The Trials-and Triumph-of Sharon Gless: "I'm Finally Happy"
Redbook, April 1991
Thanks to a hit series and a new love, Sharon Gless is on top of the world. But such bliss is recent and hard won. Here, for the first time, she talks about the family problems, the stressful workload and the alcoholism that made her life hell-until she found help.
It's a sunny day in Malibu, California, and the ocean sparkles beyond the sand dunes outside Sharon Gless' beach house. Inside, plump beige-and-white-striped cotton sofas and bright, colorful rugs give the house the look of a Caribbean resort.
Against the living room wall is a huge, custom-built cabinet that houses her collection of 500 films. A giant popcorn cart sits prominently in the middle of the room. It was a Christmas gift from her lover, Barney Rosenzweig, who is also the producer of Gless' series, The Trials of Rosie O'Neill.
Gless presides over the eclectic surroundings, looking as breezy and carefree as the decor. Her feet are bare, and she's casually dressed in a pair of coral-colored nylon jogging pants and a pink T-shirt emblazoned with "Expect a Miracle." Sitting on a coffee table in front of her is a glass of raspberry diet soda, her favorite drink these days. "No sugar, no salt, no caffeine. Just cancer-causing chemicals," she quips.
All in all, it's a perfect southern California scene, and Gless completes the impression. "For the first time in my life," she says, "I'm really happy.
What's not to be happy about? She's the star of a hit television series and she's happily involved with Rosenzweig. But her happiness is recent and hard won. Three years ago, in April 1988, Gless entered the Hazeldon Foundation's drug- and alcohol-rehabilitation center in Center City, Minnesota, to treat her addiction to alcohol. Now, for the first time, she has agreed to talk about that painful time in her life.
"About two months before we wrapped the run of Cagney & Lacey, my agent, who's also a dear friend, took me to dinner and told me he thought I was drinking too much. It was very upsetting. Nobody had ever said that to me before. I thought he was crazy! It was a somewhat hostile night, and I went home and cried."
Gless absolutely did not believe she had a problem, which is especially ironic considering she had won an Emmy just one year earlier for a two-part episode of Cagney & Lacey that dealt with her character's recovery from alcoholism.
"I never drank during work," Gless explains. "But whenever we finished shooting, we'd all drink. It was, you know, 'party in Gless' trailer!-and I had a great time drinking. to be honest, I was in total denial about the whole thing."
But it wasn't her work that was suffering. "What my agent said was that my personality had started to change. There are some people who can drink twenty drinks a day and not change at all. But others drink just two and their personality changes. That's what made him think I had a problem-he noticed that I wasn't having as much fun as I used to. I had always had a bubbly personality, but my agent said he didn't see anything positive in me anymore."
Gless began to consider her options. "I realized I was really unhappy because the tabloids had been after me for a couple of years. They were running stories that Barney had separated from his wife, and that I had broken up his marriage," she says. "I wasn't used to that kind of press, and it began taking a toll."
There were other stresses in Gless' life besides the tabloids. Her father was dying of complications due to diabetes. The pressures of shooting a successful sixth year of Cagney & Lacey were mounting. Then there was the matter of Joni Leigh Penn, an obsessed, mentally imbalanced fan who had been sending Gless letters threatening to shoot herself in front of the actress. Although Gless insists this was not a factor in her drinking, it couldn't have made things any easier. (Last year Penn was sentenced to six years in prison for breaking into one of Gless' houses, armed with a gun.)
"The day we wrapped the series, I went to Hazelden. The truth is that, at first, I really just went because I thought it would be a nice way to escape."
But Hazelden didn't exactly have a country picnic planned for Gless; they told her she had real work to do. "They said, 'Sharon, we could tell the minute you walked in here how emotionally battered you were.' They wanted me to stay four months-or at least seven weeks. I said, 'Seven weeks! There's a heroin addict next door, and you just pumped the stomach of someone for drinking hairspray! I just like martinis! Besides,' I said, 'I can't stay that long. I have a sick father-I don't know how long he's going to last.'"Gless pauses. "My father lasted until I came home," she adds quietly. "He waited for me."
