The Spirit of Sharon Gless

[ 0 ] October 2, 2009 |
 By Bill Biss
Sharon Gless
Whether you remember Sharon Gless from Cagney and Lacey, Queer as Folk or are just now enjoying her performance on the popular Burn Notice on USA Network, her skills as an actress have been enjoyed by film, theatre and television audiences for over twenty years. Gless is also a strong advocate for gay and lesbian rights and in her latest film role she portrays a lesbian woman by the name of Hannah who is fighting for her rights to see her long time partner who has had a stroke. The kick is they are both in the same nursing home and her partner’s family will not let her visit her long time love, Rachel. Through the use of flashbacks, the audience is able to learn just what made their love so powerful over the past forty years as it is explored in the heartwarming and realistic film called Hannah Free. Sharon Gless is refreshingly honest as she talks about her characterization in the film, her loyal gay and lesbian audience, the early days on the Universal Studios lot as a contract player and Showtime’s landmark Queer as Folk.
The Rage Monthly: Hannah Free is a beautifully done film. What were your initial feelings after reading the script by Claudia Allen?
Sharon Gless: Thank you. When she called me, I had actually done a play of hers for radio. Tyne Daley and I did one of her plays. I also did a play of hers on stage. So, I knew her work and we had become friends by then. I knew what kind of women she wrote and how well she wrote them. She’s a multi-award-winning playwright in Chicago. She called me and said, “They’re turning one of my plays into a movie! You want to play it?” I said, “Sure!” And she said, “Don’t you want to know which one it is?” I said, “Nope” (laughter). I knew how beautifully she wrote. It just worked out perfectly. We had eighteen days in which to shoot it and we did.
Rage: Hannah is quite a character.
SG: I loved doing that role. I tell you… it’s being accepted at gay and lesbian film festivals all over the world now. It was just shown in Ireland. It’s hard for me to watch myself. But, it’s not hard to watch this movie for some reason. There have been five festivals so far that I said I would go to and if you go, obviously you have to sit through it. I never watch myself. I never watched Cagney and Lacey. I don’t watch Burn Notice. I never watched             Queer as Folk. Obviously I had to be polite to sit there and watch [Hannah Free] and I found myself being very taken in by it.
Rage: In the film, the daughter of your lesbian partner denies you visiting rights. That is so hurtful to watch. This is still something that is prevalent today between partners that are not married.
SG: You know Bill, I didn’t realize it when I read it but as I was shooting it, I was in a different place. You get your head in different places. But, it is so timely. The fact that this story is about an 80-year-old woman…this story took place about ten years ago, if you go time wise. It has to be that way because of the time she was living during the depression and so on. For a couple of old women in this love affair that lasted at that time. Nothing’s changed! It’s the exact same problem that is going on right now…that people are not allowed to get married and people are not acknowledged as family or they can’t be taken care of by the lover’s will. Hospitals won’t let them in unless they’re married.
Rage: I know. I didn’t know you were the granddaughter of Neil S. McCarthy [prominent Hollywood lawyer for Howard Hughes, Louis B. Mayer and Cecil B. DeMille among others].
SG: I am. Did you know him?
Rage: (laughter) No. I just love old Hollywood and thought that was cool. And you were one of the last people who were a contract player at Universal Studios?
SG: I’m the last. I wasn’t the last to be signed. I was the last to leave the lot, which made me the last contract player in Hollywood. I was the last person to walk off that lot. They ended the contract system in 1981 and they kept me to do a series to replace Lynn Redgrave called House Calls for a year. Everyone else had gone…there was no contract system anymore. I left in 1982. What is weird is that when I took my contract to Grandpa to show him, I said, “Do you know Lou Wasserman?” He said, “I know Lou very well.” I said, “Look at this. I made $200 a week as a secretary Grandpa. I’m only making $186 here at Universal.” He said, “Let me see it.” He burst out laughing. I said, “What’s so funny?” He said, “That’s my contract. I draw up the first contract for a studio and a player. It’s mine.” He was hysterical. He said, “Do you want to be an actress Sharon?” I said, “Yes Grandpa.” He said, “Sign it. You have to be coming from a position of power from which to negotiate. You are not. Sign it and let’s see how you do next year and I’ll go talk to Lou [Wasserman]. He died. He never saw me on film. He sees me from a higher place I believe.
Rage: What is one of your vivid memories of those first days on the lot?
SG: I was so happy. I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. I had no experience. They took me from behind a secretary’s desk and put me in front of a camera. It was like a dream. I was born and raised in Hollywood, so movies are like my life. I spent all my allowance money every weekend to go to the movies. I dreamed that one day I’d do that…but I never told anybody. I didn’t even admit I wanted to be an actress until I was 26. So, I had to go to the Westmore make-up building to meet the make-up person and I had to go to the big wardrobe department where Edith Head [famous designer for the stars] was head of it. It was wild! I walked around and I thought, “My God. I belong here.” I remember so well…I’m walking along trying to find the make-up building and I hear someone say, “Don’t EVER think that YOU are not a pretty girl!” I turned around to see whomever it was that was talking and it was Walter Matthau! I turned around and wondered who he was talking to and he said, “You!” (laughter). That’s the first actor who ever spoke to me.
Rage: There is a real internal strength in many of your characters over the years. What are some of your thoughts on the various characters that you have played?
 SG: I’ve been very, very fortunate. I feel like the roles picked me, you know? Queer as Folk was the only one I really went after. I called up Showtime. I said, “I want that part.” I’ve just been blessed enough or fortunate enough to be handed these amazing women. All very different…certainly, but each one of them has their own history, their own strength. I don’t know why I’ve been lucky enough to have gotten these parts. I noticed that I’ve had a very loyal following, ever since Cagney and Lacy. I had a very big lesbian audience for Cagney and Lacey for which I was very grateful. Cagney did. The men loved Lacey and the women loved Cagney. That show really took me up to another notch. Then Barney [husband/writer/producer] wrote The Trials of Rosie O’Neill for me, which was another really strong role. I played a public defender. It only lasted two years. Then there was a drought for me. I went into menopause and put on weight and nobody wanted to know Cagney as me heavy. Then Queer as Folk came along and I went after that one. I then got this wonderful gay audience. Now, both the gays and the lesbians have been with me ever since. I really feel that the gay and lesbian audience kept me working! They keep me going on these years.
Rage: I want to thank you for continuing all these years to be in the fight for gays and lesbians.
SG: I am. Absolutely, I’m sure many people are. I learned so much…especially on Queer as Folk and personally, I saw first hand the trials and the heartache. I also see that you guys have a lot more fun than we do (laughter). One woman asked me at a screening of Hannah Free, “Are you sure you’re not gay?” I said, “I’m pretty sure but I kind of wish I were cause you have a lot more fun than I do.” I learned so much on Queer as Folk and that’s what got me involved when people would ask for my help. I was more than happy to do it. With as much fun as you all have, you still are fighting an uphill battle in this country. I love Obama but I don’t know if he’s your friend. Hillary was. I campaigned for her and she was definitely your friend. I’m sure Obama is too…but he doesn’t have the courage.
Rage: It was wonderful talking with you Sharon.
SG: Thank you. I love the name of your magazine. I do! It’s great.


Category: General

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