Sharon Gless

Published November 23, 2011

Former Cagney And Lacey star Sharon Gless has proved that dreams really can come true by bringing her own racy project to the West End, finds Matthew Amer.

It’s awkward discussing phone sex while conducting a phone interview. My stereotypically British reserve would make it difficult to discuss such saucy shenanigans at the best of times, but talking into a handset in a professional capacity leaves me squirming like an embarrassed eel.

On the other end of the line, American actress Sharon Gless is doing her best to make the experience as painless as possible for me, referring to “that particular part” or “the opening scene” so as to keep my thoughts pure and above the belt.

We’re not just talking around the temptations of telecommunication titillation for fun. When audiences for A Round-Heeled Woman, now playing at the Aldwych theatre, first meet Gless’s character, it is such dialled-up debauchery in which she is indulging.

“Every night I walk out and do it I’m nervous,” she assures me, trying to assuage my guilt for being so prudish. “I always think ‘If I can get through that and the audience doesn’t walk out, we’ll be okay.’”

So far the audience has remained staunchly seated, and the show has done more than okay, receiving such strong reviews and support during its month at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios – which Gless describes as “Beyond my wildest dreams” – that it was invited to transfer to the West End for a Christmas season.

“If I can get through that and the audience doesn’t walk out, we’ll be okay”

“It was always my dream to come to the West End with this,” Gless says of the project in which she is far more than just the leading lady. It was Gless, in fact, who bought the rights to the book by Jane Juska on which the play is based, more than a decade ago.

Legend tells of a blazing row between Gless and her husband, former Cagney And Lacey producer Barney Rosenzweig, after which he thrust a New York Times interview with Juska under Gless’s nose. Gless was so impressed with the story of Juska – who, at the age of 67 placed an advert in the New York Review of Books stating that she “would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like” and received 63 replies – and so angry with her husband that the very next day she instructed her lawyer to purchase the rights.

A year long battle ended with Gless getting her way, but finding that selling the idea as a TV series, even with her connections after decades in the industry, was going to be more problematic than she thought. “In America,” she found, “the thought of an older woman having sex is just a bit ‘Eugh’. What I’ve discovered is I know you guys have the reputation for being very conservative… It’s a great act! You have Julie Walters, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Brenda Blethyn; you have all these amazing older actresses who are so highly sexualised on stage and film. In America ageism is a huge problem.”

So, with the route to TV seemingly blocked by executives who couldn’t see any promise in the story, Gless considered the theatre, aided and abetted by a pair of Brits, writer and director Jane Prowse and producer Brian Eastman.

Following a battering by the San Francisco press, Gless opened the show in Miami, where audiences and reviewers fell in love with the tale of a 67-year-old’s sexual and emotional exploits, prompting the Riverside run and her dream transfer to the Aldwych theatre.

“It was always my dream to come to the West End with this”

“I’m petrified,” Gless admits of bringing the show to the theatre capital of the world. In fact, when she saw the Aldwych for the first time, she “took one look at it and said ‘There’s no way I can fill this, not with this piece.’”

The 1,200-seat venue, previously home to Dirty Dancing and, most recently, Cool Hand Luke, is a big theatre for what is, at heart, an intimate tale dealing not just with the re-discovery of sex but also with long-buried issues once more exposed. To compensate, the venue’s top tier will be closed and cunning drapery will be used to help shrink the auditorium to theatregoers’ eyes.

The transfer of A Round-Heeled Woman means that in January, the West End will actually host an impromptu, unofficial Cagney And Lacey reunion. Gless is due to finish her run on 14 January, with Tyne Daly – Lacey to her Cagney – beginning previews of Master Class one week later. Gless will be spending a couple of extra weeks in London to catch up with her old colleague.

In her 40-year screen career, Gless has had reoccurring roles in 10 different television series, from current hit Burn Notice to the US version of cult hit Queer As Folk and from plastic surgery drama Nip/Tuck to political thriller The State Within, but for all her jobs, Cagney And Lacey is the one that fans remember the most.

Ironically, Gless did not even create the character. She replaced Meg Foster in the role after six episodes. But I suppose six episodes don’t count for much when you go on to film another 119 over a seven-year period. The police drama, she says, was even more popular on this side of the Atlantic than in America, making a lasting impact both for itself and for shows that would follow.

“I don’t think [NYPD Blue] would have existed without Cagney And Lacey. Steve Bochco wrote a story about two male cops who talk about their feelings. Ours was the first series to ever deal with the reality of human feelings; not only the job, but all the stuff that goes with it. My character was an alcoholic; you’d never have done that with a show before that.”

“In America ageism is a huge problem”

Gless grew up in LA amid the glamour and glitz, rough and tumble of Hollywood. “I lived in movie theatres,” she says. “It was my passion. In those days you could stay in the theatre and they wouldn’t ask you to leave. You could come in to the noon show and stay to nine at night. That’s where I learned this was what I wanted to do.” She realised aged just six, when she saw one of her school friends in The Kid From Left Field, but worked elsewhere in the industry until her mid-20s before admitting her ambition. “I didn’t tell anyone, I just went to an acting class. If I failed, then nobody had to know that I tried.”

Far from failing, she went on to become a star, signing a contract with Universal and staying with the studio for 10 years, becoming the last of Hollywood’s contracted stars in the process.

Why did Universal sign her? It is a question she put to the then Head of Talent. “Nothing about you fits,” was the reply. “Your voice doesn’t match your face. The way you dress doesn’t match your walk. But you put it all together and it works.”

My, how it worked. In her decade with Universal she learned all she could from the more experienced actors with which she worked, stars like Telly Savalas, James Garner, Charlton Heston and Bob Newhart. When her contract came to an end, “I walked into a series called Cagney And Lacey.”

That she’s still working now, at a time when roles for more experienced actresses are notoriously hard to come by, speaks volumes, both for her talent and for her desire and love of the profession.

“I hope they let me do it until I can’t do it any more,” she says, which makes me think of Jane Juska, and blush, one last time.

MA