The Rise and Fall-And Rise of TV's Cagney and Lacey
After an absence of more than six months, the television series "Cagney & Lacey" returned to the air on CBS again in March. This is only the latest development in its unusual production history. In fact you could probably do a miniseries called "The Many Lives of 'Cagney & Lacey", an idea that may yet linger in the mind of executive producer Barney Rosenzweig, who has kept a detailed diary of the rising, falling, and then rising again fortunes of the show. Certainly Rosenzweig, a veteran series and made-for-television movie producer currently working out of Orion Television, Inc., must be numbered among the key characters in this hypothetical miniseries; his unusually tenacious efforts (even for a Hollywood television producer) to keep "Cagney & Lacey" alive play a major part in the shaping of this dramatic story.
You might expect that the heavies would be the network programming executives. But not necessarily. One thing for sure is that the 20 million viewers who made up the hard-core audience of "Cagney & Lacey" must definitely be cast as the heroes. Among these viewers were many Ms. readers who first learned about the "Cagney & Lacey" project in a Ms. story timed to its October 7, 1981 debut as a television movie starring Loretta Swit and Tyne Daly. but hod did the "Cagney & Lacey" series audience succeed in bringing back their favorite show where the audiences of "Lou Grant" and more recently "NBC Overnight" failed?
The Cagney & Lacey series was first unprecedented for its subject: two very real-and very different from each other-life-size women joined as amiable, successful partners in the pressure cooker of police work. The show was created by the writing team of Barbara Avedon and Barbara Corday. In its second season (1982-83) it received four Emmy nominations, including two best actress nominations for leads Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly and also one for best series. (Daly, who plays Mary Beth Lacey, the more down-to-earth member of the duo, the one who has a husband and two kids at home, took the best actress award). The recognition was a bittersweet victory, however, because "Cagney & Lacey" hadn't made it to CBS's fall, 1983, schedule.
And this wasn't the first time the series had been canceled. In its disastrous first season, only three of the six episodes that had been completed were shown before "Cagney & Lacey" was taken off the air in March, 1982.
Back when "Cagney & Lacey" the TV movie was aired, it garnered a phenomenal 42 share. "That means forty-two percent of the people of America watching TV were watching that show," exults Rosenzweig, "and you're considered to be a hit today with a made-for-television movie if you get a twenty-eight share." The unusual ratings propelled "Cagney & Lacey" through the back door at CBS into a series. According to CBS senior vice president for programming Harvey Shephard, who decided to order up six episodes of "Cagney & Lacey": "The compelling thing that was there to make a series out of was the relationship between the two women. It's about their work, but it's also very personal." Rosenzweig describes the distinctiveness of the show in another way: "This is not a show about two cops who happen to be women; it's about tow women who happen to be cops. We do what I call "shows of revelation"-the audience learns about the caper through the eyes of the detectives. We never cut away to the bad guys to show what they are doing. Cagney and Lacey-one, or the other, or both-are always on screen."
As they went to a series, Rosenzweig quickly signed up Tyne Daly and then had to look for a new Cagney, since Swit was committed to M*A*S*H. He went back to his original choice, Sharon Gless (whom he had been pursuing along with the project itself since 1975) but she was under contract to Universal Studios. So with the assistance of the husband-and-wife casting team of Michael McLean and Diane Dimeo, Rosenzweig began interviewing other actresses. On the first day he met Meg Foster, Rosenzweig was sold. "Meg had a kind of jazz to her, a certain kind of push. She takes control when she walks into the room." (Paradoxically, Foster is probably best known for her portrayal of Hester Prynne in the public television production of "The Scarlet Letter.")
Foster made it to the finals along with six other much better known actresses. The last hurdle was reading a scene with Tyne Daly before Rosenzweig, his casting associates, and a number of CBS executives. (Tyne Daly found it difficult to be so intimately involved in the casting process and insisted on leaving the room with each auditioning actress so she would not have to hear the casting team's assessment.) "When it was over, the consensus was that Meg Foster had given the best reading," relates Rosenzweig. Shephard was initially concerned that Foster did not provide enough of a contrast to Daly in terms of appearance and acting style, but he eventually agreed to hiring her.
