Sharon Gless

Alexei Hay

Sharon Gless

Alexei Hay

Sharon Gless

Alexei Hay
Simon & Schuster
Fill 1
Fill 1
December 06, 2021
Online Originals

Sharon Gless Has Stories (and More Stories)

After more than half a century in show business, Sharon Gless has seen a lot and done it, too. In a candid new memoir, she shares stories from a remarkable life that's still going strong.

Like many people, Sharon Gless chose to go into the family business.

In her case, that happened to be show business, and for more than five decades, business has been good.

In addition to appearances in more than 70 television series and feature films, Gless has earned plaudits for her performances in several high-profile stage productions in New York, Chicago and London.

Along the way, she has won dozens of awards, including two Emmys for the groundbreaking cop drama Cagney & Lacey.

Although Cagney & Lacey is perhaps the best known of Gless's TV credits, it is by no means the only one that connected with audiences.

"Someone told me recently that I've been in nine hit series," she says. "And the only one who's beaten me out is Betty White. She's been in 10. I'm beat by the best!"

Gless reflects on all of this and more in Apparently There Were Complaints, a newly published memoir in which she shares stories and anecdotes from her childhood to the present with humor, heart and bracing honesty.

In the 1980s, there were no cooler women on TV than the detectives of Cagney & Lacey. Gless's Christine Cagney was the independent single gal to Tyne Daly's happily married Mary Beth Lacey. It was the first female-driven cop show on television, and its stars became icons for their empowering portrayal of strong women balancing demanding professions and complex personal lives.

Created by Barbara Avedon and Barbara Corday, and executive-produced by Barney Rosenzweig — whom Gless later married — the CBS drama did not have an easy birth. Gless was the third actress to take on the role of Chris Cagney — after Loretta Swit in the pilot movie and Meg Foster in the first season. Swit was already contracted to star as "Hot Lips" Houlihan in M*A*S*H by the time the show went to series, and Foster was let go after the first season.

When Gless assumed the role, she made it her own and continued to expand it for six more seasons. She saw Cagney through ups and downs, including the challenges of alcoholism.

Prior to Cagney & Lacey, Gless had been a series regular on the network dramas Marcus Welby, M.D., Faraday and Company and Switch; after Cagney & Lacey ended, she scored in such hits as The Trials of Rosie O'Neill (for which she won a Golden Globe), Queer As Folk, Nip/Tuck and Burn Notice.

Gless got her start in Hollywood in a manner that no longer exists — as a contract player at Universal Studios. She signed with Universal in 1972 and remained until 1982, when the studio put an end to talent contracts, making her one of the last performers developed within the system that had once been the industry standard.

Fittingly, the contract system was forged by a family member — her maternal grandfather, Neil S. McCarthy. One of the most influential entertainment attorneys of Hollywood's Golden Age, McCarthy — whose numerous heavyweight clients included Mary Pickford, Howard Hughes, Louis B. Mayer, Katharine Hepburn, Cecil B. DeMille, Ava Gardner and many others — is reputed to have drafted the first contract between a studio and a performer. He died the year Gless signed with Universal but has lived on through the McCarthy Salad, which remains a popular menu item at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Like everything in Apparently There Were Complaints, Gless recounts her upbringing with a candor that is reflected in the title — which she came up with before she started writing.

"Everything in the book is true," she says. "And if I'm going to open with a title like that..."

She makes good on this promise in the opening chapter, in which she lists all the names she has been called throughout her life. Example: "I've been called the poor relative, a rich kid, a spinster, impudent, naïve, funny, darling, boring, fat, perfect, unusual, forgettable, and unforgettable."

"It took a while to list [everything]," she says, "but then the stories just started opening up. Some made me laugh at myself. Some made me cry. Sometimes it gets a little tender. Obviously, that's how we all survive. I have a sense of humor."

While much of the book is devoted to Gless's time in the entertainment industry, Apparently There Were Complaints is not a typical Hollywood memoir. Instead, it's a multidimensional, very human examination of one woman's extraordinary life.

"I was blessed to work with the best of my television era, but [the book] is not all show business," she says. "A lot of it's very personal before I ever stepped on a soundstage. But you take that stuff with you. You drag it with you onto a soundstage. You take the things that have touched you in life, that you learn in life. It stays with you. Everything stays with you. Everything. Then I become fortunate enough to be trained by the best of my era in television."

Recalling some of the stars who shaped her work as a neophyte performer, she says, "I was trained by Robert Young, James Garner, Robert Wagner, Eddie Albert, Elena Verdugo, Dennis Weaver. These were the tops in television when I was a contract player at Universal. And I think you would see in the book, there were many things that they taught me that you'd never learn in an acting class. Every actor I work with, frankly, I get a lesson from — every actor. I was groomed by the greatest of their day."

Gless is thankful to have been one of the last performers to come up through the studio system, in which contract players were trained for a career. The system is long gone, but she remembers it fondly.

