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Sharon Gless on Playing a Lesbian: Exclusive Interview

Sharon Gless on Playing a Lesbian: Exclusive Interview

From the tough-as-nails cop on Cagney & Lacey to the proudest PFLAG mom ever on Showtime's Queer as Folk, Sharon Gless has had a long, storied career that's resounded strongly with the lesbian audience. caught up with Gless to talk about how much the lesbian community has supported her through the years, kissing Rosie O'Donnell and how she's always wanted to portray a lesbian on-screen. 

From the tough-as-nails cop on '80s drama Cagney & Lacey to the proudest PFLAG mom ever on Showtime's groundbreaking Queer as Folk in the '90s, Sharon Gless has had a long, storied career that's resounded strongly with the lesbian audience. Now, the 66-year-old actress is adding another credit to her resume: playing gay. Starring as the title character in Outfest hit Hannah Free, which opens in select theaters Friday, caught up with Gless to talk about how much the lesbian community has supported her through the years, kissing Rosie O'Donnell and how she's always wanted to portray a lesbian on-screen. At what point in your career did you realize you were becoming a lesbian icon?

Sharon Gless: I got an award a couple of months ago (from QFest) for being the lesbian icon of the year and I think that's the first time that someone actually said that to me. It wasn't anything that I was aware of; I've just had an amazing lesbian following since Cagney & Lacey. Thank God; they kept me on the air. Then I was lucky enough to do Queer as Folk, and it was a totally different audience and the gays were just as supportive. I've never considered myself an icon; I never thought I was old enough to be an icon (laughs). It's a very flattering term that I do not deserve, but it's nice of you to say that.

How much did the lesbian audience help Cagney & Lacey succeed in the 1980s?

The lesbians were specifically attracted to Cagney and it was a really large part of our audience. Everyone used to ask me if I was gay; reporters, they said, "We understand that you're gay." And I'd say, "I'm not but I'm very tempted. I think the gays have more fun than I do!" The lesbian audience was a tremendous help; it wasn't just lesbians though, it was a very large number of lesbians that related to Cagney; she was single, she was strong and (former co-star) Tyne (Daly) always teases me, "Here's Cagney: Tough, but vulnerable. Tough but vulnerable." (Laughs.) It was a large part of our audience and they kept it on the air for six years; that's something for which I will always be grateful.

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Do you and Tyne Daly still talk often?

We're very, very close. Her mom had a great expression, which I love. Her mom used to say, "Sweat makes a great cement." And we sweat together for six years against all odds sometimes. We were thrown off the air three times and about three or four or our episodes were banned from certain affiliate stations. The one I remember was the first abortion show. No one ever discussed those things in those days, no one ever discussed condoms in those days; Tyne Daly was the first person to ever say the word on television when she handed one to her son on his first date.

Neither of us really were lesbians on the show, but I think it's fun that the lesbian crowd believed that Cagney was and is. I just loved that there was something there that they saw that they could relate to. The same with Queer as Folk. (Husband and former Cagney & Lacey executive producer) Barney (Rosenzweig) used to say that women and minorities always were considered amusing; they were ignored and nobody ever had a TV show that took them seriously; or the black community. It was always Laverne & Shirley, Lucy & Ethel, and Queer as Folk was really the first time that something was actually written seriously for the gay community, the lesbians and the gays. People like to see themselves represented.

I saw on YouTube that they took a lot of Cagney & Lacey themes and put it to music to indicate that Cagney really was in love with Mary Beth. It looked like a genius piece of film and if you put it together the way they did, you'd say, "Oh yeah, who's she kidding, of course she was." I kept it. It was wonderful.

Did you ever secretly hope that Cagney was a lesbian?

Oh no, it was not my intention; she was always in bed with somebody (laughs). So no, it was not my intention. But if lesbians saw something in her that they felt was theirs, then I'm thrilled.

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How did you first get involved with Hannah Free?

Claudia Allen, who wrote the play — she's a very well-respected lesbian playwright in Chicago at the Victory Garden Theater there and she's written over 20 plays, many of them award-winning and most with a lesbian bend to them. And Tyne Daly and I did one of her plays for radio and I did one of her plays on-stage and she's never had a play adapted to film before. 

