“Sweat makes good friendship cement,” says Tyne Daly of her relationship with Sharon Gless. The phrase comes from her mother, but Daly admits that it’s a perfect description of the bond that exists between the two actresses, who sweated on screen for six years as Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey.
Thirty years ago, these two trailblazing cops made their debut on US TV and, to mark this anniversary, the BFI is hosting a one-off event on 29 November, where Gless and Daly (along with producer Barney Rosenzweig) will assess the impact of the ground-breaking series.
“Before Cagney and Lacey, we didn’t follow officers home to find out what they did when they took their badges off and emptied their guns,” says Daly. “So the idea that these women also had lives outside of work was really interesting to play.”
“It was because of us that subsequent shows like NYPD Blue were allowed to exist,” reasons Sharon Gless. “That was basically Cagney and Lacey with two men in that it featured male leads who talked about their feelings. NYPD Blue was a great show, but I always thought we did it better. We were the first to have principal characters who were allowed to be vulnerable.”
Cagney and Lacey may now be regarded as genuinely original but, at the time of its inception, American networks felt it a risk to put two female actors centre-stage in a drama.
Says Daly: “It was always OK to have women in comedies. In the half-hour form, you’d get I Love Lucy or The Mary Tyler Moore Show, where a little situation would get set up and be resolved in 30 minutes. But for an hour of dramatic television, they didn’t quite trust that we could be interesting enough. I think we eventually managed to prove them ill-advised on that idea.”
In October 1981, a one-off TV movie aired on CBS starring Daly and M*A*S*H actress Loretta Swit. When the production was picked up for a series, Swit proved unable to reprise the role of Cagney due to commitments to the Korean War-set comedy and Meg Foster was drafted in to replace her.
It was a casting choice that was to prove unpopular with executives: “Not feminine enough,” an unnamed CBS suit told listings magazine TV Guide. Foster was ousted after just three broadcast episodes.
“I felt that we were beginning to hit our rhythm,” says Daly. “I liked Meg and I thought we worked well together, but there were demurs from the top. It was painful to go through that casting process again as it had been hard enough to find Meg.”
As it turns out, producer Barney Rosenzweig had had a certain actress by the name of Sharon Gless in mind from the beginning and was determined to make her his Christine Cagney.
“He’d offered it to me two times before,” reveals Gless. “But actors aren’t always the best judges of material and I’d turned it down. When it came around for the third time, Barney found out that the sitcom I was in – House Calls – had been axed.
“He rang up my agent, Monique James, and said, ‘I’m calling for the third time to ask you to let Sharon Gless play Cagney’. And she said, ‘I told you, Barney, dear, Sharon’s in a series.’ And he said, ‘You wanna bet she’s in a series? She just got cancelled!”
After some cajolement from Daly (“She bought me balloons and champagne to woo me into playing the part. Hey – I’m easy”), Gless came on board, although she did have reservations about the tactics employed by Rosenzweig:
“I told Monique that I didn’t like the guy with the beard. I thought he was arrogant. Ten years later, I married him.”
Back in 1982, however, marriage to Rosenzweig was the last thing on Gless’s mind. After signing to portray the vivacious Christine Cagney, the actress had to undergo firearms training at the police academy, an experience that she found terrifying.
“I hate guns. To begin with I was shooting blanks and then they loaded it up with real bullets. They wanted me to feel the kick that you get from having live ammunition in the chamber, but I started crying. And I’m supposed to be the one playing the ballbuster. On the series, Tyne would carry her gun in her purse, but I refused. So in order to give the impression of weight, my purse always had two tomato juice cans in it.”
For Tyne Daly, who had two daughters at the time and a third born in 1985, the pressures of starring in a prime-time drama were of a different nature: “I was stopping at the midnight market on the way home and picking up the laundry on the way to work. I was trying to be a mom and spend time with my children and make dates with my husband. But hour-long drama is a life-eater, it really is. So it takes a lot of energy, but we were young and healthy and we were inspired to make this rare opportunity count.”
Those efforts were rewarded with Daly scooping Emmys in three consecutive years for outstanding lead actress in a drama series. An enviable record to be sure, but was co-star Gless privately concerned about being overlooked?
