Exclusive: Sharon Gless talks Cagney & Lacey and more in new memoir

Sharon Gless
Sharon Gless writes a revealing new memoir that is a page-turner. Pic credit: Simon & Schuster

Award-winning actor Sharon Gless is finally telling her story, and the reveals run the spectrum of heartwarming to heartbreaking.

Gless was a no-nonsense, sexy broad, back when the word “broad’ meant a woman could curse, joke, drink, and laugh with the best of any man.

And Gless had that unpretentious charm despite her natural Southern California blonde beauty. She was always authentic in any role she took on, and because of that, her characters still live on and are memorable.

Notably, Christine Cagney, a tough NY police detective who eventually had a drinking problem the show dealt with in the script. But many fans didn’t know she was living the role in real life as well.

Earning multiple Emmy Awards and others, Gless proves herself to be a natural storyteller in her new memoir, Apparently There Were Complaints (out December 7, 2021 via Simon & Schuster). Gless penned a profoundly revealing and page-turning memoir that showed what being an actor was like before #metoo and before the contract player system had fully disappeared.

She was well-born, her grandfather a top Hollywood attorney, and wealthy. Her family were tight-knit Catholics living in LA’s old-money enclave of Hancock Park as Gless went to excellent schools and even had a high society debut.

But that halcyon description obfuscates the truth that Gless and her siblings were living by the generosity of her maternal grandparents. There were strings.

As an actor, Gless breathed life and earned fans with her character Christine Cagney, paired with Tyne Daly as Mary Beth Lacey, her cop partner.

Then Gless took on Debbie Novotny, the mom extraordinaire for Michael on Showtime’s groundbreaking Queer As Folk. And for USA Network, she was another great mother to Jeffrey Donovan in Burn Notice, her longest-running TV series.

Fans know that Gless never shied away from the stage and did radio and theatre productions in London and New York. She was so popular in the UK that Prince Charles had a bit of a gushy fan moment with her at a meet and greet.

Love eventually found Gless, whose circuitous path in romance led her to her Cagney & Lacey producer, Barney Rosenzweig. Like any great love story, it was messy, complicated, at times perilously close to collapse, and ultimately their relationship became her life’s anchor and big success story.

Exclusive interview with Sharon Gless

Monsters & Critics: In a roundabout way, your memoir was very romantic. You had a rough patch in your marriage and yet hung in there and did not divorce Barney Rosenzweig. Did you get that tenacity from your grandmother Grimmy?

Sharon Gless: Wow, thank you. I guess so. Divorce just seemed so messy and so upsetting for everybody. I just hung in. As you read in my book, I disappeared. I went up to Canada and did a series for five years.

I kept myself busy through all of the turmoil. If you wait around long enough—I don’t mean you stop caring because I never stopped caring, but you stop being so upset, and you stop all the fighting—eventually, you find your way back. But there was so much divorce in my family.

M&C: That colored so much of what I read in your memoir. Your father, the way he left your mother, left a mark on you.

Sharon Gless: I know. And also, my mother is the one who had to ask for the divorce, finally. But it was difficult because my family was Catholic, and both sets of my grandparents were divorced, and my parents.

So, I’d never seen a good marriage. So, it took me a long time to finally say yes. And, even with all of the turmoil and all the pain and everything, through five years of that. Work kept me very busy, as I went off and did Queer As Folk, and I just couldn’t go through what the divvy of the spoils and the thing and the thing. And eventually, we found our way back.

M&C: It speaks a lot to your character.

Sharon Gless: It’s true. Very few people ever mentioned that part of the book, and I’m thrilled you liked it. Thank you.

The chapter about my wanting to go through the divorce was the chapter that got me this book deal with Simon and Schuster. That was the only chapter I’d ever written, and when I finally met the editor, that’s the one I had on me, and I read it to him, part of it’s funny.

And his assistant [was reading it] down the hall started laughing out loud, even though some of it was sad. And that’s when he said; you got a deal.

M&C: You’ve done the mother role so, well, whether it was a demented mother-figure, like Annie Wilkes on stage and for TV, Queer As Folk and especially Burn Notice. The chemistry with you and Jeffrey Donovan was superb.