She called me and said, "They're putting one of my plays on film, you wanna star in it?" And I said, "Sure!" And she said, "Don't you want to know which one?" And I said, "No. You write women beautifully! Surprise me!" So we arranged it and the month of November I was free and I flew to Chicago and I did this movie for her. It was a real honor to play this, especially for Claudia. We did it in 18 days, for $200,000; 30 percent of the crew worked for nothing. The lesbian community just rallied in Chicago and came and put this film together. I had the time of my life. I loved it, I love the play that it's getting. … It was my first time playing a lesbian role. Actually, that's a lie! The day before we started Hannah Free, I did an Ed Harris movie — only two days work on it and all my scenes were with Amy Madigan — and I played a lesbian in a wheelchair. Isn't that funny!


How are you like your character Hannah?

Well, I'm pretty independent. … I don't know, I think I have a silent strength to me. Hannah was way ahead of her time in terms of courage. Obviously the woman she loved, the woman she called home — that being Rachel — did not have that courage and had to lie about who she was. And Hannah had no shame about who she was. I think I'm brave.

See, I think I'm the lucky one that I was given this part. People come up to me and say that they think it was so brave of me to do Queer as Folk. But I don't think it was brave of me at all; it was a fabulous show; it took courage to look like that (laughs) but I'm the one who dreamed up Debbie Novotny's look! So I can't complain about that! I went out and bought 17 wigs and they told me I could change my wigs all the time and I bought all those naughty T-shirts, all the buttons. I brought it all with me from L.A. But they wouldn't let me when I got there wear all the different wigs, so we picked the red.

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With Queer as Folk also under your belt, what keeps drawing you to LGBT-themed projects?

 They just seem to come at me; I've not been out looking for them, but when they're presented to me I love them. I'm very fortunate that they're given to me. I can't take credit for going out and seeking them. Except Queer as Folk; I did call up Showtime and say that I wanted that part. I did go after that one. I haven't gone through my career saying that I wanted to play a lesbian. The truth is that I've always wanted to play a lesbian. But there aren't that many roles out, especially at my age. I guess it's cool to play a lesbian if you're hot and sexy, but someone my age to play a lesbian … I think it's very cool that there's a market for it.

What was it like having your first “lesbian kiss” with Rosie O’Donnell on Queer as Folk?

It was great! I love Ro. After she finished our show, she sent me flowers saying, "You're a great kisser." And I've always kept that. Rosie O'Donnell is hot, and I love her.

You were recently awarded the Triangle Square Pioneer Award for advocacy on behalf of the LGBT community from the Gay & Lesbian Elder Housing group. What does that honor mean to you?

I was embarrassed by that award because I don't deserve it. The nice thing about that award — and I thought I was really on top of things in the LGBT community — was that I was not even aware of the elderly housing organization, which is fabulous that it exists because we're looking out for the pioneers who put us where we are today and got us where we are now in terms of the gay community; all the rights that the gays do get to enjoy, these are the people who fought for it. I didn't deserve the award, but what I love the most is that I got to learn about the organization and I'm thrilled that it exists because we need to take care of our elderly and we need to take care of the people who took care of us. 

What can the LGBT community do to take better care of our elders and ensure our rights are protected?

Let it be known, fight for your rights. I make phone calls, I fight for you guys after Prop 8. You just have to keep fighting and eventually you'll win. I'm a fifth generation Californian and for the first time in my life I'm ashamed of my state. I'm embarrassed that my state is so stupid. I always thought that California was a very cool state and we're not. It'll change though. The first go-around with the Mormons coming in from Utah and pouring in the money into it, what in the fuck do they care about what we do here in California?! Don't get me started!

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Queer as Folk really marked a second upswing in your career. And you’ve had some really great roles since – including playing the crazy villain on FX’s Nip/Tuck. What was that like?

(Laughs) Wasn't that great? (Nip/Tuck creator) Ryan Murphy wrote that arc for me and said it was the sickest arc that he's ever written and he's written some pretty sick ones! I had no idea it would get the play that it would get. I got nominated for it, too. I think that's the most fun I've ever had.

You’ve also been on Burn Notice recently. What else are you working on and what’s next for you?

I'm doing a play, a book that I optioned eight years ago; it's finally going to go on-stage. It's based on a best-selling book A Round-Heeled Woman, a woman with round heels is a woman with promiscuity; all you have to do is touch her shoulders and she just rolls back on her back. It's the story of a teacher in Berkley who took out an ad in the New York Review of Books and the ad said, "I turn 67 next March and I want to have a lot of sex with a man I like." And she took out this ad and didn't expect anybody to answer, she had just not been touched by anyone in 30 years and she wrote a book about what happened; 68 men responded. I don't know how many she slept with, I can't remember. But we deal with five of them in the play. It's not just about sex it's about her self-discovery at that age and now I'm old enough to play it, I'm 66! 

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Lesley Goldberg