Excitement is building over the pilot for cop series reboot Cagney & Lacey, which is set to star Grey Anatomy’s Sarah Drew as Christine Cagney and Blindspot’s Michelle Hurd as Mary Beth Lacey, a pair of New York City police detectives who couldn’t be more different. One of the people feeling that excitement is actress Sharon Gless, who played Cagney against Tyne Daly’s Lacey in the original series from the 1980s.

“First of all, imitation is the highest form of flattery, so it’s quite flattering if they want to do it again,” Sharon says in this exclusive chat from her Florida home. “It’s certainly time. I haven’t seen any of what they’re doing, but my feeling is that if you do Cagney & Lacey in this day and age, you could make it much darker than we were allowed to in the ‘80s. You know, really show the challenges of being a policeman. Some of them don’t come back, and it would be an opportunity for them to really go dark. So I’m very anxious to see what they’re going to do and I wish them well. I have to — they’re playing our namesakes.

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“They say the show changed the history of television for women,” she adds regarding the original. “There had never been a show starring two women in a dramatic format. We had Lucy and Ethel, and we had Laverne and Shirley, who were fantastic. But no one had ever really taken women seriously on television as a partner team. And it doesn’t get much darker than the police force. Just judging from the mail that we got, women had been waiting for something like that to let people know that, yes, we have a choice. Yes, we are strong. Yes, we can do this. It was quite sensational in its day. There were certain affiliate stations that would not have us on their network, because of the nature of the episodes we were writing. It was daring in its own way; emotionally daring. And it made a difference. Not only did it change most women’s lives in television, it changed the history for women in its day. It changed Tyne’s life. It changed my life.”

Sharon’s early days.

That life began on May 31, 1943, in Los Angeles, when Sharon Marguerite Gless was born. In her early career days, she worked as a secretary for the advertising agencies Grey Advertising and Young & Rubicam, as well as the Sassafras Films and General Film Corporation independent movie companies. She also began taking acting lessons, and in 1974 was signed to Universal Studios for a 10-year contract (she was actually the last of the so-called “contract players”), that saw her moving from production to production at the studio. Her first regular gig was as the character Kathleen Faverty on the Robert Young/James Brolin series Marcus Welby, M.D., which she appeared on from 1974-76.

“The idea,” Sharon laughs, “was that they wanted James Brolin’s character to settle down with a girl and get married. Well, there was no chemistry between Jim and me. None. There was nothing going on between us. I knew it and I’m sure he knew it, so they fired me and brought in another girl who was more the look, you know? Brown hair down to her waist, I had short, short blonde hair and just wasn’t his type at all. So they brought in this girl, they get married on the show and I get fired. But that show was great; it was both my first series and it got me my Screen Actor’s Guild Card. And even though I failed with James Brolin and didn’t become his TV wife, it was a far better thing for me, because I went on and starred with Robert Wagner and Eddie Albert in Switch.”

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That show, about a couple of conmen solving crimes (think of it as a small screen version of the Paul Newman/Robert Redford movie The Sting), ran from 1975-78 (she appeared on Marcus Welby during that time as well). “Those guys were so good to me and taught me so much; Robert and I are still very close friends. At one point when we were making Switch, Robert told me, ‘Sharon, now that you’re on my show, you stop doing guest spots.’ I said, ‘Okay, why?’ He said, ‘Because you have a show now. I know this is Eddie’s and my show, but it’s your show, too. You’re a regular. People love you on this show, and I don’t want you doing guest spots anymore. You wait until you get your own series now.’ And I did what he said.”

She starred in a number of TV movies, and was actually offered the part of Christine Cagney in the 1981 Cagney & Lacey TV movie. “Not that I could have done it anyway, because of the Universal contract, but I turned it down,” she reflects.

We now return to Cagney & Lacey already in progress.

