Girl power We started it! In a rare interview together, Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless recall how cop show Cagney & Lacey was first to break the mould
There was a period in her 20s when Tyne Daly was always cast as a victim. She’d grown up in a theatrical family and dreamt of being a classical actor, but her husband’s acting and directing career led the couple to Hollywood with their baby daughter.
‘My time on television began, and I started playing victims,’ she says. ‘I did about 10 or 12 years of them, which gets boring, right’ Her laughter echoes around the empty theatre where we meet. A large, studded ring glints on her finger, and her eyes widen occasionally like a startled owl.
Then in the early 1980s, a new project arose. The chance to play the hero. The story had been in development since the mid-1970s, when producer Barney Rosenzweig first became aware of the burgeoning women’s movement.
Sharon Gless (Christine Cagney) and Tyne Daly (Mary Beth Lacey) from the 80s TV series Cagney & Lacey which was groundbreaking in its politics
He was struck by the idea that there had never been a true female buddy movie, either on the big screen or television, so he decided to make one, combining action with female solidarity. Newman And Redford was discussed as a title, but discarded as a legal risk. Cross My Bra And Hope To Die was unfortunate for other reasons. Fair Game was mooted. Finally it became Cagney & Lacey.
Thirty years on, its two stars, Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless, appeared together for an anniversary event at the British Film Institute recently. The tickets sold out almost immediately. I was struck by the crowd’s responses, the impromptu standing ovations as the women took the stage, the belly laughs as they described some clunky episodes – their characters once had to go ‘undercover’ dressed as a pineapple and a tomato.
Then there were swallowed sobs as the more dramatic clips played, including one in which Daly’s character, Mary Beth Lacey, struggles to accept a breast cancer diagnosis, and another in which Gless’s character, Christine Cagney, descends into alcoholism.
Setting the tone: Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly the stars of Cagney & Lacey
The first script was developed by Barbara Corday, Rosenzweig’s then girlfriend, and her writing partner, Barbara Avedon, creating what Corday described as, ‘a show about two women who happen to be cops, not two cops who happen to be women’. There was a TV movie in 1981, followed by a TV series, which ran from 1982 to 1988; the women would argue, and laugh, and talk regularly in the ladies – or as they called it, ‘the jane’.
They could disagree vociferously, while always, at heart, being deeply supportive. The show was a love story, as much as a buddy movie. ‘I want my partner back,’ said Lacey when Cagney was gripped by alcoholism. ‘I love you, and I don’t want to lose you.’
The characters reunited for four films in the mid-90s, and New York Magazine TV critic John Leonard wrote that the show had been ‘to primetime what The Golden Notebook [Doris Lessing’s feminist novel of 1962] had been to modern novels and modern marriage: streetsmart feminism; politics and friendship; therapy on the barricades; brains on a rampage. Without Chris and Mary Beth, Thelma And Louise would not have been imaginable.’
Newman And Redford was discussed as a title, but discarded as a legal risk. Cross My Bra And Hope To Die was unfortunate for other reasons.
In their 60s now, the women have the easy rapport of people who once worked 17-hour days together. Daly has been through divorce; Gless has been through alcoholism herself. As we speak, the two women often nudge each other, falling into fits of salty laughter. In his memoir Cagney & Lacey… And Me, Rosenzweig, who has been married to Gless since 1991, writes that she ‘has a mouth on her that men in a naval transportation unit might envy’, while Daly ‘can be a pure diva of operatic proportions’.
The last description seems prescient. Daly is due to appear as Maria Callas in the play Master Class, a role that won her superlative reviews on Broadway and is transferring to the Vaudeville in London’s West End next week. She’s built a stellar theatre career since Cagney & Lacey ended, playing everyone from Mama Rose in Gypsy to Clytemnestra in Agamemnon; the New York Times’s chief theatre critic, Ben Brantley, declared her ‘one of the finest American actresses working’.
Gless’s play, A Round -Heeled Woman, finishes a successful run at the Aldwych Theatre tonight. Is it harder to find good roles as they get older ‘Yes,’ says Gless. ‘I’ve been very blessed, as has Tyne, but generally ageism is rampant in Hollywood. Not against men.’ ‘Yes, against men,’ Daly corrects her. ‘Not actors, but in terms of the people who run the place, the producers.’
CAGNEY & LACEY: FACTS
The number of consecutive years either Sharon Gless or Tyne Daly won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
Viewers worldwide were tuning into Cagney & Lacey at the height of its popularity in the mid-1980s
Episodes were made between 1981 and 1988
Hollywood is also legendarily sexist, but Cagney & Lacey upended stereotypes. Their characters were tough, flawed and complementary. Lacey was the working-class woman from Queens, with two, then three kids, very much in love with her swooningly supportive husband, determined to do a good job, but with no interest in greasing her way up the ranks.