Sharon Gless: Thank you so much. What’s interesting, April, you’re touching on things that most people don’t even comment on, and I am loving this. Thank you so much for noticing. It was a wonderful show for me. It’s the longest-running series I’ve ever done, seven years. Yes. And we were offered an eight-year, but Jeffrey [Donovan] was burned out.

Gless discusses Madeline, Jeffrey Donovan’s “mother.”

M&C: I keep hoping that you two are going to turn up again and that someone’s going to option a book or a play or something, and you two turn up together again.

Sharon Gless: I would love the privilege of working with him again. Jeffrey Donovan was a dream, and he always showed up. And even though he was practically in every scene, he didn’t ever let me down, you know?

There was one time when he was just so exhausted and kind of burned out. And I went to his trailer at lunch, and I knocked on the door, and he and I had a big scene coming up right after lunch. And I said, ‘I’m inviting you to come out and play with me. Come on, come on.’ He said, ‘Okay, mama, sorry.’ I said, ‘it’s okay, baby, I get it.’ He always rose to the occasion.

M&C: You do well when paired with brilliant people like Donovan and Tyne Daly.

Sharon Gless: Aren’t I fortunate?

M&C: You were in the business when you were the last contract player, and you’ve observed it go through a tremendous upheaval with #metoo. And you didn’t have horror stories.

Sharon Gless: Exactly. I did not. I mean, I should be offended. Nobody was making passes [at me]. I’ve been very blessed; even if somebody would suggest that they were attracted to me, I’d always say, ‘that’s the nicest thing anybody said to me today. Thank you.’

And that’s how you handle it. Nobody ever laid a hand on me. And if they did, it was a compliment. But I never ran across mashers like I know many women in my industry had suffered.

M&C: You were fortunate. You had a lot of strong, intelligent women around you, like Monique James, Pat Kingsley, who was a lioness. A lot of layers of fierce female energy around you in a time when that was where it was more the exception.

Sharon Gless: No kidding! Very rare. In Pat’s case, she didn’t handle television people. She only handled motion picture people. And when she saw Cagney & Lacey, she called Monique James, who was equally as strong, and said she wanted to handle me. I loved her, and she built that company. So I’ve been very blessed to be surrounded by a lot of strong women. And I hope always to emulate them.

M&C: In your memoir, there were some hair-raising moments for me. Specifically about Abigail Folger, your friend from boarding school, and then finding out that she was murdered the way she was. And I remember those times vividly as I’m sure you do, when you heard the news, what happened?

Sharon Gless: I’m kind of ashamed of my reaction. I didn’t even want to put that in the book because I thought it was name-dropping, and I didn’t feel the necessity to do that.

I put it in a book because it set a timeframe. Because everybody remembers when the Manson murders happened, everybody knows where they were. And, it was a time in our life that was horrifying.

And I put it in for that reason. A part of me was reticent to do it because it looked like I was name-dropping. And that isn’t why I did it. But Abigail was my roommate at one time in high school, and she was an extraordinary woman.

And I was sort of proud of the way that I did it because I was able to tell the audience who didn’t know who I was talking about, about how talented she was and how smart she was and how kind she was, and how modest she was.

I mean, she was the coffee heiress of our country. I felt good about how I introduced it because she and I had the similarity of our parents, both going through divorces, which was very rare with Catholics.

And we were in a Dominican convent school together. So I thought the interesting way to introduce her and finally tell of whom I was speaking was that Abigail was so kind, and she was kind enough to say hello to those people who took her life.

There is part of me that is not proud that I put that in there, but I thought it set a time in my life and everybody’s life, or they knew the era I was talking about, and how did I respond? I’m ashamed of my response because I became frightened. I was born and raised in LA. And those murders happened in Los Angeles, and Abigail was from San Francisco, I couldn’t make sense of it.

And my immediate reaction watching the news was, first of all, obviously, I was very upset. But then fear, who were they going after? Questions of why, why, why? And then you think, gosh, that could have been me.