That TV movie starred MASH‘s Loretta Swit as Cagney alongside Tyne as Lacey. It was such a ratings success that CBS decided to go to series. Loretta could not get out of her MASH contract to do so, so she had to drop out. Sharon was offered the part for the show, but was, at that time, a part of the medical sitcom House Calls, replacing the departing Lynn Redgrave for the final season. So actress Meg Foster was cast as Cagney for what would ultimately be six episodes shot, but the decision was made to recast Meg’s part.

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“Apparently they felt that the portrayals were too similar between Tyne and Meg,” says Sharon. “And then some creep in TV Guide called them d—s or something. Believe me, neither of them were lesbians, though it wouldn’t matter if they were. That was just a lousy thing to criticize somebody for.”

For the show’s second season, Sharon was once again approached and initially just wasn’t interested. Her desire was to break into film, but she was persuaded by the people she trusted to have a meeting about the series.

Taking on the role of Christine Cagney, Sharon says she studied what had previously been shot and took away quite a bit. “I saw what was going on between Meg and Tyne, and they had a tendency to check with each other. Like, if Tyne put her hands across her chest, then Meg would. I don’t even think they realized it. So I just told Tyne, ‘I’m probably going to put my hands in my pockets every time you cross your chest. I want to start getting some body language where we’re totally different people.’ And she was cool about it, and two separate characters emerged. It was as simple as that in the beginning. And emotionally, of course, they became very different. And then Tyne came over to my house and did reading with me of the script. Most generous actress, and when we went to do the script reading with the rest of the cast, whom I had not met yet, it was scary for me, but Tyne and I were on point. We were stellar, and they were all sitting there with their mouths hanging open. They didn’t know we’d done it five times privately. And it was her idea!

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“Tyne didn’t want to lose Meg; she adored her. They were very close, but she stepped up. She’s a dear friend and she just paved the way for me to create what I needed to do to keep the show going. And I remember after we premiered, some critic referred to me as coming from the Copacabana School of acting with ‘blonde curls and the t—s.’ So I wore a minimizer, because I wasn’t going to have someone call me the blonde with the t—s. I mean, we had all that to go up against, you know?”

And the Emmy goes to…

Well, obviously somebody noticed what they were doing, particularly when you consider that no other woman won the Emmy for dramatic actress while Cagney & Lacey was on the air. Tyne took home the award from 1983-85, Sharon did so from 1986-87, and Tyne came back in 1988. It should also be noted that in each of those years, both actresses were nominated, the power of their performances coming from the fact that the characters were so diametrically opposed. Cagney was focused on little more than her career, while Lacey was a married working mother. They worked well together, battling perps and sexism in the 14th Precinct, but they were never, despite how people may remember it, best friends. Far from it.

“Not by any means,” Sharon notes, “but their lives depended on each other. The way we played it, Christine Cagney would never hang out at Mary Beth’s house. What’s she care about her children? Christine was a ball-busting cop. And often didn’t follow the rules, you know? She was trouble. And Mary Beth never hung out at Christine’s apartment. They were just so different. Barney [Rosenzweig, executive producer and eventually her husband] used to impress upon us they were not best friends. They were closer than that; their lives depended one each other. They could read each other’s signals, they respected each other and one always had the other one’s back. Always. They just didn’t hang out after work… Although there were a couple of drunk scenes for them, which were classic. But even then, in those scenes, you see how different they are, and yet you love them. You love them together.”

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And just because they were not best friends, didn’t mean that they didn’t talk about what was going on in their lives. “Christine was an alcoholic, her father was an alcoholic, and she just didn’t take well to taking orders,” notes Sharon. “It was, again, the first cop show where the two leads talked about their personal life. Then came NYPD Blue where they used that format again, where the two men started talking about their personal lives. But Cagney & Lacey created that, where it’s not just all about the caper. It’s about what’s going on at home and how are Lacey’s kids. Something as slight as that, but it affects your day.

