Actress Sharon Gless on love, alcoholism, complaints

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Sharon Gless played a tough detective at a police precinct in New York City on the 1980s CBS show “Cagney & Lacey,” a hospital administrator in the sitcom “House Calls,” and the Pittsburgh mom of a gay son on Showtime’s “Queer as Folk.” 

Gless grew up in LA, where she got into show business and ruffled feathers along the way. She’s out with a new book called “Apparently There Were Complaints: A Memoir.”

Who’s complaining about her? “Who isn't?” she says, from her agent and doctor to her grandmother, who criticized her weight.

“No women in our family were heavy,” she says. “She finally locked me up once, when I was a freshman in college, locked me up at her house and took 40 pounds off of me.”

“I gained a tremendous amount of weight during my four years of boarding school at Santa Catalina School for Girls. My parents’ divorce and being far away from home led to depression and obesity,” says Sharon Gless. Photo courtesy Sharon Gless.

Her grandfather, who was an entertainment lawyer for the likes of Howard Hughes and Katharine Hepburn, didn’t want her to go into acting.

“[He] said, ‘It's a filthy business, stay out of it.’” She worked behind the camera for years, as a production assistant and production secretary. When she was 26, she admitted she wanted to be an actress and went to acting school for a year.

Neil S. McCarthy (left) — Sharon Gless’ grandfather and Hollywood’s top entertainment attorney — is with his best friend and client, film director Cecil B. DeMille (right). Photo courtesy of the Gless family archives.

Then Gless got her big break in 1972 thanks to a little play at a senior center in Encino.

“Everybody had to sit on folding chairs. We didn't charge anybody. It only ran two nights. Wasn't very good. But there was a man from Universal in the audience,” she says. “I made a terrible mistake on stage and missed my cue and came running out trying to pull my costume together, half nude, and it looked like I got laid behind the curtain. The audience went crazy. They started laughing. They thought it was intentional and that I was a brilliant comedian. And I got a call at my office from a man who was head of publicity at Universal saying he had seen me in my play. He said, ‘You're perfect for the lead of John Cassavetes’ new film.’”

The missed cue at a play in an Encino senior center sparked Gless’ career. “My fellow actors couldn’t hold it together,” Gless recalls. Photo courtesy of Candy Carstensen.

Shortly after, she signed a seven-year contract with Universal Studios and remained with the studio until it ended all contracts in 1981.

She faced some of the same demons her characters did, including alcoholism. She remembers a time when her agent took her out to dinner and asked the waiter not to remove her empty Martini glasses when she ordered another. 

“I looked down and there were four empties sitting there,” she says. “So he said, ‘When do you finish Cagney & Lacey? I remember this so well, I said, ‘April 13.’ He said, ‘Well, you're going to be in Betty Ford [Rehab Center] on the 14th or I’m doing an intervention.’”

She quit drinking for 15 years, took it up again for a few years, then stopped for good after a pancreatic attack.

Sharon Gless, 78, now lives in Florida. Photo by Alexei Hay.

Her memoir also touches on her romantic life. She met her husband-to-be, TV producer Barney Rosenzweig, on the set of “Cagney & Lacey.”

“It was sad because he was married,” she says. “It was very painful at the time, but now we've been married 30 years.”

Gless and Rosenzweig now live in Florida. Instead of a Christmas tree, a fake Palm Tree lights up in their house.



  • Sharon Gless - Actor and author of “Apparently There Were Complaints: A Memoir”