She spent the 1980s fearlessly knocking down gender barriers as one of the leads in the groundbreaking US feminist cop drama Cagney & Lacey, but when it came to scrubbing up to play brain surgeon Zsa Zsa Harper-Jenkinson in Casualty, Sharon Gless (aka Christine Cagney) was full of nerves.
“I was frightened when I first came on set. Everyone was so respectful and quiet. Almost too respectful – it made me nervous,” she admits, that no-nonsense rasp unchanged since her stint in New York’s 14th Precinct.
“They had patience with me. Especially when it came to the long medical terms that I couldn’t figure out how to pronounce. I wrote them out on sticky notes, which I put on the medical machinery. Don’t worry, I made sure the cameras couldn’t see ’em.” She gives a sassy laugh.
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So why, of all the TV shows in the world, did she choose to do Casualty?
“I’m one of those Americans who thinks you guys are flawless. Sadly, Casualty doesn’t play in the US. But my agent in London explained that it’s the longest-running medical series in the history of television and that they’d asked me to come play in it. So I said, ‘That would be so cool.’ I felt honoured because they’ve never flown an American over to be in this show before.”
For TV nostalgists there’s a warm glow from seeing Gless, now 74, back on screen on a Saturday night – the home of Cagney & Lacey during its run on BBC1 from 1982 to 88. In its heyday, it regularly ranked among the top ten most-watched shows in the UK. But, for American broadcasters, it proved controversial:
“Some of the stuff we did back then was shocking. We did one about the bombing of an abortion clinic, another where Mary Beth gave her son a condom. There were stations in the US that wouldn’t play those episodes.”
Fast-forward to 2017 and it’s a different story. In an age when everything from Dynasty to Magnum PI seems ripe for revival, there has been talk of a Cagney & Lacey reboot. “CBS has expressed an interest,” reveals Gless. “But I think you have to be really careful – Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey were two very interesting women and casting is everything.”
Would she consider a cameo? “It would depend on the show. Especially if they’re really going to use the names Cagney and Lacey. It’s been said at CBS that they want Cagney to be white and blonde, and Lacey to be black. I have no problem with that. But that isn’t Cagney & Lacey. Call them something else.”
Would colour-blind casting of Lacey be such a big deal? In the end, Gless’s objections seem to come down more to her instinct that nobody could play the roles as well as Tyne Daly and she could, having both won Emmy lead actress awards for their performances in the 80s. “We had a unique working relationship that isn’t the norm on a long-running series and we were friends on and off set. That gave us the chemistry the public loved so much – and that’s why it wouldn’t be the same without Tyne and me.”
I wonder what it was like, being the most famous women on TV, especially in the light of the current allegations surrounding Harvey Weinstein? “Well, we didn’t have to sleep with the producer to get the roles,” she says. “I just married him ten years later! [Gless wed executive producer Barney Rosenzweig in 1991.] But although it didn’t happen to us, it does go on. Everybody knew about it. Weinstein ain’t the first – it’s not like this is all new.”
Gless says her future could lie in the UK, rather than Los Angeles. “I would move to the UK if it was a good job. I love it there. As I say, I was intimidated at first, but I ended up having the best time. I really hope they invite me back.”
Casualty is on Saturday 18th November at 9.10pm on BBC1