Abigail Folger was the smartest in our class, and she was an extraordinary young woman. God rest her soul.

M&C: When I read your memoir, I felt like you claimed the McCarthy side more than the Gless, the Irish side of you. One when I read that memoir, is that true or not?

Sharon Gless: Well, my grandfather was a McCarthy. But my father, his mother’s name was Nellie Dugan. So I had the Irish on both sides of me.

But my last name [Gless] is Basque. So I claimed the McCarthy side more because that grandmother, my Grimmy, formed and shaped my life.

That’s where the major complaints came from, and they were from her. I loved her dearly, but when somebody holds the purse strings like that, there’s tremendous power that goes with it.

But at the time, I didn’t understand what all of the complaints were about me. I mean, there were 19 grandchildren, and she said, ‘I know I’m hard on you.’ She said that it was because I was her favorite.

And I was maybe in my young twenties at the time, but I thought just don’t love me so much. But I am grateful, because it got me to perform, and man, I danced. Did you ever see the movie Anastasia with Ingrid Bergman? There’s a character, the grand-dame, who is played by Helen Hayes. Well, that was my grandmother. If you wanted the physicalization of my grandmother, that that was her.

M&C: I’ve watched many interviews with you over the years. One reporter calls you Sharon Gliss. But Graham Norton’s interviews were the best.

Sharon Gless: The one with Tyne [laughs]! And that interview done on The Graham Norton Show in London airs all the time here in America. Graham was something. That was with Tyne Daly too. [At the time] I said they wanted us to come and do the show. And Tyne said, ‘I didn’t want to do any of these British shows. It’s all toilet humor.’ So I said, ‘no, not at this show. Well, sort of…’

But I love him [Graham Norton].

M&C: You downplay your fashion sense and looks in the memoir a lot, you weren’t a pouty ingenue type, but you did inspire hairstyles and fashion, the long skirts and cropped blazers… that’s back.

Sharon Gless: Thank you. And the men’s jackets! Do you know that I was later asked to play Marilyn [Monroe]? Prominent producer David Susskind was doing the life of Marilyn Monroe. And he had asked me. I told him, ‘You do know that I wear support hose and underwire bras [laughs]. So he said they would help with that.

And that I was Marilyn. And then he died, and I never got a chance to call him up and say, ‘You know, I changed my mind. I’d like to do it.’ So he died before he ever made the mini-series.

M&C: It was refreshing to hear the honesty and the emotional seesaw that you went through and the ambivalency that you went through in your recovery process. How hard is it to maintain your sobriety now? Does it get easier over time?

Sharon Gless: I don’t drink anymore, but there’s not a night when I’m out in public that I wouldn’t like to order a martini. That’s never, ever gone away. I don’t mean I break out in sweats, but still, nothing more beautiful visually to me and nothing more gorgeous than sipping on an ice-cold Hendricks martini, such a beautiful drink.

But gin is pretty unforgiving. And I would only drink gin. So anyway, it won.

M&C: You always have perfect comedic timing. When you were in a humorous moment when you were in any sitcom or drama, even a dramedy, many actors have struggled. They don’t understand timing. They don’t understand absorbing the other actor’s energy and delivering the line, and you have it.

Sharon Gless: Thank you, and that was a lovely, lovely compliment. That means a lot to me, thank you. I don’t know where I got it, but, occasionally it works for me. Thank you.

I’ve always had a sense of humor, so I get it when things are really funny, and if you’re lucky enough to get the material, what I’ll tell you, April, what I loved was doing comedy within a dramatic series.

M&C: Are there any female comics or stand-ups that you enjoy that resonated with you over your career?

Sharon Gless: I loved Joan Rivers. I love Rosie O’Donnell, who is a close friend. And Hannah Gadsby. She’s brilliant.

When I was young, I used to watch Doris Day movies and Carole Lombard movies. Those women had brilliant timing. Doris Day is so underrated. And Irene Dunn! Brilliant. These women were from the forties, and they had it!

Apparently There Were Complaints will be published on December 7, 2021 via Simon & Schuster.

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