“Real cops have that. In one episode, Cagney thought she was pregnant, in another Mary Beth Lacey hands her son a condom — the first time a condom was ever shown on television. We did an abortion show that wasn’t shown on a lot of affiliate stations. So I think we sort of covered the gamut as far as personal stuff that went on. And for the personal stuff, we had the ‘Jane’ so that we could talk and get away from the men. At the same time, we tried to make a point of not making the men the bad guys, because that gets to be a bore real fast. And we were too smart to do that.”

Leaving Cagney & Lacey behind… for a little while.

Cagney & Lacey remained on the air for a total of 119 episodes that ran between 1982 and 1988, covering a lot of dramatic territory. Two years later, Barney created a new show for Sharon called The Trials of Rosie O’Neill, which saw her as the title character, a private attorney who becomes a public defender for L.A. County following her divorce.

“At first Barney didn’t want to work with me, because by then we were seeing each other personally,” Sharon explains. “He said, ‘I don’t want to come home and tell you how fat you looked in dailies. But we did and he put the show together. When we first came out, it was voted the number one series and was highest-rated and all of that. But they changed our time slot, I think, six times. The other problem might have been that she was totally different from Cagney. Maybe the audience wanted some piss and vinegar back, but I was trying to make her as different from Cagney as possible. Cagney was actually conservative; she was a Republican and a cop. And Rosie was a Democrat. Whatever it was, it just didn’t take off the way that Cagney & Lacey did.”

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From The Trials of Rosie O’Neill, Sharon traveled to the London stage to star as uber fan Annie Wilkes alongside Scottish actor Bill Patterson as novelist Paul Sheldon in the West End production of Stephen King’s Misery. When that ended, she was recruited back as Christine Cagney in a quartet of 1994-96 reunion TV movies that brought her back together with Tyne.

“I’d just come from London playing Misery on stage,” she reflects, “and I had put a lot of weight on for the role of Annie Wilkes. They said they would build me a fat suit and I said, ‘No, that’s alright.’ I’d just gone into menopause and given up smoking and drinking, and I was ready to be a crazy woman. So I ate my way to the 40 pounds I put on. Then I had to check into a fat farm to get ready to bring Cagney back. So I didn’t look as well as I should have, but the part that bothered me is that they had Cagney married; it was seven years later.”

She lets this sink in for a moment before proclaiming, “You can’t marry Christine Cagney! She’s not steady enough. She’s smart, but she’s not emotionally committed to anything but the force. Then Barney said, ‘I didn’t say it would last.’ So I had to start out the first film with Christine Cagney married to some big Washington attorney… Fortunately, she caught him in bed and walked out and that was the end of that.”

The films did extremely well in the ratings, but the head of CBS, Les Moonves (who came in after the films had been green lit) decided not to go with any additional installments. “He admitted that he never really liked Cagney & Lacey,” she says. “He didn’t help us do anything to promote them, but they still got high numbers. All four of them. So he sort of killed the franchise. He liked them younger.”

Going the mom route.

As her career moved on, Sharon found herself beginning to be cast as moms on TV series, a type of role she was reluctant to do. However, she scored big time as Debbie Novotny on the US version of Queer as Folk, appearing in 79 episodes of the show as the biological mom to Michael (Hal Sparks), and a spiritual mom to the rest of the cast. Some people tried dissuading her from the part, emphasizing that there wasn’t real money and that the Showtime series would shoot in Canada.

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She smiles, “I said, ‘I don’t care about the money, and I don’t care where it shoots. I know I’m right for this part.’ I was nervous about my size, and they wouldn’t have been interested in me if I looked like Christine Cagney. I didn’t. The show changed my life the way Cagney & Lacey did. I wasn’t really a feminist until I did that show. I never had any ax to grind with men. Unless in my industry a man wanted my job or wanted to wear a dress, well then it was an issue. Do you know what I’m saying? In that day and age in my life, I didn’t have any anger about it, I was doing just fine. But I’ve learned from everything I’ve done. So now I get on Queer as Folk, and you know the old joke: most of my friends are gay? Well, that’s true. But I didn’t understand the pain. I didn’t understand the problems, really. There was just a lot I didn’t understand besides gay boys make the best girlfriends. Which is the truth. So I learned so much playing Debbie. Both of those shows opened my eyes to what I had a lot to fight for. So to this day I’m an advocate for all gay causes. And for women. And it’s because of those two shows.”

