actress, I was flat broke and had no hopes of being anything. It was another dark time.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: But it was just the right time to take a chance.
Sharon Gless: I know. You’re absolutely right. When that moment comes to you that no one can get you down, it’s easier, and then things start opening up. I don’t know how to explain that. Everybody must have an angel in their life, you know.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That was a great story about Switch. Robert Wagner also played a love interest in The Trials of Rosie O’Neill. I can’t believe he’s 91 and hasn’t lost his looks (laughs).
Sharon Gless: He is so gorgeous. He looks exactly the same, but his hair’s silver. There’s a painting in the attic somewhere.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Let’s talk about Cagney & Lacey, the show that was literally raised from the dead by viewer demand. As a matter of fact, I was a letter writer myself, as a member of Viewers for Quality Television back in the day.
Sharon Gless: You were? Well, you were one of the people that saved us! Thank you so much! People do have power. Voices are heard.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Even in the days before the digital age where letters to networks were written by hand. But it got done!
Sharon Gless: I know. Exactly. Damn Barney Rosenzweig, right? (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) He knew exactly what he was doing. Meg Foster portrayed Cagney in the first few episodes of season one. What a great talent she was and still is.
Sharon Gless: Right. She’s a lovely, lovely actress. I had finally the pleasure of working with her on The Trials of Rosie O’Neill a few years later.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: But you knew why the powers that be were talking about replacing her as Christine Cagney.
Sharon Gless: Well, I asked to see their six episodes. They only aired four, and they were cancelled. But I asked to see them because I wanted to see what was wrong. Not wrong, but what the complaint was. I saw what the problem was. The actresses were both wonderful, but there was too much of a similarity.
So part of the pressure I had on me was to make sure there was a wonderful chemistry between me and Tyne Daly because it was our third chance when they brought me in. It was Cagney & Lacey’s third chance, and they wouldn’t have another chance. So Tyne and I just worked it together. I noticed stuff she would do, and I’d do the opposite. It worked out.
My manager was looking at the dailies one day, and she called me. She said, “There’s a chemistry between you two. It’s extraordinary.” Now the truth is, Melissa, actors can’t take credit for chemistry. It’s either there on the screen with us, or it isn’t. The person that puts you together is the one who gets credit for it. We just were blessed, and it worked out that whatever it was the two of us had together was stronger than either of us alone.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When you realized the impact that Cagney & Lacey had on a national scale, how did you feel?
Sharon Gless: At the time, we had no idea. It wasn’t that we didn’t know what we were doing. As actresses, we knew. But we had no idea the impact these characters were having on America and on television. It wasn’t until years later that Tyne and I would be at an event where there would be thousands and thousands and thousands of women in Washington, and Melissa, they went crazy. They wouldn’t stop applauding.
I remember looking out over the seas of grateful souls and thinking, “Wow! We did make a difference.” We did. And today, I’ll still say that because there still isn’t anybody like that on television. There’s no show like that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I recently did a very long interview with phenomenal character actor Richard Masur who guest starred on Cagney & Lacey.
Sharon Gless: I love Richard!
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Richard talked about the Cagney & Lacey set and said there were more women and people of color doing jobs behind the camera he’d ever seen before, and this was the 1980s.
Sharon Gless: It’s true. We had writers, and directors. You’d never see a female director anywhere. Every job a woman could handle, which is any job, Barney gave to a woman. I won’t tell this story because it’s in the book. But do you remember the story I tell about me trying to save the crew?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Oh yes, you wanted to send them home, and you and Barney did not see eye-to-eye on that one.
Sharon Gless: Richard Masur was a guest star on that episode. He was playing Santa in the episode I decided to be a champ and save the crew (laughs). Richard was our Christmas Santa up on the rooftop.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Richard has some really great things to say about you and Tyne. You have won two Emmys, two Golden Globes, several Viewers for Quality Television awards and others. Is there one that means the most to you?
Sharon Gless: No, and it wouldn’t be right for me to say that one means more than the other. The first one you get, you have a hard time walking to get it because you’re so startled. But they were a long time coming for me. Tyne won the first three Emmys, and I’d never gotten one. When I got my first one, which was the fourth one, that was really cool. But just about two months before that, the Golden Globes people gave me my very first big award, and that was when I had a hard time sort of walking to go get it.
I didn’t hear my name. I wasn’t used to hearing my name. Tyne and I were sitting in a booth. You know how the Golden Globes always had that big dinner and everybody’s loaded? Tyne knocked my thigh and said, “They just said your name.” I said, “What?” She said, “They just said your name. Go get it!” (laughs) I remember that very, very well. It was cool.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Ed Asner joined the cast of The Trials of Rosie O’Neill in the second season. It’s hard to believe he is gone.