Cagney was born to money on her mother’s side, with a father who had been a cop, and she was cool, tough, ambitious, single and highly sexual,
determined to be part of the boys’ club. While both actors were attractive – Gless the cool blonde, Daly strong and serious – they also looked like ordinary women. ‘Tyne was so into detail,’ says Gless, ‘that the hairdressers would say, “Wait, I need to do the back of your hair,” and she’d say, “Mary Beth can’t see the back of her head, so I don’t care.”’
fought to ensure her character, who was living on a budget, didn’t have
a new outfit each week. One incident nonetheless rankles. When the
series ended, there was a break-in at the costume warehouse. ‘All
Cagney’s clothes were stolen,’ says Daly, ‘and none of Lacey’s were. I
was so insulted!’
The men who played the other cops, ‘weren’t used to coming in one day a week,’ says Daly, ‘and doing a little tip-tap and then the girls take over. We, of course, were trained in that. You would politely step aside while the main people, the interesting people – the men – were centre stage. When we started reflecting the lives of women, there was a swell of support.’
Such was its success, they received letters from women who were joining the police force because of them. ‘You’d want to write to them and say, “Are you crazy”’ says Gless. ‘I did write to them and say, “Reconsider”,’ says Daly. ‘“This is makebelieve and the real job is something quite different.” But again, the doors were opening to non-traditional jobs. We were at that transitional fulcrum, and we were showing it on TV, which is a very, very powerful medium.’
The show had several false starts before it became a hit. Daly was cast as
Lacey but Gless, who was Rosenzweig’s first choice for Cagney, was under contract to Universal Studios and was unavailable. The role went instead to Loretta Swit, from the show M*A*S*H. The TV movie was an enormous success, and Rosenzweig was asked to create a series. Swit wasn’t
available, Gless was still under contract, and so he cast Meg Foster as Cagney. Within six episodes, she was ousted by the network; an unnamed CBS executive told a US magazine the pair were ‘too harshly women’s lib.
We were at that transitional fulcrum, and we were showing it on TV, which is a very, very powerful medium
The American public doesn’t respond
to the bra-burners, the fighters, the women who insist on calling
manhole covers “people-hole covers”. These women on Cagney & Lacey
seemed more intent on fighting the system than doing police work.’ Yet
Rosenzweig was given an order for more episodes, providing he re-cast
Cagney, and he was finally able to secure Gless.
show aired to low ratings, and its cancellation was announced during
its run. Hundreds of letters poured in from devastated fans, and
Rosenzweig put together a standard letter advising each of them to write
to their local newspaper, plus the New York Times and LA Times. Both major newspapers soon ran articles about the deluge of post, the show reached number one, and was recommissioned.
It went on to be nominated for 36 Emmy awards, while the feminist writer Gloria Steinem called it ‘the best show on television’. Were either of them involved with the women’s movement prior to the programme ‘You couldn’t not be if you had a brain cell working,’ says Daly. ‘And you could be involved against it too. There were those women who said, “Go back and stay in your place, that’s safest. Go to college to find the alpha male and marry him.” Those were very powerful political times, so for me it was an unavoidable discussion.’
A mother-in-law joke once appeared in a script, and Daly refused to perform it. They might have been among the highest-paid women on TV, but they were making ‘a third of what was being made by the men at that time,’ Daly says. ‘This is an economic question. But we keep getting distracted. [Society] keeps talking about sex itself, and having control over your own body, in terms of whether or not you’re going to reproduce. That is the distracting thing. What the women’s movement is really about is equal treatment under the law, which means the same pay cheque if you’re doing the same job.’
We talk a little about Maria Callas and I ask if either of them has ever behaved like a diva. ‘Ha,’ says Daly. ‘Probably. Diva used to mean you had
accomplishments, you had temperament, it was based on some kind of talent. Now it just means someone who’s unpleasant and rude. You don’t see them telling the boys they’re divas because they’ll only have green M&M sweets in their dressing room. It’s become another way to punish women. I’ve probably had fits. But just arbitrarily throwing your weight around No.’
‘No,’ Gless agrees. ‘And the few fits I’ve had have been worthy ones.’ She leans in to my dictaphone ‘…and just for the record, I was right.’ ‘Atta girl!’ says Daly, and they both wheeze with laughter.
Master Class, Vaudeville Theatre, from 21 January. Tel: 020 7492 1532.