Sharon Gless – Cagney to Her Fans – Dishes About Her Life and Career

In the police comedy, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Sergeant Terry Jeffords has two daughters named Cagney and Lacey. Millennials and GenZs may miss the cultural reference for another popular cop show which ran on CBS for six years, from 1982 to 1988, won numerous awards for its actors and accolades for its trailblazing storylines. Cagney & Lacey starred Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly as two female New York City police detectives battling crime in a male-dominated profession. The show was known for tackling tough issues that other shows avoided. When a plot revolved around a hot button issue like racism, rape, alcoholism, child abuse, breast cancer, or apartheid, to name a few controversial topics, CBS affiliates in conservative areas of the country would refuse to carry the episode.

Besides the well-written plots, the series succeeded because of the talent and dedication of the two women who played the leads. Sharon Gless played Cagney, a single woman who was outspoken, drank too much, dated the wrong men, and frequently made bad decisions. As Lacey, Tyne Daly was cast as the more focused of the two, grounded by her marriage to a supportive husband, and their responsibility for raising children.

In her new memoir, Apparently There Were Complaints, Gless looks back on her career, including those years on Cagey & Lacey. But the book also delves into Gless’ Hollywood childhood and her many roles, up to and following the one that placed her on the cultural map. Delivered with humor and candor, Gless doesn’t pull punches, even when some of the details she includes are embarrassing, even cringe-worthy. She talks frankly about her life long battles with weight gain and alcohol. After a serious health threat, the scene that opens the book, she’s been sober since May 8, 2015.

Gless’ maternal grandfather, Neil McCarthy, was a prominent Los Angeles attorney who represented Howard Hughes, as well as a who’s who list of major film studio executives and actors. He discouraged her from becoming an actor and Gless’ early years were dominated by her maternal grandmother, Marjorie McCarthy, who after being divorced, seemed to focus all of her attention on managing her granddaughter’s life. Gless was a rebel from the start, never signing on to her family’s plan to marry a prominent man and have children. Her record at the expensive boarding and private schools Marjorie paid for was abysmal. But some inner strength drove her and eventually she found her way forward – as an actor.

Sharon Gless

Gless became a contract player at Universal, signed on by Monique James, who was then head of talent for the studio. Gless believes she was spared some of the #metoo moments other young actresses suffered because she was protected by James, who called Gless by the affectionate nickname, Sweet Pea. “I trusted Monique,” Gless writes. “In a very short time, she became my teacher, mentor, adviser, friend, and confidant. She knew I was inexperienced but pliable and always eager to learn.” 

Within days of signing with Universal, Gless had her first acting job on the popular drama, Marcus Welby, M.D., which starred Robert Young as the beloved doctor. She was cast as a young secretary who has an affair with her married boss. Margaret O’Brien, the famous child star who had become “America’s Sweetheart,” played the aggrieved wife. “She was exceptionally kind to me on the set,” Gless says of O’Brien.

The guest spots on popular shows continued, including Emergency!, McCloud, The Sixth Sense, and Ironside. “Every few months, Monique would set up an afternoon in one of the huge screening rooms at Universal so she could give me notes on improving my work,” Gless says.

Gless’ ride on the acting train continued, including, besides TV guest spots and recurring roles, an occasional film. In addition, there were times when she was asked to serve as a date for one of Universal’s up and coming actors or directors. She attended a party at the home of George Roy Hill who directed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Her date? Steven Spielberg, who quickly ignored her, preferring to chat with Hill. Years later, she ran into Spielberg and he was reminded of that long ago date. As she shook his hand, she said, “So, whatever happened to your career after that?’ He laughed. 

For Gless, the iconic role of Christine Cagney almost did not come about. Two other actresses played the part – Loretta Swift in the pilot, and Meg Foster, in the first six episodes – before the producers approached Gless. Everyone had high hopes for the show, but with Foster playing opposite Tyne Daly, the chemistry failed to deliver an audience. Gless, tired of taking over a role rather than originating one, was ready to pass. She had just finished filing The Star Chamber with Michael Douglas (her account of their love scene in the film is hilarious) and asked his opinion about doing the series. “Do you remember a TV show called The Streets of San Francisco?” he asked her, the series that launched his career. She laughed. “Don’t give up on the TV show,” he said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

The rest is history. Cagney & Lacey would win numerous awards for both Gless and Daly. (It would also lead to an affair with the show’s executive producer Barney Rosenzweig, who left his second wife, Barbara Corday, the show’s creator, to marry Gless.) After that series ended, Gless would go on to make her mark in other shows, including Queer as Folk, which ran on Showtime for five years.  From 2007 to 2013, she played Madeline Westen, mother to Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), a spy who gets “burned” and often places his relatives and friends in danger while he pursues those who ended his career. Even opposite young good-looking actors like Donovan and Gabrielle Anwar, who played Fiona, Michael’s girlfriend, Gless managed to steal every scene she was in. (Since I’m such a Burn Notice fan, I only wish she had spent more time in the book discussing her time on that show.)

Gless continues to work and with this memoir putting her back on Hollywood’s and fan’s radar, we hope she does so for a long, long time.

Apparently There Were Complaints
Sharon Gless

Top photo of Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless, Shutterstock
Middle photo of Sharon Gless, Bigstock

About Charlene Giannetti (527 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that had its premiere at WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, where it won two awards. Charlene and her husband live in Manhattan.