attest to Sharon Gless' acting talents. Colleagues rave about
her prowess playing brazen dames.
To truly understand what
a superb actress she is, however, you have to understand the
real Sharon Gless.
By her own admission, Gless, who co-stars
in Showtime's Sunday drama "Queer as Folk," is "shy
and reluctant. The roles are so brassy. I never played a character
who was shy in my life. I love the way people see me and cast
On the fourth-year series, Gless plays Debbie,
a loving mother of a gay son. She is a diner waitress with a
foul mouth, political T-shirts and red hair that looks as if
she lost a fight with a blind beautician.
Gless is proud
of the look. "A lot of people, including my husband, say,
'I can't believe you are going on television like that,'"
she says with a laugh that starts deep in her being.
red hair distances her from Sharon," says executive producer
Daniel Lipman. "But they have the same heart."
recalls the bleak days of casting "Queer as Folk,"
when actors were not auditioning for the show because they did
not want to play gays. Gless, however, sought this part, and
it has only made her more popular. "I would not have the
career I have without the gay community," she says.
already had embraced Gless' strong cop Christine Cagney in "Cagney
& Lacey," though the character was straight. And the
gay community has adopted Debbie, who is also straight but completely
supportive of her son. In both shows, Gless wanted to play a
complex, outspoken woman.
"I smelled trouble,"
she says of her reaction to reading the pilot for "Queer
as Folk." "And I love trouble. I expected more trouble.
We were upstaged by the fact that we couldn't elect a president.
We were so sure that the religious right would picket us, and
I couldn't wait. We just sort of sneaked by."
religious right won't picket her, Gless decided to picket it.
On April 25, she was part of the March for Women's Lives in
Washington, D.C. "It was the first time I ever actually
marched and it was the most extraordinary experience to be with
one million women and the men who love them," Gless says.
She went with her husband, Barney Rosenzweig, and one of
her closest friends, Tyne Daly, her partner in fighting crime
in "Cagney & Lacey."
Daly recalls they met
at the bar of a Hollywood party for "Roots" years
before they were teamed, and they struck up a conversation praising
each other's talents. "I said something to her that night
and she was so impressed with it," Daly says. "I said,
'What is it?' She can't remember. I am still hanging around
to find out what brilliant thing I said to her when we first
"She made me laugh, and continues to make
me laugh," Daly says. One reason is that Gless laughs easily
at herself and at life's absurdities.
Though a fifth-generation
Angeleno born 61 years ago into a family with strong ties to
show business, Gless got a relatively late start at 26. She
knew when she was 6 that she wanted to act when she saw her
classmate, Billy Chapin, on screen. She asked her mother to
approach an uncle, a casting director, who "unfortunately
did not believe in nepotism," she says.
her mother saying, "We both decided it was important that
you finish school first and then we'll talk about it again."
Ever-obedient, Gless waited until she was 18 to broach the topic.
Gless then told her grandfather, Neil McCarthy, lawyer to studio
bosses Louis B. Mayer and Howard Hughes, she wanted to act.
"He said, 'It's a filthy business. You stay out of it,'"
Gless says. "I didn't have the nerve to be impudent."
Instead, she attended a Jesuit college from which she was
expelled for twice sneaking in beer. "And I don't even
like beer," she says gleefully.
Her mother, realizing
Gless was emotionally suffocating at home, spirited her to the
bus terminal. She gave her daughter $200, and told her to stay
at a YWCA after arriving at wherever she wanted to go.
got off the bus in Spokane, Wash., to be near buddies. "I
answered an ad at a warehouse in a shady part of town,"
she says. "I was wearing a pink linen suit, white gloves,
a blond ponytail and heels."
They gave her the job
-- selling aluminum siding door-to-door. A man in a station
wagon drove her around, and she ended up apologizing to people
for disturbing them. She sold nothing. "I walk up to another
house and ring the bell," she says, barely suppressing
the guffaw coming, "and the man in the station wagon starts
honking." When she returned to the car, he explained, "That's
a brick house."
"I was afraid to tell them I didn't
know what aluminum siding was," she says.
After a day,
Gless enrolled in secretarial school and excelled. She worked
corporate jobs, then became a production secretary, and sometimes
would read with auditioning actresses. Gless discovered she
enjoyed acting, and because she was in charge of the payroll,
she also realized how much more actresses earned.
production company folded, Gless was left broke and stranded
in Arizona. She visited her grandfather and his new wife, who
told Gless she needed to do something with her life. After they
shared a bottle of champagne, Gless confessed her ambition to
act. She was afraid of her grandfather's reaction, but he encouraged
her, and gave her money for acting class.
Soon, Gless was
in a play, where someone from Universal Studios caught her performance.
The studio signed her in 1972, making Gless Universal's last
contract player. The paltry standard contract had been crafted
years earlier by her grandfather.
The studio made Gless
watch dailies and learn from her mistakes. Today, however, Hal
Sparks, who plays her son on "Queer as Folk," says,
"She can't watch her own work, so she never knows how wonderful
Despite the kudos, Gless says finding jobs
became difficult for a while as she aged. "I hated my 50s,"
she says. "When I turned 60 last summer, I thought, Who
is going to [insult] a 60-year-old woman? So what if you are
not a size 4? Come on, cut me some slack. I am having the best
time because I cut myself some slack."