In 1982, America wasn’t ready for a cop drama with strong female partners who liked their jobs - and each other.
“Cagney & Lacey” went on the air anyway. And it changed the history of television for women.
“Nobody wanted to see two women in serious roles,” says costar Sharon Gless in an interview. “Women were considered amusing: Lucy and Ethel, Laverne and Shirley, Mary and Rhoda.”
The groundbreaking CBS series marks its 25th anniversary May 7 with the DVD release of its first season. The package includes commentary from feminist icon Gloria Steinem, an early champion of the show.
Gless, 63, won two Emmys as Christine Cagney - ambitious, alcoholic, unlucky in love. Tyne Daly, 60, took home four as Mary Beth Lacey, a stressed-out wife and mother trying to do it all.
Over seven seasons, the duo demolished stereotypes of women at the time. They were tough cops. They were tight buds. They stood up to male chauvinists in the squad room. They stood up to each other - loudly - in the ladies’ room.
“The male establishment (at the networks) didn’t think it was believable,” “C & L” producer Barney Rosenzweig, 69, recalls.
“They thought women couldn’t be friends. A woman wasn’t a woman until she had a child. A woman could have a job, but she’d give it up in a minute for the right man. It was all part of the mythology perpetrated by men.”
By artfully debunking that mythology, “C & L” “was one of those rare shows that comes along that ... becomes a template for shows in the future,” says TV historian Tim Brooks.
Presaging such series as “thirtysomething,” “Cagney and Lacey” had soulful talks about their dreams and demons.
Unapologetically ambitious, Cagney had goals of beating the bottle, becoming police commissioner and not dying alone. For Lacey, it was getting her 20 years and a pension without losing her family in the process.
Following the pinup female cops of ABC’s cartoonish “Charlie’s Angels,” this was heady stuff.
“Episode after episode, you saw subject matter you might have gotten from Joan Didion or Virginia Woolf, but you certainly weren’t getting on TV,” says Bob Thompson of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television.
In Thompson’s view, “C & L” offered “serious conversation and deconstruction of the issue of women existing in contemporary society.”
That healthy debate came about only after a long and tortured birth.
Turned down as a series by all three networks, “C & L” aired as a TV movie on CBS in fall `81, costarring “M(ASTERISK)A(ASTERISK)S(ASTERISK)H’s” Loretta Swit as Cagney. When it scored big numbers, CBS ordered six episodes for the spring.
With Swit unavailable, Meg Foster was brought in opposite Daly. This time, the ratings tanked. Unnamed CBS execs were quoted as saying the leads were too unfeminine and were perceived as “dykes.”
“We heard a lot of that in the early days,” says Rosenzweig, whose memoir, “Cagney & Lacey and Me,” is to be published May 1. “If one of them hugged or touched the other, I’d get notes from the network.”
Still, Rosenzweig denies that homophobia doomed the duo. Rather, it was that Foster’s Cagney was seen as too “street,” too similar to Daly’s blue-collar Lacey. (Can you say spin, boys and girls?)
Enter Sharon Gless, a gorgeous “feminine” blonde recommended by Rosenzweig’s then-wife, writer Barbara Corday.
“C & L” was back in business. Corday was not.
Rozenzweig and Gless fell in love during the show, trying to keep it on the down low. Deciding he couldn’t be her boss and boyfriend at the same time, he called it off. At least temporarily.
“I was turning 50, becoming a grandfather. I was an emotional wreck,” he says. Rosenzweig and Corday, who helped write the “C & L” pilot, divorced in 1990. The following year, he and Gless married.
Rosenzweig describes their stormy union as “somewhat south of the enchanted cottage, but we’re making a go of it ... . Barbara was a stand-up dame about the whole thing.”
In addition to her boss, Gless fell for her alter ego, labeling Cagney “the most wonderful, complicated woman ever written. She was very flawed, which made you love her ... She was an insecure, raging alcoholic who couldn’t maintain a relationship with anybody.
“She would run over her partner - and not notice - if she stood in the way of something she wanted. I think I got away with murder playing her.”
Even with Gless, “C & L’s” ratings were still weak. CBS pulled the plug after the 1982-83 season.
Then three things happened, in this order: Fans deluged the network with angry letters; “C & L” summer reruns scored strong numbers, and the show won an Emmy that fall for best drama.
The network did a 180 and brought “C & L” back. Though cast members had been released from their contracts, they all returned and the series re-launched in March `84. It flourished until 1988. And there were four curtain calls, in the guise of reunion movies.
Despite its success, “C & L” is unknown to several generations of viewers. It’s not in syndication or on cable, and it only recently landed a DVD deal.
Rosenzweig blames it on mismanagement. TV historian Brooks says it’s because the show is dated.
Like Murphy Brown, “C & L” “was of its time ... It no longer seems special today. It was an angry show, and that anger isn’t there anymore. That battle has been won.”
Has it? A quarter-century later, there’s nothing on broadcast television that resembles “C & L.”
“It bothers me,” says Gless, still good friends with her former TV partner. “Tyne and I always said it was a shame we couldn’t pass the gauntlet to anybody.”