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Talking with Sharon Gless

Talking with Sharon Gless — The actress talks about her new show, ”The Trials of Rosie O’Neill”

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It’s about 90 degrees inside a renovated Los Angeles warehouse where a crew is filming what seems — at the moment, anyway — a particularly trying installment of CBS’ new dramatic series The Trials of Rosie O’Neill. The weary cast is rehearsing a scene in which public defender O’Neill, played by Sharon Gless, triumphantly marches into her seedy office with a down-on-his-luck blues singer she has just successfully defended on kidnapping charges. The direction seems fairly simple: The extras around the watercooler in the office’s ”bull pen” are supposed to clap and cheer when Rosie and ”Fish Fry Baby” appear. But somehow, after nearly 10 hours on the sweltering set, the actors keep missing the cue and clapping before, then after, then before Gless appears.

Exasperated after half a dozen takes, director Jim Frawley shouts, ”Sharon Gless is the star of the show! When she comes into the room, give her the applause.”

Suddenly, a woman’s throaty voice breaks the uncomfortable silence.

”I’m Sharon,” Gless reminds her fellow actors. Everyone laughs — Frawley included — and the scene continues.

Of course, there really isn’t a moment’s doubt who Gless is or how essential she is to the Monday-night series. Rosie, a compelling chronicle of the days and nights of a strong-willed lawyer, bears the stamp of two outspoken feminists, both respected TV veterans: Gless and executive producer Barney Rosenzweig. The two first teamed on CBS’ ’80s police drama Cagney & Lacey (for which Gless won two Emmys as tough but tender Christine Cagney) and have been romantically involved for the last two years.

Their new show is about a Beverly Hills lawyer who gives up a wildly successful corporate practice and hurtles into a new, decidedly unglamorous career after her partner/husband leaves her for a younger woman. The title works on two levels — the show follows Rosie’s courtroom and personal trials. As a public defender, she finds herself arguing on behalf of both the wrongly accused and the guilty. As a newly single 44-year-old (Gless is 47), Rosie confronts depression, loneliness, and the daunting world of dating. Gless and Rosenzweig view Rosie as more than a new Gless vehicle. The show’s liberal politics seem as important to them as its ratings — an opportunity to raise mass-media consciousness, as Cagney did, about causes from feminism to homelessness.

”No one took the baton from us after Cagney & Lacey,” Gless says, throwing her legs over the side of a director’s chair and lighting a cigarette. Gless is slimmer than she was in her Cagney days, her white-blond hair is shorter, and, as Rosie, she sports Armani instead of Cagney’s wash-and-wear. ”There really hasn’t been a ‘woman’s show’ since. In the hour format, it’s Angela Lansbury and me. Shows like Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law are never written for women. They’re just not given the material.”

Rosenzweig, 53, thinks programs like NBC’s L.A. Law and ABC’s Equal Justice, about a district attorney’s office, are ”too yuppified” and fail to address real issues about the legal system. ”There used to be a lot of shows that dealt with this stuff in the ’50s and ’60s,” he says, sitting in his elegant, air-conditioned office above the set. ”I’m not putting down Steven Bochco. I’m sure L.A. Law is a very good show. But those aren’t my politics.” In an early episode, Rosie successfully defended a rapist by proving a cop falsified evidence. Rosenzweig boasts that his 30-year-old daughter called him from Connecticut to say she and her boyfriend argued for an hour about what Rosie should have done.

”The idea is for me to be a muckraker,” Rosenzweig says, ”to stir up the pot a little bit and make people think about the system and what it means.” Suddenly, the gray-bearded, professorial-looking producer appears embarrassed, as though he thinks he sounds preachy. ”Look,” he says. ”I know I don’t live my politics. I don’t wear a sackcloth and ashes and give my money away. This show is my political cause…I’m not running for office. I just want a 25 share.”

Though she denies that Christine Cagney and Rosie are essentially the same character — ”The only similarity is they’re both played by a girl named Sharon” — Gless does believe Rosie has the same kind of magic and message that Cagney did. Like Rosie, the girl named Sharon grew up in Los Angeles’ exclusive Hancock Park. The granddaughter of a successful show-business attorney, Gless appeared in TV movies like 1980’s Revenge of the Stepford Wives. She was then seen briefly in 1982 in the CBS comedy series House Calls and later that year replaced Meg Foster as Cagney.

