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Sharon Gless: 'Cagney & Lacey' Changed TV

26 Oct, 2012 By: Chris Tribbey

Frank discussions about abortion. A mom handing her son condoms. A lead female character dealing with crushing alcoholism.

Nobody bats an eye at this kind of stuff on television today, but 30 years ago, when “Cagney & Lacey” hit the airwaves, these themes were unheard of.

“In its day, it changed the history of women in TV,” said “Cagney & Lacey” star Sharon Gless. “There were no women heroes in television who handled these difficult subjects. We were thrown off the air three times. If they had asked [co-star] Tyne Daly and I if we wanted to be role models in the ’80s, we would have gone screaming into the night.”

Role models is what they became, at least for the future of women and crime TV. Without “Cagney & Lacey,” there likely wouldn’t be Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay; “Law & Order: SVU”) or Catherine Willows (Marge Helgenberger; “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”).

Fox and MGM released a season of the show on DVD in 2007, but now the other seasons are on home video for the first time via Toronto-based Visual Entertainment. The independent streeted Cagney & Lacey: The Complete Series (32 discs, 119 episodes, $139.99) Oct. 16.

Visual also offers die-hard fans a limited-edition set with nearly 30 more hours of content and a signed fan photo ($169.99) exclusively at www.cagneyandlacey.com.

The limited-edition set includes the 1981 pilot movie with Loretta Swit as Cagney, the six episodes from the first season with Meg Foster as Cagney, four made-for-TV reunion movies, footage from the British Film Institute’s 30th anniversary event and an audiobook.

“It doesn’t seem that long ago. I don’t feel that old,” Gless laughed, when asked about the 30th anniversary. To this day the actress can only shake her head at the “audacity” of an early 1980s show taking on issues of female sexuality, equal pay, date rape, incest and other complex social themes.

“You can’t play a role model, and a lot of our shows were very controversial. Some of our shows weren’t shown on certain affiliate stations. They banned them,” Gless said. “First it was handled amusingly, but then it got to be trouble. But until Cagney and Lacey, the heroes of series were never flawed.”

The show’s creators often fought constantly with CBS’s standards and practices division, and the network tried to kill the show repeatedly. Loyal fans’ letter campaigns kept it alive, and the series went on to draw 30 million viewers a week, 36 Emmy nominations (14 wins), two Golden Globe wins and launched Gless’s career.

“It changed my life, and I learned a tremendous amount about myself, as a woman in this industry, because of [‘Cagney & Lacey’],” Gless said. “I’m very, very blessed, and I wouldn’t have gotten ‘Queer as Folk’ if it hadn’t been for ‘Cagney & Lacey.’ I probably wouldn’t have gotten ‘Burn Notice’ without ‘Cagney & Lacey.’ I don’t know of a show that has the emotional impact that ‘Cagney & Lacey’ had. It changed lives … I’m told.”

She’s hoping this DVD release will draw not only long-time “Cagney & Lacey” fans, but also new eyes on a seminal series.

“It’s very exciting, and I hope the next generation, my granddaughter’s generation, loves it,” Gless said. “What set ‘Cagney & Lacey’ apart was the emotion of it, where the leads are vulnerable. They’re human, and they do other things than solve crimes. They were real women.”

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