Sharon Gless on life after Cagney & Lacey, beating alcoholism and Helen Mirren

‘Mischievous’ Sharon Gless has published her memoirs. She talks to Hannah Stephenson about her life and the iconic police drama’s influence on a British classic.

Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly on the set of Cagney & Lacey. Picture: Sharon Gless/PA.
Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly on the set of Cagney & Lacey. Picture: Sharon Gless/PA.

From her apartment on Fisher Island, off the coast of Miami, Sharon Gless is happily recounting tales of Cagney & Lacey – the hit Eighties cop show which attracted 30 million viewers a week and paved the way for so many female police series which followed.

Writer Lynda La Plante, creator of Prime Suspect, approached Gless at an event long after Cagney & Lacey ended, the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actress recalls, smiling behind her fashionable black-rimmed specs, her white-blonde hair swept back to reveal a seemingly flawless complexion.

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“Lynda and I had lunch one day in Los Angeles and she told me that she wrote Prime Suspect as a homage to Cagney & Lacey. When Helen Mirren won her first Emmy [in 1996], the first people she thanked on camera were Cagney & Lacey.”

Sharon Gless. Picture: Alexei Hay/PA.

“I was in a New York theatre once and heard Helen was in the theatre and I waited in the lobby for her,” she continues, warming to the theme. “When I went over to introduce myself, she kneeled down on the floor, raising her arms like worshipping, and I said, ‘Helen! Please stop! Thank you!’ And she said, ‘If it wasn’t for you, my show wouldn’t exist’.”

Gless has done many other things in her career, starring in shows including Queer As Folk and Nip/Tuck, putting on 40lbs to star as Annie Wilkes in the West End production of Misery and even guesting in Casualty, but she’ll always be Christine Cagney to anyone who watched television in the Eighties.

Her maverick, mischievous personality comes out in her memoir, Apparently There Were Complaints – a phrase coined by the fact her socially inappropriate behaviour at times rubbed people up the wrong way.

It’s taken seven years to write and charts her life as a child of a big Hollywood dynasty who became the last contract player for Universal Studios. “I worked with wonderful actors who had their own series. I guess I was star-struck,” she recalls.

She dated Steven Spielberg and worked with Robert Wagner (they remain friends), and enjoyed the company of such luminaries as Henry Fonda, Cary Grant and Charles Bronson. Gless also reveals some stark truths from behind the scenes, her parents’ break-up when she was 14, battles with booze and her affair and subsequent marriage to Cagney & Lacey executive producer Barney Rosenzweig.

Cagney & Lacey, which ran from 1982-88, introduced viewers to independent, single, career-driven Christine Cagney (Gless) and her police partner, working mother Mary Beth Lacey (Tyne Daly). It dealt with issues including financial independence, professional ambition, equality in marriage and the workplace, yet neither characters were activists, feminists or even very politically vocal, Gless points out. “At the time, we didn’t know the impact it would have, but as the years went on we saw the reaction.”

Behind the scenes, Gless and Daly read lines together in their trailers.

They remain close friends and speak every day. “There’s a personal chemistry between us. We just love each other,” says Gless.

Excess did not escape the actress, who went to rehab, then did regular therapy sessions which helped keep her off alcohol, but she relapsed after 15 years on her 60th birthday.

Shortly after her 70th birthday party, she had her first severe pancreatic attack and doctors made it clear she’d have to give up drinking or she could die. She hasn’t had a drink since May 8, 2015.

As for the future, she says she’d love to do another TV series. “I don’t remember myself ever not working,” says Gless. “I’m happiest when I’m working.”

Apparently There Were Complaints by Sharon Gless is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £20. Available now.