Shephard became the series' leading advocate at CBS. He gave the show a strong position in the fall, 1982 schedule-Monday night at 9 P.M. following the hit series "Magnum, PI." (Interestingly, "Cagney & Lacey" was going up against the new comedy about women office workers, "9 to 5" on ABC)."Because we followed a show that was giving us a thirty-eight share lead-in, absolutely everyone expected that we would have a monster hit," recalls Rosenzweig. But "Cagney & Lacey" got only a 24 share. "Fourteen percent of the people watching television got up out of their chairs en masse and turned the dial somewhere else." Rosenzweig was sure there was some malfunction in the Nielsen boxes.
"It was clear "Cagney & Lacey" wasn't going to make it in that time slot," Shephard concluded quickly. Waiting in the wings was "Simon & Simon," another show he felt obligated to try out in the coveted post : "Magnum, PI" time period. So he canceled "Cagney & Lacey," thinking perhaps CBS might run the three episodes still in the can during the summer rerun season. Rosenzweig wasn't pleased, but he couldn't argue with the ratings-until Barbara Corday (who had left television writing to become vice president of comedy development at ABC, and who had also in the meantime married Rosenzweig) brought home some interesting demographic research.
Rosenzweig called up Shephard with the news: "The demographics show that we are an adult show-that we are number twenty-four in the nation among adult women, number twenty-seven in the nation among adult men, and number eighty-five among teenagers and children. We are inheriting a kid audience from "Magnum, PI" and they don't want to watch us." Rosenzweig told Shephard "We are not a nine o'clock show, we're a ten o'clock show." He asked Shephard to give "Cagney & Lacey" another chance on the air at 10 P.M. Shephard felt he couldn't do that. A tryout during the summer rerun period was the best he could offer. But since the fall season scheduling meetings were before the summer, Rosenzweig came up with a more timely counterproposal.
May is the spring "Sweeps" month (the other two sweeps periods fall in February and November), the ratings during the sweeps are the ones that most count in the network competition for advertising dollars. The last couple of weeks in April are a dead Nielsen period, mostly reruns. So Rosenzweig asked Shephard to run two more episodes of "Cagney & Lacey" in place of reruns of "Trapper John, M.D." and "Lou Grant" that were scheduled for 10 P.M. Sunday, April 25, and Monday, April 26. Shephard agreed to give "Cagney & Lacey" one more shot on Sunday, April 25.
By the time, Rosenzweig to this green light, it was past the deadline for getting into the television listings in TV Guide and in the Sunday newspaper supplements, so the only way to get the word out was to send Daly and Foster out to talk with newspapers and affiliates about the airdate. Orion's $25,000 investment to do this paid off. "Cagney & Lacey" captured a 37 share and was number seven in the ratings that week. These results reaffirmed Harvey Shephard's sense of the potential of the show.
Then Shephard brought up the issue of recasting Meg Foster. CBS routinely puts its shows that are in trouble through tests with focus groups in an effort to pinpoint the problems. (This kind of market research on television programs is a recent innovation and highly controversial). "We learned that women responded much less to Meg Foster and Tyne Daly than to Loretta Swit and Tyne Daly," says Shephard. "They described the [\Foster/Daly] relationship as 'far too intense' and the characters were almost interchangeable. There was a softness and humor missing there." Rosenzweig finally had to admit that Shephard "was not asking me to go with some obvious piece of 'tits-and-ass' casting, and demean the show. he was, after all, the show's biggest fan, and was looking for a way to save it.
A few days later, Rosenzweig attended a birthday party where he happened to meet MCA/Universal talent executive Monique James, the individual responsible for discovering and signing Sharon Gless. From her he learned that in exchange for Gless's agreement last season to replace Lynn Redgrave in the CBS comedy "House Calls" universal had promised to release her from her long-standing contract with them if and when "House Calls" was canceled. So when Rosenzweig finally received a call with the astonishing news that "Cagney & Lacey" would in fact be picked up by CBS for 13 episodes for the fall, his first question was "Is 'House Calls' on the schedule?" The answer was no.
Rosenzweig met with Meg Foster as soon as he returned to Los Angeles to tell her the series had to continue without her. Foster wanted to fight for the role, "But I had to tell her, it's a fight you'll never win," says Rosenzweig. What made the situation even more painful were the reports that almost immediately appeared in the trade press, which suggested that CBS had rejected her for a lack of femininity. ("Some reporter misinterpreted our testing report-which said that [Daly and Foster] together came off 'too tough'-and everyone else picked it up," explains Harvey Shephard).
