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Sharon Gless shares work and family stories in her new memoir


This is how actress Sharon Gless describes the character she played in the 1980s TV hit "Cagney & Lacey," Detective Christine Cagney.

SHARON GLESS: She was difficult. She was selfish. And those are the good things.


MARTIN: And with that, I knew this interview was going to be a good time even though the subject material was sometimes tough. Feeling abandoned by her family as a child, fighting loneliness and a drinking problem - Sharon Gless lays it all out in her new memoir. It's called "Apparently There Were Complaints." Now, if you grew up watching "Cagney & Lacey" like me, you're probably already way into this conversation. But for the uninitiated, let me just say, "Cagney & Lacey" was a huge deal. Sure, there were women headlining TV shows at the time. But those characters weren't really fully formed human beings. And they definitely weren't big time cops.

GLESS: We dealt with issues like abortion, physical, sexual abuse, alcoholism, cancer, breast cancer. We were the first show to ever introduce the possibility of a lumpectomy, removing the breast.

MARTIN: But you weren't that into this role. And it was a big break for you. It would've been considered a big break for you at the time. But you had to be convinced.

GLESS: Yes. I had just done a pilot where I played a cop. And it didn't sell. And I just didn't want to go around carrying a gun. But actors, you're not always the best judges of material. So I was convinced to get on board. And it's the luckiest, happiest decision I ever made. We had the writing. They gave us the material. And in those days, nobody was writing for women.

MARTIN: So it was a man who was behind all this, though, a man you know well, Barney Rosenzweig.

GLESS: I married him.

MARTIN: Yeah. You married him. He was married. You were in a relationship. And he was your boss.

GLESS: All of the above. We defied all odds. But it was very painful at the time. The press had their day with me. And I ended up in rehab. So (laughter) there was all kinds of things going on. But I have no regrets.

MARTIN: It is interesting - for people who didn't know the story - how the revelation of your own alcoholism came in the wake of playing Christine Cagney's alcoholism.

GLESS: I had given an interview to somebody who said, do you know that Christine Cagney has all the attributes of an adult child of an alcoholic. And I said, well, Charlie Cagney, my father, is an alcoholic. He said, but you, Sharon, playing Cagney, you have all of those symptoms. So I went to Barney. I said, do you know that Cagney has all the attributes of the adult child of an alcoholic? He said, honey, you're the one playing it.


GLESS: We didn't write it in. Cagney's just always a little loaded. But it was always done for fun. And he said, do you want to explore it? And I said, OK. I had no idea what would be presented to me. I was called into his office. And he said, here it is. And he said to his writers at the end of Season 4 - he said, I have the last line of Season 5 for all of you. And you have a whole 22 episodes to get to that last line. And they said, what is it? And he said, my name is Christine, and I'm an alcoholic.

MARTIN: How did you get to the point where the line coming out of your mouth is, I'm Sharon Gless, and I'm an alcoholic?

GLESS: That was really, really hard. My agent, Ernie Meyer (ph), took me to dinner one night. And he said, when do you wrap "Cagney & Lacey"? I said - I remember - April 13, I said. He said, good. On April 14, you're going to Betty Ford. I said, what are you talking about? He says, Sharon, I think you're an alcoholic. I didn't know what he was talking about. I had four martinis lined up in front of me - empty ones. So I think he asked the waiter, when she's finished with it, don't remove her glass. Stopped drinking for 15 years. And I don't mean to be a saint because then I started again. But now I'm sober. And it's been eight years almost.

MARTIN: Congratulations.

GLESS: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: Yeah. That's work. I want to ask you about "Queer As Folk" because it is so clear from the book that you loved that opportunity to play Debbie Novotny.

GLESS: Oh, I went after that role. When I met the producers, Ron Cowen and Dan Lipman, we had the best meeting.

MARTIN: Before you met them, you sent word to them - sent a message saying, hey, just checking. You know what I look like now? Is that right?

GLESS: I didn't think they knew what I looked like. And I didn't want there to be any surprises, any unpleasantness.

MARTIN: Explain what that meant.

GLESS: Seeing the scale at almost 200 pounds. And I thought they should know. I didn't want to just walk in and have them go, oh, boy. Hi. They said, yes. We know what you look like. And it's your heart we want. They brought me back to life because I hadn't worked in four or five years. And they brought me back with Debbie Novotny. And Debbie Novotny changed me. And my best friends were gay. But I knew nothing about the plight of the gay community until I did that show. And I'm so blessed. I'm there for them anytime. It taught me so, so much.

MARTIN: If you'll permit me another question about the physical stuff - you know, you are really honest in the book about how you dealt with your weight ever since you were a kid, really, and pressures coming from family and the industry. How did you deal with all that garbage (laughter) that gets thrown at women, and older women especially, about how you look?

GLESS: I don't know if I dealt with it very well. My feelings would get hurt. I just learned to live with it. And I entered an industry where, you know, thin is revered.

MARTIN: Gless writes about those pressures in the book and a lot of other very specific stories from what it was like to grow up in a Hollywood movie business family, her failed relationships and struggle with sobriety. Some are told with so much detail, I asked if she'd kept journals that helped her reconstruct it all.

GLESS: You never forget the times you've disappointed people. And I was one of those people pleasers. You know, as a child, I just, everybody - you just want to be loved. My grandparents were tough, but thank you, God, because so am I. Now, I'm not unkind ever. I have good stuff in here. And I can survive it all.

(SOUNDBITE OF INWARD OCEANS' "LOOSE BREATH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.