“Every year, Barney Rosenzweig would come into my trailer and say, ‘I worry about you, you’re never going to win. Blondes only ever win in comedy.’ And I said, ‘I don’t care. I’m going to do it.’ And then in the fourth and fifth year, I won. In the final season of the show, it went back to Tyne. But in all the years we were on the air, no one else won the Emmy in that lead actress category.”
Even though they were vying for the same awards, it seems there was little rivalry between Gless and Daly, despite the fact that the former had been originally introduced to bolster what was perceived to be a failing enterprise.
“Tyne welcomed me with open arms,” says Gless. “It’s through her generosity that the whole thing worked. She treated me with the greatest respect.”
“The art of acting is to pitch good,” comments Daly. “You do the pitching and hope that the other person catches the ball and does some good pitching back to you. Plus there’s that thing called chemistry and we definitely had a good click. It was fun, exciting, wordy work, but inside of it we did a lot of laughing, which is what gets people through 15-hour days.”
The rapport between the two actors translated to the screen and viewers on both sides of the Atlantic took to these two entirely different but well-matched characters: Christine, the uptown girl with ambitions to further her career, and Mary Beth, who was bringing home a vital second wage to support her family. But how did Gless and Daly feel about the protagonists they portrayed?
“In my opinion, Christine Cagney is one of the most wonderful, complicated characters ever written for television,” says Gless. “She was totally involved in her work, she screwed up, she drank and yet she wanted to be the first female police commissioner. The fascinating thing about her and Lacey was that they weren’t best friends – they didn’t hang out at each other’s homes, for instance – but their lives depended on each other. Tyne would always have chosen to play Lacey, though.”
“Yeah, absolutely,” her co-star agrees. “To me, Mary Beth had complicating factors in her life that were important. She had to work. She wasn’t doing it on a whim. If you look back at that time, a great many women in western culture were jugglers but they were considered to be self-indulgent. You know, going off from their job at home to do a sideline. I thought it was a good service to show that some of us have no option. The Laceys needed that extra salary.”
From New York to the West End
Cagney and Lacey ended its run on 16 May 1988. Over the course of its 125 episodes, there had been a further attempt at cancellation (seen off thanks to a letter-writing campaign orchestrated by Rosenzweig), but by the time the casebook closed, Gless and Daly had become two of the small screen’s most recognisable faces.
More high-profile roles followed, with Daly receiving a Tony award for her stage performance in Gypsy, while Gless received further Emmy nominations for Nip/Tuck and Burn Notice. In the mid-90s, there was even time for the pair to team up again in four Cagney and Lacey TV movies, fondly dubbed ‘The Menopause Years’.
Fast-forward to 2011 and Sharon Gless’s play A Round-Heeled Woman is about to transfer from the Riverside Studios to the Aldwych Theatre. By coincidence, Tyne Daly will also be starring in London this winter when she takes her Broadway turn as Maria Callas in Master Class to the Vaudeville Theatre.
The chance to see Cagney followed by Lacey in the West End is a rare treat for theatregoers but also for the two former colleagues, whose busy schedules don’t allow for a lot of catch-up time.
“It’s not like we usually have time to sit in each other’s kitchens and have coffee,” admits Daly. “But we keep in touch on all the important stuff. We follow each other’s work and we call each other up every once in a while in the deep of the night and do laughing and scratching and say ‘how you doing?’ It doesn’t always happen with those you’ve worked with, you know. Sometimes you say farewell and that’s the end of that. So I consider it very lucky that I got Ms Gless’s friendship out of this.”
And what of Sharon Gless’s relationship with the producer she once labelled “arrogant” and who would later go on to become her husband? Has her opinion softened over the years?
“I’m now doing my tenth series on US television and the truth is, to this day, I’ve never found a finer producer than Barney Rosenzweig. It’s so nice that they’re honouring him at the BFI along with Tyne and I. He was a feminist and he gave us the material. At that time, nobody was writing for women. Without him there would have been no Cagney and Lacey.”
Cagney & Lacey – 30th Anniversary: Sharon Gless, Tyne Daly and Barney Rosenzweig in Conversation is at the BFI Southbank on 29 November
Sharon Gless stars in A Round-Heeled Woman at the Aldwych Theatre from 25 November
Tyne Daly stars in Master Class at the Vaudeville Theatre from 21 January 2012