Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly, Cagney & Lacey

Question: I don't have any wagers, arguments or bets to settle. I just have a question, if that's OK. Was there another actress who played Cagney on Cagney & Lacey before Sharon Gless did, or is my memory failing already? Thank you for your time.


Answer: Actually, there were two, Ruth. Loretta Swit (M*A*S*H) first played Det. Chris Cagney in the CBS TV-movie that aired in 1981. However, after that movie proved successful enough for the network executives, who didn't initially believe the concept was strong enough for a show to order up a series, Swit was unavailable. In stepped actress Meg Foster, and the reason for her abrupt departure, together with the lack of network spin on it, provides an interesting lesson in how different today's political climate is from that of 20 years ago.

"[T]oo tough, too hard and not feminine," an unnamed CBS suit told TV Guide of Cagney and partner Mary Beth Lacey (Judging Amy's Tyne Daly) in 1982 when Foster was ousted after a mere three episodes. "They were too harshly women's lib. The American public doesn't respond to the bra burners, the fighters, the women who insist on calling manhole covers 'people-hole covers.' These women on Cagney & Lacey seemed more intent on fighting the system than doing police work. We perceived them as dykes."

Ouch. Of course, that was nearly two decades before the likes of Will & Grace and Queer as Folk. In those days, a network programmer (albeit an anonymous one) could get away with making such statements because the gay political community, which protested the change rather loudly at the time, wasn't nearly the force it is today. Mind you, the environment for gay characters — and those perceived to be — is much better now, but the cynic in me thinks that while some execs wouldn't apply such a standard to casting decisions now, there are far more who know enough to simply make up another reason. Ah, progress.

So poor Foster was gone (it probably didn't help her cause that she'd played a lesbian a few years earlier in the theatrical feature A Different Story), and Gless was brought into an obviously tense situation. To make matters touchier for both sides, Gless was just coming off a gig on CBS' House Calls, where she'd replaced Lynn Redgrave after a contract dispute between the future Shine star and that show's producers, and didn't want to be known as the gal who took over for other people. Daly, for her part, was close friends with the departed Foster and couldn't be expected to greet whoever took her job with open arms. Nevertheless, they met and bonded over a bottle of champagne and, while never best buds, managed to appear together despite friction over things like competing for the same Emmy and who received top billing. ("It hasn't been kissy, kissy, kissy every moment," Gless said at the time. "I'm not going to lie and tell you that, but we've made it work.")

Not that a touch-and-go relationship between the two stars stood out from the rest of the show's tumult, considering Cagney & Lacey's history. As stated above, the original TV-movie's ratings pleased the skeptical network programmers and they tried it as a series, which was a hit with critics and with devoted fans but a so-so performer in the Nielsens. It was canceled after the 1982-83 season, but an avalanche of viewer mail changed the mind of the CBS powers that be and back it came, airing new episodes in March 1984. The support and love of the show's viewers helped sustain it for another four years — not a bad run for a show that had already been killed off and was pretty much on life support for most of its run — and it lasted until August 1988.

Perhaps the best thing you can say about a series that combined strong female characters and the done-to-death cop genre is that, as much as any TV show can, it kept it real. And if that doesn't mean much coming from a desk jockey like me, take the word of writer and former New York City Transit Police officer Dorothy Uhnak, who praised the drama for its accuracy. "To a very great extent, this is what it looks like, feels like, sounds like to be a police officer. Male or female," Uhnak wrote in 1985. "I'd walk through a dark alley with Cagney or Lacey behind me. That is the ultimate compliment from one police officer to another."