# spedders.com - portfolio item # Stuart Ford, December 2001 include "../../lib.php"; $dn = getdate(); # set title and image here $title = "Sharon Gless (Christine Cagney)"; $image = "sharon-gless"; # do not add jpg file extension PageHead("David Spedding - Portfolio, $title"); TableStart($title,$image); ?>
It could so easily have been so different. When the TV-Movie pilot for Cagney And Lacey first aired in 1981, the role of Christine Cagney was played by Loretta Swit. When the series was then commissioned, Swit's commitment to playing Hot Lips in M*A*S*H meant that the role went to one Meg Foster. When that first series was cancelled after just six episodes (in what would become something of a theme in the show's history), the commissioning people were persuaded to bring it back, but on the proviso that Foster should be replaced by someone 'more feminine'.
Enter one Sharon Gless. Blonde, gorgeous, twinkly-eyed and blessed with the kind of deep-throated cackle that one associates with a '50-Woodbines-before-brekky' habit. She looked angelic, but could speak like a dimestore hooker when the occasion demanded it. That perfect blend of 'Hard-ass toughness' with 'heart-of-goldenness' that would subsequently establish itself as a pre-requisite for any potential shag. In short, she was my perfect boyfriend. But for the chromosomal issues, obviously.
That said, I didn't know anything about shagging at the time. Didn't know much about feminism either, so the notion that an early-80s cop-drama not just featuring, but actually led by two women was - blimey - a bit bloody extraordinary was lost on me. Hindsight making clever buggers of us all, it's only now that you get the chance to pat Sharon Gless on the back for being part of something that managed to achieve mainstream appeal whilst also being quite the envelope-pusher of its time. "Try and find a US drama led by two women today," challenges Gless. "There isn't one. That formula has never been replicated. Mind you," she adds, "If someone had said at the time 'Sharon, how would you like to become a role-model for the 80s?' I'd have run screaming into the night. All I knew was that I'd been given the opportunity to play a real woman. But it wasn't till I saw the response to the show that I realised that Christine was special. And the more permission we were given, the more license we would take."
The one cop-show tradition that had been observed, though, was the teaming of two disparate personalities - guaranteeing conflict within a unit that still had to function as one mind. In the red corner, garrulously cynical, borderline-vampish Christine Cagney; in the blue corner, the salt-of-earth working mother, Mary-Beth Lacey. Christine looked fab - she knew that flicked hair had to look good from all angles, a fundamental truth that had escaped Farrah Fawcett in the previous decade, and she managed to combine on-the-street police-work with nice pastel tops. Mary-Beth, on the other hand, had those popping eyes you normally associate with a thyroid condition, and a voice that sounded like a Duck trying to pass a particularly obstinate stool. "We were like the odd couple," cackles Gless. "Mary Beth was very much a Mother Earth figure: very grounded, a great cop - much healthier than Christine. Christine was a great cop too, but much more complex - very flawed, deeply troubled, but always funny." And looking at that assessment, I think we all know which of the two we'd go drinking with.
Not that Mary-Beth was dull as such. Far from it. But she was the reason my parents (aka The Enemy) tuned into the show on a religious basis. Values all intact, a martyr to her family and - all told - a very good egg. Sod that. I liked the naughty one. The one who - when Cagney and Lacey were approached in a bar by a skulking bloke on the perve - turned round, gave him a look that could wither steel at a thousand paces, and sighed "Oh God, don't tell me this is a straight bar." It wasn't man-hating as such: it was, however, delightfully selective. As would be proven again and again Christine knew a plonker when she saw one, and wasn't afraid to draw everyone's attention to the fact. In as public a manner as possible.
In that respect, the addition of Victor Isbecki to the cast was a stroke of sheer genius. Played by former Charlies Angels and Starsky & Hutch bit-parter Martin Kove, Isbecki was a crap-for-brains meat-head with a frankly fantastic butt (and a fondness for trousers crack-bitingly tight enough to show that he knew it). As far as Christine was concerned, he was just so much fish in a barrel, and her trigger-finger couldn't wait to get busy. "Marty and I are friends in real life, of course," Gless is quick to point out, "but it was so much fun playing with him, because his character was such an asshole."
As the series went on, we learned more and more about Christine. Mary-Beth arrived heart-on-sleeve, with all her priorities and issues pretty much evident from the word go. We met her, we met her family, there was little to add thereafter. Christine, on the other hand, was an unknown quantity: immediately likeable in all her flawed irritability, it took several series for the story behind the character to be revealed. Gless jokes that all it took to play the part was "Talking tough and wearing a lot of pink", but is first to admit that there's so much more to it. "I maintain that I had the great honour of playing one of the most complex, well-written characters in television," she smiles. "She was strong, she kept a lid on her emotions, she never let anything phase her."
That lid was lifted off in later series, when - and we pause to cross off another 'must-have' on the icon checklist - Christine's addictive issues surfaced. The daughter of an alcoholic ex-cop, Christine had always enjoyed a sherry or three, but her descent into the same pattern of self-destruction was one that the producers had never actually planned: however disingenuous it may sound, they saw the tell-tale traits of alcohlic behaviour in Gless' portrayal, and approached her with the idea of exploring that particular avenue. "They told me that the last line of the last episode of the series would be 'My name is Christine and I'm an alcoholic.' I was stunned, but told them that in no way would this be played out as a 'victim'. And she hated AA meetings. We didn't go for the Disney approach on that at all."
It's now two decades since the show first appeared on American screens. It was cancelled three times in its existence, re-instated twice as a result of public outcry. Plainly, there's still the hugest affection for Cagney & Lacey. An internet fansite still exists, the cannily-named Cagney And Lacey Infortainment Terminal. Or, acronymically-speaking, CLIT. "I love that," laughs Gless today. "How great is that? And there's the Cagney and Lacey Appreciation of Series Society in the UK, or CLASS. Clit and class," she chuckles. "No shame in either of those!"
That Gless took it upon herself to contact the makers of Queer As Folk USA and beg for the part of Debbie is evidence enough that the woman's a shrewd judge of what makes for excellent television. Now based in Canada, where she's filming the second, 22-episode series, she still speaks in that voice, she still has exactly the same twinkling eyes, she still looks beautiful. She's still my perfect boyfriend.TableEnd(); ?> PageFoot(); ?>