An editor would not have chosen me to review this memoir. Before I read Sharon Gless’s book, I did not know who she was. I have never watched an episode of “Cagney & Lacey” in which she played the Cagney half of the team. Nor have I ever seen an episode of “Queer as Folk,” a more recent television series in which she starred. Nor have I ever knowingly seen her in any of the other vehicles in which she appeared.
I picked up the book because I was interested in the life of a TV actress, and Gless is that. Based on the evidence of Apparently There Were Complaints, she is also a writer. As a former ghostwriter I scrutinized the acknowledgements and concluded she wrote the book herself. Even with extensive editorial help, it’s genuine accomplishment.
Gless has had a full life and it’s hardly over. She was born on May 31, 1943. She comes from Hollywood royalty. Her grandfather Neil McCarthy “was the most famous and powerful entertainment attorney in Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood. He represented Howard Hughes, Cecil B. DeMille, Mary Pickford, and Katherine Hepburn, along with other stars and motion picture interest.” On her Gless side, she is a fifth-generation Angeleno. “The Gless family owned about 44,000 acres of land, now known as Encino, California.” Her uncle was the head of casting at 20th Century Fox.
Her grandparents divorced. Her parents divorced. Her father was remote, unfaithful, and an alcoholic. Gless begins her book by acknowledging her own alcoholism, and mentions in passing her cocaine use. She has gained and lost excessive weight. In her mid-teens, she attended a Catholic girl’s school where a nun caught her writing a letter although it was forbidden. The sister confiscated Gless’s stationery and pen and promised consequences.
Gless writes, “I sat on the edge of my bed, crying with so much force I thought my heart would literally break I had no place to go and no one to go to. Then, something slowly came over me, and I could sense a shift in myself—I was going from feeling absolute despair to feeling . . . nothing at all. I was dead inside.”
Although Gless mentions therapy in passing and acknowledges her psychotherapist of thirty years, she has used her ability to go to a “dead place” to survive. She writes that she could laugh, tell stories, perform, “But I was dead. . . . I would go there in my head to stay alive.” It sounds grim, but the book is not. Gless sounds like a very funny lady. (Or the humor masks the unhappiness.)
She never completed her college degree. She had a number of office jobs before she took an acting class in her mid-twenties. She was taken under the wing of Monique James, the head of talent at Universal Studios, who signed here as one of the studio’s fifteen contract players. It was a dying system and Gless became the last contract actor in Hollywood.
She asked James why she had signed her. Because, James said, “Nothing about you fits. Your voice doesn’t match your face. Your stride belies your lack of confidence. You’re as soft as a puppy, but you talk like a teamster. Absolutely nothing fits. However, you put it all together and it works. Something happens.”
Gless talks about working with well-known actors—Andy Griffith, John Ritter, Robert Wagner—about whom she has only good things to say. This is not a memoir in which the writer wants to relitigate old battles or settle scores. Although Wayne Rogers does come off as a jerk.
Not everything goes smoothly, of course. She spends time in the Hazelden treatment center for her alcohol addiction. She does not stop drinking as a result, but the experience helps her, enabling her enough to continue working as a television, movie, and stage actress. She stopped drinking at age seventy when it became painfully clear that another martini would literally kill her.
During her time on Cagney & Lacey, she fell in love with Barney Rosenzweig, the show’s creator and executive producer. (What about a cop show with female partners? Starsky & Hutch with women!) They begin an affair. He ultimately divorced his wife, Barbara Corday, one of Cagney & Lacey’s two writers. Sharon and Barney married. She was 48 and although she’d had several long-term relationships it was her first marriage. Despite all—and all includes fourteen-hour work days, publicity tours, shows that just don’t work, and more—they have stayed married.
Given who I am, I was more interested in the mechanics of creating something than in opinions about fellow actors. I was fascinated to learn that they shot all the New York establishing shots and exterior scenes for an entire season at one time then spliced them into the rest of the material which was taped in Los Angeles. It meant Gless and Tyne Daly wore hats, coats, and gloves in New York’s August heat because the story was to take place during the winter. It also means that the continuity person is critical so that scenes shot months and a continent apart fit together—you will excuse the expression—seamlessly.
This is a memoir, not an autobiography. It is Gless’s opportunity to put memories and anecdotes between hard covers. As such, other readers—former lovers, co-workers, relatives, and step-children—may have different memories of what happened. Nevertheless, writing as someone who knew zero about her before reading Apparently There Were Complaints, I found Gless and her life fascinating. Cagney & Lacey fans will eat it up.