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Sharon Gless on her groundbreaking roles in 'Cagney & Lacey' and 'Queer as Folk'

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Actress Sharon Gless looks back on her career and reflects on the legacy of Cagney & Lacey, in particular the show's in-depth portrayal of her character's struggle with alcoholism. She also talks about why she's proud to have worked on Queer as Folk and why that show was so important.

Video Transcript

SHARON GLESS: You have the right to remain silent. If you give up the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be held against you in a court of law.

We had no idea it was going to become what it was. When we started, there never been a serious dramatic series starring two women. There had been comedies, you know, Lucy and Ethel and Laverne and Shirley. This was the first time in which two women starred in a heavy drama.

We dealt with subjects that had never been dealt with before on television. Abortion cancer-- breast cancer, one of the lead characters had breast cancer. Alcoholism, child abuse, there were several episodes that some affiliate stations would not air. It was totally unconventional, but so has my life been, so I just feel very privileged to have been on it.

What happened to your hand?

- Your partner was injured in the line of duty, Sergeant.

- Lacey saved a baby.

- Seconds before a gas tank explodes.

SHARON GLESS: Are you all right?

- Couldn't be better.

- Took a lot of guts, Lacey.

SHARON GLESS: It was always male critics who slammed us. They didn't get it. I asked Tyne once, I said, "Who's the enemy here?" She said, "Fear." One critic said the blonde is from the Copacabana school of acting. That's the most offensive thing I think anybody's ever said to me. But a friend of mine and fellow actor came down to visit me and had a diploma made from the Copacabana school of acting. There you go. I hung it my trailer for six years.

- Christine, I love you and I don't want to lose you.

- I loved him too.

SHARON GLESS: I had always told Bernie I didn't want Cagney to ever be a victim. I didn't want episodes like that where it's poor Cag. She was always a drinker through all the previous years. She always had a drink in her hand socially and we had this gag running where Mary Beth would have aspirin in her hand every morning and Cagney walks in, it's just understood she needed them. But we made a joke out of it.

Barney had a meeting with the writers towards the end of season four and he said, "I'm going to give you the last scene of the last episode of season five, and you write the last line." Christine and Mary Beth, you're in a room close up on the two of them alone and at the end Christine stands up and says--

My name is Christine. I am an alcoholic.

It's the first time in a dramatic series that any lead had ever fallen from grace. It was very dramatic and the script the two-parter that he wrote where you see the scenes that you usually don't see-- her in the apartment, the stuff that's been going on for years and nobody saw it. It was beautifully written and I eventually said, "OK, I'll do it."

We had reactions to that. Mothers writing in saying, I've asked my children to watch it so they understand about this disease. Teenagers would write in and say, 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. I'm very proud of that work. And I'm proud that we brought that to the fore. And I also had the disease of alcoholism, but I didn't know it at the time. When I played those roles, when 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 and Laceys" that I went into rehab.

- Would you like some whipped cream with that?

- Stay away from that onion, honey. Especially if you two are planning on going at it all night.

- Mom, what are you doing here?

- Trying to pay my bills. Got a problem with that?

SHARON GLESS: Someone sneaked me the script, and I called up Showtime, and I said, "I want that role."

She says, "You don't want this role, Sharon. It shoots in Canada."

I said, "I want to go to Canada."

"You don't want this role. It doesn't pay any money."

"I don't care."

And the head of Showtime called me up, and he said, "Sharon I love the idea, I think you'll add a little class to the project."

I said, "Jerry, class is not what I had in mind."

When I played Debbie Novotny--

- See, I told you we should do this the right way.

- Yeah, instead of running off without telling your mother.

SHARON GLESS: It changed the world for gays. They'd never been represented on television. In a comedic way, perhaps, but never seriously. It was a very courageous show. And I had a gay boy write me saying thank you for your show, it didn't appear in time for my best friend who committed suicide, because we didn't have a "Queer as Folk," but I'm still here, and thank you so much for talking about us and letting people know we exist. Who gets to do these kind of TV series? I do.

I believe that I have one more series in me, but I've spent the last seven years writing that book. Took me seven years to do it. And so, that's what I've been doing. But I feel work coming again for me. Yeah, this profession, I've been in love with it all my life, and I've been fortunate enough to have been kept working, and I say I have one more in me.