Sharon Gless Get To The Heart Of Things

By Deidre Strohm, Lesbian News, January 2002

Before there was Lucy Lawless and Xena, there was Sharon Gless and Chris Cagney. Like Lawless, Gless isn't a lesbian, despite the wishful thinking of her many lesbian fans. She is an Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actress who inspired a generation of women watching her develop as the tough-cookie cop Chris Cagney during the 1980's run of the TV series Cagney and Lacey. In many ways, Gless and Cagney made Xena possible. And Chris Cagney was a lot more real. She was tough, she was smart, she held her own in a man's world at a time when women hadn't yet come such a long way, baby. She showed us how to do it.

For the chronologically challenged, i.e., those born during or after the 80s, Cagney and Lacey was a hit TV series that ran from 1982-1988. The show isn't syndicated right now, and that's too bad because it more than likely would have a whole new cult following for itself, maybe even a Cagney & Lacey: The Next Generation showing somewhere on UPN where Chris Cagney's niece and Mary Beth Lacey's daughter grow up and bust criminals together. That would be cool.

Cagney & Lacey was a show that everyone I knew rearranged their lives for, while the show itself changed their lives. It featured two women detectives in a New York City police department: work partners, smart, friends, good at what they did. Cagney was the sexy, blonde single and Lacey the dark-haired wife and mother. Together they represented Women in America, at least straight white women in America. But we all knew: Chris Cagney, that fireball, was a dyke at heart. Where Mary Beth was absorbed with hubby Harvey and the kids, Chris was out there alone, struggling with her alcoholic dad and dysfunctional relationships.

We loved Chris because she proved you could be tough and feminine and still be lovable. We also loved it that Chris Cagney was a flawed character. She had challenges; she had relationship issues; she was an alcoholic and she was strong and opinionated. She and Mary Beth Lacey were not only co-workers, they were best friends. We loved that, too.

Sure, the show had its limitations, which is probably why the Chris Cagney character was heterosexual, but HBO and Showtime weren't doing original programming back then. And we did have a very conservative political climate at the time. So, it's all pretty amazing when you think about it. The show won countless Emmys, Golden Globe awards, nominations, and Viewers for Quality Television Awards. Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless came in as number four in a TV Guide survey of readers' favorite TV detectives of all time (as in the history of television).

So now you know why her fans are excited to have Sharon Gless back on TV. This time she's gone from dyke magnet to fag hag playing Debbie Novotny on Showtime's Original Series, Queer As Folk. The show is getting ready to air its second season and is currently being filmed in Toronto, Ontario.

I caught up with Sharon just before the holidays. She was battling what she thought was an ear infection that turned out to be a whole lot worse. "It's f--ked," she said. "I am really pissed. I told the doctor I was still going to Africa at Christmas, and he said 'we'll see.' But dammit, I am going." This is how Sharon responds to the news that her eardrum has a hole in it; that she somehow blew it out. It will heal, but on her terms.

This gritty determination is one of the parts of Sharon Gless that shines through all her characters. She grew up in Southern California, the daughter of a garment business owner and a homemaker mother. She attended Marlboro School where her granddaughter is currently the fourth generation in her family in attendance.

Like a good Catholic girl, Sharon went to college at a Jesuit university (Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, which is also Bing Crosby's alma matter) but she didn't finish. As a child, she was always getting herself in trouble, and college was no different. It was a long weekend and she was signed out of the dorm to a friend's house. But, instead, the kids were having a keg party at a local motel. And since drinking was forbidden, she and her friends were given the good ol' Catholic boot home.

Sharon insists the kids weren't "screwing around" at the motel because "you just didn't do those things back then." Of course, she adds, the University isn't beyond soliciting her for funds since they'd like to be credited for her success. Gonzaga, take note: Sharon says she'd consider sliding some cash your way if you give her some kind of honorary degree. That's the Hollywood way, isn't it?

