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In 2021, it wouldn't be such a big deal for audiences to see a lead TV character who's an alcoholic, but in the '80s, when actress Sharon Gless played Detective Christine Cagney on the hit drama Cagney & Lacey, it shocked.
"It's the first time in a dramatic series that any lead had ever fallen from grace. It was very dramatic, and ... we had reactions to that," Gless tells Yahoo Entertainment. "Mothers writing in, saying that, 'I've asked my children to watch it, so that they understand about this disease.' Teenagers would write in, saying, 'I want my father to watch it, because he's [a] drunk.' And we did research, and men were always considered amusing when they were drunk. Women were an embarrassment. Anyway, we did it, and I did get the Emmy for that one."
Gless won one of two Emmy Awards for her performance on the show, which aired from 1981 to 1988, in the year they dealt with alcoholism.
But, as it turned out, playing an alcoholic wasn't that much of a stretch for her. She later realized that she herself had a drinking problem and checked into rehab. She stayed sober for 15 years before she began drinking again, and she's now logged almost eight years sober, she told NPR this week.
"I also had the disease of alcoholism, but I didn't know it at the time," Gless tells Yahoo. "When I played those roles and I played Christine, I just thought I was a social drinker ... with blackouts. And it was at the end of shooting all of the Cagney & Laceys that I went into rehab.”
In all, the police drama won 14 Emmys, including trophies for Gless as best actress in a drama in 1986 and 1987, and it was nominated for 37.
While Cagney & Lacey was lauded for dealing with some of those subjects that others wouldn't touch, which also included abortion and breast cancer, it was criticized as well. Some stations refused to air certain episodes. And some critics picked Gless's acting apart; she notes that they were always men.
Still, Gless said she's "very proud" of the team's work. She writes about her experiences on that show and elsewhere in her new memoir, Apparently There Were Complaints.
"It was totally unconventional, but so's my life been," she says. "I just feel very privileged to have been on it."
—Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by Jimmie Rhee