Along with Tyne Daly, who played Mary Beth Lacey, Gless became something of a pop-culture, feminist folk hero, appearing in character on the cover of Ms. magazine. The show, which ran from 1982 to 1988, was hailed as a realistic, compassionate portrait of working women who happened to be dedicated cops, and it addressed a number of women’s issues, some job-related and others personal. Sometimes it hit quite close to home. In 1987, viewers found out that Christine Cagney was an alcoholic. In mid-February 1988, Gless was admitted to the Hazelden Foundation’s drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation center in Minnesota.

Last March, Gless was again in the news when a fan, 30-year-old Joni Leigh Penn, barricaded herself and a loaded rifle in the Studio City home Gless uses as an office; Penn hoped to commit suicide in front of the actress. Gless had been en route to the house but had driven back to Rosenzweig’s home to apologize after an argument. Penn, who eventually gave herself up to police, pleaded no contest to burglary charges and is now serving a four-year sentence in state prison. ”I got through it,” Gless says. ”For a while, I had guards around my house. Then I thought, ‘S—, that’s no way to live.”’

That sounds like Rosie O’Neill — a voice that viewers, particularly women, have come to identify with. In one recent episode, a poor Hispanic client came to Rosie’s home late one night to thank her for helping acquit him of armed robbery charges. Interrupted in the middle of a bubble bath, Rosie became afraid and asked him to leave. The man grew enraged and accused her of holding the same racist attitudes she had earlier condemned in court. She knew a woman living alone is vulnerable — yet she worried that her client wasn’t entirely incorrect in his accusations. He left, but the questions he raised stayed with her.

Gless says female viewers really respond to the show’s plot lines about the wronged — but resilient — woman on her own. ”It’s amazing how much feedback I’ve gotten from women I know who have been left by men for young girls,” she says. ”I want women to see that Rosie survives without hating men — I don’t play a man-hater. I told Barney, ‘You don’t win by making men the opponent.’ This is episodic TV — Rosie can’t go around screaming how men s— on her. But I don’t want to play a loser…Rosie’s not a wuss.”

But Rosenzweig contends he has to bow to some less-than-liberated network attitudes. ”I make adjustments in the show I wouldn’t have to make if Sharon were a man,” he says. ”The people paying for the show are white men…I have to talk to Sharon and say, ‘Don’t be so strident.’ I don’t know that I’d be asked to say that to Tom Selleck.”

The ratings have so far been impressive. In a season in which few rookie series have made much of a mark, Rosie held its own against ABC’s Monday Night Football and is CBS’ second-highest-rated new show; 63 percent of its audience is female.

And Gless has won critical raves for her portrayal of a strong but vulnerable woman. At the start of every episode, in a Scenes From a Marriage twist suggested by Gless, Rosie pours her bruised heart out to her off-camera therapist (played by Rosenzweig in what he calls his ”Hitchcockian kind of thing” — he also appeared on a subway train in the opening of Cagney). In another bit featured in each show, Rosie, a gloriously compulsive closet eater, digs into greasy Chinese-food containers or a dripping ice-cream carton.

It’s the sort of obsessive behavior Cagney might have commiserated about with Lacey — but Rosie is very much a show about going it alone. Though she is quick to compliment her costars — Dorian Harewood as Rosie’s hard-edged officemate, Ron Rifkin as her liberal boss, and Lisa Banes as her sister — Gless works without a partner, which means she appears in every scene.

”There’s good news and bad news,” Gless says. ”Sometimes it’s easier to carry a show alone. I do miss Tyne very much. But you’re constantly aware of the other person. If she goes one way, you deliberately go the other to make the scene more interesting. The bad thing here is that you don’t have anyone to share the work with.” (Daly will, however, make a guest appearance on the show in February.)

Rosie cocreator and head writer Beth Sullivan says, ”There were lots of pressures to give her a Lacey. This is the first time a woman has carried a drama that’s not a genre show like a cop show or murder mystery. Any time anyone told us we need a costar, we told him — especially him — that Sharon could do it.”

Gless herself never seemed to entertain any doubts about that. After a grueling 14-hour day on the set, she goes into her custom-made trailer and changes into shorts and a faded blue T-shirt. On its front is this message: ”Age and Treachery Will Always Overcome Youth and Skill.” ”That,” says Gless with a laugh, ”is my philosophy.” That, and the sense of humor that comes with it, seems to be serving her well.