Sharon says always loved the movies. In fact, they had a screening room in the Hancock Park home she grew up in and she used to love watching those movies and knew one day she'd have a screening room of her own. She used to imagine she was one of the people up on the screen. Her grandfather was a powerful entertainment attorney; her cousin is actress Elizabeth Baur, who got her start playing Fran Belding on Ironsides; and her uncle was Jack Baur, head of casting at Twentieth Century Fox for over 20 years. Sharon says Jack refused to cast either Sharon or Elizabeth Baur in any of his projects. They both seemed to do OK any way. Perhaps acting is in Sharon's blood, but it didn't occur to her to give it a whirl until she was in her late twenties--ancient by Hollywood's standards.

Sharon began her career behind the camera. She worked as a production secretary and thought perhaps she might become a producer. For giggles, she took an acting class, and a friend suggested she meet Monique James. Monique James was head of casting at Universal, who left in 1980 after 30 years to manage Sharon's career. Monique and Sharon worked together for over twenty years. Sharon credits Monique with everything about her career--"she was the reason." Sharon said. Monique died a year ago in January of cancer.

Monique James signed Sharon on as a contract player at Universal, and she was one of the last actors in that old contract system. She landed guest spots and regular roles on shows such as Marcus Welby. M.D. (her very first ever), Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law and with Robert Wagner on Switch. Young contract players didn't earn a lot of dough in those days. But it was steady. So, Sharon bought herself a little house in Studio City, which she still owns because she sees it as her "good luck charm" and has always had it "just in case the bottom drops out."

The bottom very nearly did drop out. That collegiate keg party was a harbinger of things to come. Sharon became not only a successful actress, but an alcoholic as well. She's been sober for 13 years. When asked how she's remained sober for so long with all the pressures associated with the entertainment business, Sharon smartly replied "I don't drink." Sharon says she's a passionate person, passionate about everything, which is nice for work "but it can be a curse" on one's private life. Sharon was also a smoker who, while going through menopause several years ago, quit smoking at the same time. She says she felt sorry for her husband, television producer Barney Rosenzweig, because "he didn't know what hit him." But quitting one addiction led to the stimulation of another--eating.

Sharon didn't want to comment too much about this particular problem because it's a sensitive issue for her. She's always struggled with her weight, but when she quit her nicotine, she ballooned up. She remembers playing Annie Wilkes in the stage version of Misery. At first, the producers thought she was going to have to wear a "fat suit" to be true to the role, but Sharon said she wanted to method act--that is, she told the producers she would gain weight for the role. But, she admits, she didn't have to gain weight to get the part--she was using that as an excuse. And though she quit smoking nine years ago and still craves it, she has stayed away from smoking, more for her husband than for anything else.

Through it all, Sharon's managed to stay busy working either on stage or on television, which means she hasn't had to "fall back on" her Studio City home full time (she does stay there when she's in Los Angeles, though). Currently, she's spending most of her time working in Toronto for Queer As Folk.

A friend of Sharon's at Showtime slipped her the pilot script of Queer As Folk because she knew Sharon was looking for something to do on television again and because she thought this would be a great part for Sharon. The friend was right. Sharon responded to the character immediately. She told Showtime she wanted it, met with the producers who of course flipped for Sharon, and the rest is now known as Debbie Novotny history.

The show is loosely based on a British series of the same name, but this one is about the lives and loves of young, gay, American men who live in the ultra-chic and homo-utopic Pittsburgh, PA. (If you've ever ever seen the show, you've probably been awed by the amazing dance clubs and loft apartments in this way-more-glamorous place to live than West Hollywood town).

Debbie Novotny is a waitress in a diner and her adult son, Michael, is gay. Debbie's an "in your face" woman who is very hip and homo-friendly. She sports gay paraphernalia on her vests and says things like "You better eat. You know you boys can't get it up on an empty stomach." She's so supportive and encouraging, like a fantasy mother figure for all gay men who've been rejected by their families (and there are a lot of them). It's no wonder people love Debbie Novotny and the actress who portrays her.