Rosenzweig had no easy time persuading Sharon Gless to join "Cagney *& Lacey" either. "She told me, 'I just replaced Lynn Redgrave. I don't want to make a career to of replacing other actresses.' I said to her, 'This was always your part. You were always our first choice, you just were never available. Loretta and Meg were replacing you.'"
"My agent persuaded me to take a look at the shows, " says Gless. "They were so good-the writing, the look of the show, and the acting. I asked myself, 'What could I bring to this?" And I began to see I could contribute a certain kind of humor." Although Gless was warming up to the Cagney role, she dreaded still the possibility that she would be working with people who weren't happy about the circumstances of her getting the job. Rosenzweig arranged for Tyne Daly to visit Gless at home. "She came, and I said to her, 'So how do you really feel about all this?' And she said, 'I told Barney that I didn't want to be put in the position of persuading this woman to join the show. Maybe you really don't want to do this part. Meg Foster and I worked well together...'" But as Daly and Gless talked frankly about the sticky situation they were in, Gless says they realized they liked each other a great deal, and that they would probably do fine work together.
The new "Cagney & Lacey" series aired in the fall of 1982 on Monday night at 10 P.M., following M*A*S*H and "Newhart." "Monday Night Football" was on ABC, so it happened that CBS and NBC competed for the largely female audience that didn't care to watch football. NBC scheduled movies on Monday, against which "Cagney & Lacey" performed pretty well-a 28 share between October, 1982, and January, 1983-good enough for another season.
But "Cagney & Lacey" got creamed in the February sweeps. Harvey Shephard sums it up: "When football ended, ABC and NBC both put on women's appeal movies. We found that women who had watched 'Cagney & Lacey' as an alternative to football in most cases preferred these movies." (It's a generally accepted fact of programming life that women control the television dial except during the football season.) "There was hardly anybody in America left to watch us," observes Barney Rosenzweig mournfully.
Despite a last-minute attempt by Orion to support the season's last two "Cagney & Lacey" episodes with a promotion blitz, the ratings stayed in the basement. Says Shephard, "The audience was firmly rejecting the show," and in the May, 1983 fall scheduling meeting CBS dropped the series, which continued in summer reruns.
Then, once again the unexpected happened. CBS began sending Rosenzweig bags of mail from loyal fans of "Cagney & Lacey." There were thousands of articulate, insightful letters that spoke about the importance of the complex, real women characters, the importance of the new images. Simultaneously, "Cagney & Lacey" started doing extremely well in summer reruns and was even the top-rated show for several weeks. When the Emmy nominations came out, Rosenzweig started getting press calls. He decided to write the fans who had already written supportive letters, asking them to write letters to the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. The papers ran several articles about the unusual audience response to the show. Shephard was on vacation with his family driving through the California wine country when he happened to read an article in a San Francisco paper that polled its readers about the many critically favored shows like "Taxi," "Fame," "Archie Bunker's Place," and "Cagney & Lacey" that had been canceled that year. The readers agreed with every cancellation except "Cagney & Lacey." "I decided that the publicity that could be generated by bringing 'Cagney & Lacey' back would be greater than any new show we could come up with. People might be convinced that they should take a second look, people who had never even seen the show the first time."
Barney Rosenzweig got the word about the pickup one week before the Emmy awards. But putting the show back together again at this late date was like starting from scratch. Gless and Daly were already at work on other projects; the sets had been destroyed; and the rest of the staff had scattered. They couldn't announce the return of the show until several months later.
As of the first of February (press time) "Cagney & Lacey" has been in production for three weeks. (They will complete six episode.) Harvey Shephard said he was at least two weeks away from knowing how he will position the show on the schedule. "We'll be testing several new shows this spring," he says cautiously. Tyne Daly noted that although she had completed a number of projects during the hiatus (two plays, one feature movie and a guest shot in an episode of the CBS series "The Mississippi"), Mary Beth Lacey was still inside of her. "I remember this woman," she found herself thinking when she walked on the set the first day. Sharon Gless, who made two television movies during the hiatus, including one in which she stars as a woman astronaut, exults at being back with the "best damned job I ever had." And Barney Rosenzweig is looking forward to giving the Emmy speech he prepared for last year in September, 1984.
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