Gless stayed the seven weeks at Hazelden for the "repairing they said I needed. I didn't realize what damage I had gone through-six years on the series, and the press relentlessly hounding Barney and me." In addition, she gained surprising new insights into her personality. "I learned that I'm vulnerable," she says, "I always play these really strong women-I still do. But I came back from Hazelden feeling more fragile. The symbol of the unit I was in was a butterfly, and Hazelden was truly like a cocoon. We were caterpillars when we went in, then we entered this cocoon, and when we got out, we were butterflies. We were more fragile, but we were airborne."
Gless has been sober for three years now, though tabloids have published reports to the contrary. How would her life have been different if she hadn't stopped drinking? "If I hadn't gone to Hazelden, I wouldn't be with Barney," she says without hesitation. "That's the most important thing that wouldn't have happened. We have a loving relationship. We bring out the best and the worst in each other."
As she reaches for the soda, an impressive emerald-and-diamond ring on the fourth finger of her left hand glints in the sunlight. Gless sees my eye drawn to it and says, "No, it's not an engagement ring. I don't know quite how to explain it. It means a lot to me, but we're not talking marriage. Honest, I'd tell you. This is the only finger it fits on." Rosenzweig has made other public tributes to Gless; The actress' favorite flower is the yellow rose, and each week a perfect yellow rose appears in the background of the Rosie O'Neill credits.
Gless romantic relationship with her producer is relatively recent. "Despite what the tabloids said about us, we were not personally involved until after Cagney & Lacey," she says. (Rosenzweig also produced that show.) "We'd been criticized for being together for so long that we finally said, 'Oh, why don't we just date?'"
When she started seeing Rosenzweig, Gless recalls, "My manager said, 'Well, I'll say this for you. You've finally met your match! ' Barney was equally immature and selfish in his own way, but the two of us have turned out to be very nice people."
In fact, the success of Cagney & Lacey was what convinced Gless that if she were going to return to series television in another drama, Rosenzweig was the only man she could do it with. "Our track record shows why," she says. "And it's not for personal reasons-it's important that people know that."
The couple tries not to bring work home, although it's not always possible. "The original plan was that we would talk about business during business hours only, and not during dinner or personal time," Gless explains. "But two things happened. First, I didn't have any time during business hours to talk to him-I was always on the set. And also, when I work, work becomes my life. I couldn't think about anything else to talk about at dinner. So now it's just a matter of learning to do it with compassion and consideration."
"It's not an ideal situation, I suppose, for most people," she continues, "but it's the best way I know how to live. I've never been happier than I am right now. And it's work. But it's work that's really worth it. It's a pleasure for me. It's a very grown-up thing I'm doing. If you ask people who know me well to describe me, grown-up is not a word that would spring from their mouths. But I'm growing up very nicely now."
The next day, on the downtown Los Angeles set of Rosie O'Neill, it's a different-looking Sharon Gless waiting inside her trailer dressing room. Today, she looks less like a relaxed California beach-dweller and more like the consummate career woman her character is. Her hair and makeup are perfect. She's wearing Rosie's tailored, eggplant-colored gabardine suit with scalloped lapels, and he feet are encased in a pair of high heels."
An assistant wanders in eating a Dove-Bar and Gless eyes the ice cream treat longingly. "I wear between a size eight and a size ten, depending on what I ate over the weekend," she says. Although she has battled weight problems in the past, the actress now looks enviably slim, but admits she has to work at it. "It's hard for me to put on a bathing suit," Gless says. "I don't like my body. Time is not kind, but that's okay with me. I don't do roles where I have to take off all my clothes."
In the role of Rosie, Gless is always dressed, of course (and smartly so) and it's clear she's giving the series her all. "I want this show to be successful," she says, "but if people don't love her like I do, then I have a Plan B. That's really my philosphy-you should always have another plan so you don't fall apart if something bad happens." And what is Plan B? Gless smiles mysteriously and won't elaborate-though she does offer a clarification. "My philosophy applies only to work, by the way. Because, when it comes to Barney and me, there's only Plan A. I don't want a Plan B."
As she gets ready to shoot a scene, it's clear that, to Gless, Rosie O'Neill and her creator, Barney Rosenzweig, are the new focus of her life-her problems with alcohol are ancient history as far as she's concerned. "I'll say this for sobriety; I'm truly happy," says Gless. "Happy for the first time in my life. That's really big news to me."
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