Sharon Gless: You know, Melissa, about three minutes before you and I began talking, I was talking to Ed’s daughter Liza saying how much I miss him. I miss that voice, you know. He played grouchy, but he was a really kind person.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: When I last interviewed Ed earlier this year, he said he was in pain all the time.
Sharon Gless: Yeah, he was for years. But it never stopped him from moving. It never stopped him from performing. It never stopped him from showing up.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: He was quite the character on Rosie O’Neill (laughs).
Sharon Gless: (laughs) I know. I told Barney the next year, if we had gone for a third year, that he should put Rosie in bed with Ed Asner’s character. Nobody would expect that! She hated him so much, you know. That’s why it would’ve been so cool.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You talk in the book about having marital problems with Barney for years.
Sharon Gless: Years. Years. Yep (laughs). It’s not that it was a bad week (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How are you guys today?
Sharon Gless: We’re fine. We’re still together. Here’s the secret: separate bathrooms. I can’t recommend it more highly. And never stay in the same town together for too long. There you go.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Now that you’ve written a book, what else would you like to do?
Sharon Gless: I’d like to go back to do another series. Somebody told me recently that I’ve done nine, and Betty White’s done 10. So I’ve got to catch up with Betty.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Anything in the works?
Sharon Gless: No. No. But I’m always interested in something. I have a dream, and I don’t know how to describe it. But I know how it makes me feel. Working is what I do best. It’s what makes me the happiest, and I’ve still got another one in me.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: There’s still a shortage of TV shows that feature one or two intelligent women in lead roles.
Sharon Gless: I don’t think there’s any show that has that now, any new ones.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Rizzoli & Isles was cancelled a few years ago, but it was very well done.
Sharon Gless: I ran into Angie Harmon in a restaurant. She came over to my booth and started talking to me. She said the nicest thing. She said, “You paved the streets on which I walk.” I said, “Oh, my God!” She said, “Really. If it hadn’t been for Cagney & Lacey, I wouldn’t be doing this show today.” I said, “Well, thank you.” She said, “Our 100th episode is coming up. Would you come and be my guest star?” I said, “I would be honored.” It was her first directorial job, so I got to be directed by her.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Has Tyne read Apparently There Were Complaints?
Sharon Gless: Yes, she has read the galley.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What were her comments?
Sharon Gless: You know, I don’t remember, but it was very funny. Whatever it was, she was very complimentary and very funny. She’s had to live through this book with me for … I’ve been writing it for seven years. I think she’s just relieved it’s done. Tyne and I talk almost every day now. We’re very close. Anyway, she was always very patient, listened and laughed at my jokes. Even though I’d repeat the same jokes, she’d laugh like she’d never heard them. She’s a good friend.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tyne Daly once said, “It is important to look old that the young will not be afraid of dying. People don’t like old women. We don’t honor age in our society, and we certainly don’t honor it in Hollywood.”
Sharon Gless: Well, she’s right. One of my favorite quotes of hers was, “Sex appeal is in the groin of the beholder.” (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) In just a couple of years, you will have a milestone birthday. Will you do anything super special for your 80th? You could go into space like William Shatner did.
Sharon Gless: Go to space? (laughs) I live in space, Melissa. I live in space every day! (laughs) No. I’d like to be just shooting another hit series. That’s my high. That’s going to the moon for me. It’s just so cool to be working.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I hope you do get that series and I’ll be watching.
Sharon Gless: Thank you, I will.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I know you will. Any last words about the book?
Sharon Gless: Please be kind (laughs). I told my best truth. There are no lies in it. I mean, there are some things I didn’t tell.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Sharon, we last spoke in May of 2010. You had just done A Round-Heeled Woman on stage, which is based on the book A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late Life Adventures in Sex and Romance. So the name of the interview is “Orgasms, Cagney and Burn Notice."
Sharon Gless: (laughs) That’s great! There’s a rich life so far! Did I ever tell you about the woman who criticized my orgasm?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I believe we discussed that over 11 years ago, but it is certainly worth repeating.
Sharon Gless: Yeah. There was a woman that wrote for the San Jose paper. I first performed Round-Heeled in San Francisco. She wrote her review saying, “I heard her orgasms were so fabulous. I didn’t think it was so fabulous.” (laughs) I wanted to write her and say, “I’m sorry, honey, but I did mine standing up. I don’t know how you do yours." (laughs). But I didn’t.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You should have.
Sharon Gless: I know. But I thought, “No. I’m not going to go there.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It’s still quite the talent.
Sharon Gless: It’s on my resume (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Sharon, I wish you nothing but much success on your book and in finding the right TV series that will make you happy.
Sharon Gless: Oh, Melissa, you’re a wonderful writer, by the way. So I’m happy to be in your hands. Thank you so much for this. I appreciate it.
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