"I got to go to work every day," she says. "I loved going to work every day. The excitement of being on a studio lot. I'm so sorry that the young actors don't have that training anymore, that a studio takes you under its wing and pays you whether you work or not. And, as opposed to most actresses today, I was very protected. There was something wonderful about being a contract player. In the days of Katharine Hepburn and Clark Gable, that was a different kind of contract player. But we were always protected, all of us.

"There were publicity departments that actually sort of cleaned up the messes. Not that I made one. I didn't. But there were publicity departments there, when you were owned by a studio, who kept your reputation protected. Because in that day and age, actors used to be sort of magical and weren't supposed to make mistakes.

"I wasn't of the era of the big motion picture. But in television, you become sort of something that they feel they own, like a member of their family. And with every slip, there's a studio there to pick you up.

"I was trained to do make-believe every day. It fed my childhood dream. I was always a dreamer. I still am."

Although she admits to having far more stories than she was able to fit into the book, Gless says that there won't be a sequel. This one took seven years to complete, and she has no desire to repeat the process. She does, however, have a different goal.

"I think I only have this one [book] in me," she says. "It was a journey. And I don't have one ounce of regret about it. I made wonderful friends during that period. You never do this alone. And [publishing house] Simon & Schuster took a chance on me.

"I wasn't looking for a book — I was looking for a TV show. CBS said, 'We own Simon & Schuster. You have a book in you.' Yeah, but what about the TV show? Anyway, I still have at least one big hit ahead of me."

Television is important to Gless, and she believes it's important to society. And she remains thrilled by the opportunities it has offered her, including 10 Emmy nominations and the two wins for Cagney & Lacey.

"[The Television Academy] has always been nice to me," she says. "Always, always. I didn't always win, but even to be nominated, to be invited to sit there among your peers — there's some amazing actors. Television is where it's at. Television is the most powerful medium we have.

"Television goes into people's homes. You go into their bedrooms at night. And you better be responsible for what you put on. And there's an audience that sadly most of us will never meet. And sometimes, like the peers I've met in my industry, I needed your awards."

One awards story stands out for Gless.

"My Emmys were on the mantel of my house, and during that terrible earthquake here in the Valley where the Earth opened up" — the 1994 Northridge Earthquake — "one of the Emmys fell down on the hearth and broke.

"Barney, my husband, took that Emmy and went to the Academy and showed it to them. Usually, I think, you have to pay to have one replaced. And they saw what had happened in the tragedy, because it was terrible. They gave me a brand new one, and Barney put the one that was broken in a shadow box.

"It's in his office with the newspaper clipping behind it saying, 'Tragic Earthquake.' He took a tragic situation and made it sort of a wonderful — there's nothing wonderful about that situation, but the Emmy didn't have to be thrown away because of it. It was remembered in a shadow box and why it had snapped in two."

Gless is proud of the projects she has done and the subjects they have covered. "One of the things I'm very blessed with, after I left the contract system, [is that] my career was also involved with very groundbreaking shows," she says.

As an example, she cites the Showtime series Queer As Folk, about a group of gay friends in Pittsburgh.

"It was amazing," she says. "I went after that part. It was the first series depicting gay life on TV. And I went after it. I haven't been afraid to tackle anything that hasn't been done before on television. I crave it. I would do it again. I have to think of some other things that make sense that haven't been tackled."

For Gless, embracing the groundbreaking themes of Queer As Folk was a continuation of the bold spirit established with Cagney & Lacey.

"I feel so blessed," she says. "Cagney and Lacey changed the history of television for women. Queer As Folk saved people's lives. I have people come up to me, boys come up to me, saying, 'My best friend killed himself, because there was no Queer As Folk. But then you came along, and you saved me.' I didn't, but the show did. We were just the first to do it. Queer As Folk said, 'Let's tell the truth.'

"I'm just so lucky to have been part of these [shows]. Before its time, Cagney and Lacey handled subjects like abortion, teenage sex, spousal abuse, alcoholism. Nobody touched those. And my character, Christine, no hero of a series has ever fallen from grace like that before."

She credits her husband for pushing the show to explore challenging themes: "He's the one who said, 'Let's attack Christine's alcoholism. Clearly, she's a drunk. So, you want to do something with it?'

"I said, 'Okay.' He said, 'We always said you never wanted to be a victim.' He didn't want Cagney to be a victim. And I said, 'Let's do it.'

Afterward, she says, "People came forward saying, 'Thank you so much.' I asked my father to watch the show, so that he wouldn't die like Charlie Cagney [Christine's father, played by Dick O'Neill] did. Now that I'm telling these stories, it sounds so dated, and so old-fashioned, and so long ago. But these are situations that are diseases that exist today."

While some of Gless's performances could be described as courageous, she demurs at the suggestion.

"I'm not sure it took courage for me to play Chris Cagney," she says. "I just felt so fortunate that I got to be a part of these movements.

"There were times during writing the book where, yeah, it took courage. It took someone to talk to me and tell me: 'Sharon, tell it.' I do, but writing a book is scary. You take a chance. And if there's anything that anybody could learn from my experience or anyone's experience, [it's that] they're not alone. You do survive."


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