Sharon takes the character of Debbie very seriously. "She's unlike any other character I have ever played." She knows Debbie is "out there," but Debbie "has a heart." She knows people make fun of Debbie, and Debbie knows it, too. But, in the end, she thinks Debbie has the last laugh. Sharon is the first to say the show isn't called "Debbie's Diner," but this season, Debbie's role is larger, appearing in all 20 episodes (last year, she was in 17 of 22). Sharon says there are whispers this season that "Debbie gets a fella." Turns out that fella looks a lot like a homophobic cop. Hmm.

Sharon's heard, ad nauseum, the complaints from women (especially lesbians) who watch the show: "Where are the lesbians? The lesbians are two-dimensional. The women characters are not written true to life." Last season, she talked to the producers about it. Sharon assures us that bigger things are in store for the women of Queer As Folk this season, so get ready! The producers have added some female voices to the writing staff and Sharon blushingly said the women are written "very sexy this year."

Though her scenes with the women are very few, Sharon watched some of the scenes between the women where her character doesn't appear. She described the scenes as intimate, to the point she felt like a voyeur watching. While she described most of the sex scenes she's seen filmed between the men as "graphic" she described the women as "pure." Although Sharon doesn't expect her character's life to cross the women's paths any more this season than last, she is aware that the women characters on the show (Melanie and Lindsay) will expand with larger story lines this season.

Sharon also believes women in entertainment should help each other out. She thinks women are finally getting "our turn" at things like directing (although there are no women directors on QAF, which Sharon speculates is because the sex scenes between the men are so explicit "it would be hard on the boys" she said with a chuckle. But she doesn't know if that in fact is the real reason). Sharon herself is a member of Women in Film and has been involved with POWER UP (Professional Organization of Women in Entertainment Reaching UP). POWER UP's membership is primarily lesbian, but that doesn't make Sharon blink. She was involved in a fund raising dinner last year and said she would "do it again" if asked.

Sharon says the hardest part of her job is the inroads it makes on her family life. As an actor on a television show, with a contract as a regular-appearing character, she's at the mercy of the show. That means that even is she only works three of seven production days, she still has to be available for the entire shoot. Sure, some shows try and accommodate schedules, but the show isn't paying actors to go on vacation. That's why Sharon's "down time" is very precious to her. She travels to see her family or spend time with friends.

During her Christmas hiatus (that's when QAF production takes a breather for a couple of weeks so everyone can regroup and celebrate their respective holidays), Sharon, her husband, her stepdaughter, and her niece planned a safari in Africa. She said she's always wanted to do it and was very excited (hence, her anger over the ear infection that was jeopardizing the trip).

You might have noticed that traveling is a part of Sharon's life. So, have the events of September 11 affected Sharon? "Of course they have. They have affected my heart. Our lives have changed. Nothing will ever be the same." As for flying, Sharon said she has been a "nervous flier." If you're ever on a plane with her and engaging in pre-flight nervous chat, expect to hear: "Excuse me, but I have to get this plane off the ground."

Sharon attributes her ability to cope with tragedies and personal demons, to her rich inner life--a spiritual place that is very personal for Sharon. It's not something Sharon could really articulate, but there was something raw about her when she was talking about it. Perhaps that's what makes Sharon so damn good as what she does. There's something to be said for an actor who can gain a following that spans different generations, for different characters.

A lot of people ask Sharon what she has in common with her characters because we all think there's got to be something of the actors in the characters they play. Well, one thing is for certain--Sharon Gless, Christine Cagney and Debbie Novonty all have heart. Sure, you can say it's the writing if you want. You can say it's the directing if you want, but the underlying fact is all three entities come alive through one heart--and that heart belongs to Sharon Gless.

I want to thank Scott for contributing the above article and photo. Thanks, Scott!

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