Burn Notice was her next series, playing Madeline Westen, mother to the show’s lead, Michael (Jeffrey Donovan), a blacklisted spy who works as a private investigator in Miami as he tries to uncover how he became blacklisted. Sharon, who was already living in Florida, took the part, figuring she would only be in a few scenes and it would be over.

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“I didn’t tell them I lived there,” she laughs, “because I wanted to stay at the hotel during the pilot with everybody so I could get to know them. But then, damn, it sold, so I had confessed that I have a home there. So that worked out perfectly. I got to live at home, and got a beautiful seven year run on that show.”

The series ran from 2007-2013, and after it, Sharon appeared in five episodes of Nip/Tuck, brought on by Ryan Murphy following a 30th Anniversary reunion of Cagney & Lacey held on The View. That role saw her nominated for an Emmy in the category of Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series.

And she hasn’t stopped working. She’s had recurring roles on the shows The Exorcist, The Gifted, and the BBC’s Casualty — though she did turn down the Broadway production of Misery (which subsequently led to Laurie Metcalfe playing Annie Wilkes).

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“When we were in London, the producer met me in the hotel and said, ‘Will you be interested in taking this to New York?’ I said, ‘No’,” Sharon details. “I said, ‘Kathy Bates created it in the motion picture, and Kathy Bates is a multi-Tony Award-winning actress in our country. They will have me for lunch if I try to bring this to New York.’ I even asked them why they didn’t want Kathy Bates for the West End production, and I was told, ‘Because we want you.’ At the time, Cagney & Lacey was a bigger series in London than it ever was in the United States. In fact, their show Prime Suspect was written as an homage to us. Lynda La Plante, who wrote Prime Suspect, took me to lunch one day and told me that. So when her show won for the first time in London, they flew me over to give her the award.”

She has no intention of slowing down.

And even with all of this, there is simply no signs of Sharon retiring anytime soon. Besides acting, she is currently writing a memoir on her life (which will be published by Simon & Schuster), the process of which has allowed her to tap into everything that she’s been through, from aspiring actress to Cagney & Lacey and everything that has followed.

“I just feel very blessed,” Sharon offers. “I’ve wanted to do this since I was six years old, but it was frowned upon. Born and raised in Hancock Park, one just didn’t perform where I came from, you know? But it just happened the way it was supposed to. There was one woman in my life without whom I would not be talking with you. Her name was Monique James, the first Vice-President of MCA; she was the head of talent at Universal Studios. She saw something in me. She never told me what it was. She said, ‘If I tell you, you’ll become aware of it.’ But she signed me to a contract with no experience. Then Monique left and became my manager. My only manager for 20 years, and she guided my career. I’d be afraid, but I’d just do whatever she told me. I play the tough parts, but I’ve always had smart, smart people behind me who would push me forward.”

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There is one final thought that she wants to share, and it has to do with this year’s Academy Awards. “All my life, I sat in front of the little TV that we had,” she reflects, “and I watched the Oscars every year. My little heart would get so excited, and where I lived in Hancock Park you could see the lights in the sky from the Hollywood Theater. Now I’ve made my career in television. I’ve done a few features, but none that people remember. But this year, I got into the Motion Picture Academy. It was the only thing that was on my bucket list, and I got in by the skin of my nose. And they wrote a little article saying the reason I was chosen is because of my contribution to the industry throughout my television years.”

She smiles with genuine joy before adding, “So for the very first time, I voted for the Oscars. And when I watched them, every time that an actor would say, ‘And my thanks to the Academy,’ I’d raise my hand and say, ‘You’re welcome.'”