Want to know how Sharon Gless scored her 10th Emmy nomination this year after nearly four decades in the business and 10 series?
Consider the cigarettes.
Onscreen as Madeline Westen, the mother of superspy Michael Westen on USA Network's Burn Notice, Gless deploys her cigarettes with style. She soothes herself with a handy drag one moment and waves a smoldering Marlboro like a weapon the next.
Offscreen, the former Cagney & Lacey star handles cigarettes the way some people heft a highball at the end of a challenging day, firing one up during a 45-minute lunch break in her dressing room-size trailer (though she's nice enough to ask a visiting reporter before striking the match).
Let those wimps on Mad Men swagger through scenes with clove-stuffed fabrications in hand. When Gless heard her character was a smoker, the one thing she knew was that Maddy was going to be puffing the real thing while helping her superspy son dodge bullets in the Magic City.
"I've seen some of those other shows, like Mad Men, and you can tell they're not smokers," said Gless, who preps her scenes with an acting coach, choreographing exactly how she'll deploy her cancer sticks in each scene. "I love using this cigarette, because it says volumes."
Gless must know her business. This month, she became the first actor on the show to be nominated for a major Emmy, midway through its fourth season. And her honor came despite a curious habit she has broken only once in the show's history.
She never watches the program. Or much of anything she has acted in over her decades-long career, from her role as a quirky mom on Showtime's gay-centered 2000-era drama Queer as Folk to her last Emmy-winning performance as NYPD Detective Christine Cagney in the classic '80s cop show.
"Some people say it's a mistake, but I just try to live in the moment that I'm playing," said Gless, who broke her longtime rule just last month during a promotional event for Burn Notice that featured a screening of the third season finale.
"The older I get, the less I can look," said the star, who fears she'll see only her shortcomings. "When I saw it, it wasn't as painful as I thought it would be. But I didn't realize how many things we blow up."
Gless, 67, has become the quirky, sentimental heart at one of cable TV's most unlikely hits. She is an engaging burst of emotion and comic relief in a role that could easily have become a stereotypical Florida senior citizen bugging her grown kid when he gets stuck in God's waiting room.
Instead, Maddy Westen is a flawed mom who couldn't stop her husband from beating her son as a child. She's often the character who reminds Jeffrey Donovan's "burned" operative Michael Westen that there is a human cost to his spy jinks in Miami, most notably when FBI agents grill her about his activities in scenes from the third season finale that likely secured Gless' Emmy nod.
On the show's set in mid June, Gless is a down-to-earth pro, joking with longtime hairstylist Romaine Greene (herself a showbiz legend who worked on Woody Allen's films for 30 years) and loosing a choice curse word after the occasional flubbed line.
You'd hardly know she was a bona fide Hollywood pioneer, teaming with Cagney & Lacey partner Tyne Daly to create the kind of independent, personally dysfunctional female cop characters viewers now find everywhere on cable, from TNT's The Closer, Saving Grace and Rissoli & Isles to USA's In Plain Sight.
"We were canceled three times," Gless says of Cagney & Lacey. "Some of our episodes, certain affiliate stations would not air them. It was a very controversial show in its day," said Gless, who eventually married the show's executive producer, Barney Rosenzweig.
Indeed, Gless was the third woman to play Cagney, following M*A*S*H star Loretta Swit's performance in the original 1981 made-for-TV movie and Meg Foster's incarnation in the show's first season. For years, the series struggled with low ratings and accusations that CBS was uncomfortable with the show's messages of female empowerment. One reported reason Gless got the role is that network executives feared Foster wasn't feminine enough to counter impressions the two women were gay.
It took a protest led by the National Organization for Women to save the show from one of its cancellations.
"Two women in a serious role . . . nobody touched that format in a cop show but us," Gless said. "Barney said at the time, women and minorities are always considered amusing. But never do you see an hour drama carried by them."
Gless enjoyed a brief reunion with Daly last season when her old acting partner came on Burn Notice to play a woman bamboozled by Michael Westen and befriended by Maddy. "When the two of us walked onto the set together, I cannot tell you the reverence and hush that fell over," she recalled. "I said, '(Sheesh) guys, I don't get this kind of attention when I walk in' (laughing). But it's just the two of us together that does it."
Keeping it real
Viewers will see another big-name cameo Thursday, when actor Burt Reynolds guest stars as a retired, hard-drinking spy Michael Westen helps out of a jam. Gless gets one scene with him, where they improvised ogling each other briefly as they crossed paths.
She plans to continue her special way of working, occasionally avoiding parts of scripts in which her character doesn't appear. Gless figures she shouldn't know what Maddy doesn't know. While filming the pilot in Miami, she didn't even tell producers she and Rosenzweig had lived on nearby Fisher Island for years, so she could hang with the cast at the hotel.
For Gless, it's all about keeping the performances as authentic as possible, because you never know what will resonate with the audience.
"I've done more series than anyone in the history of the television academy, and I have no idea what makes a hit," Gless said, laughing. "Actors . . . we can't take credit for (cast) chemistry, and we're nothing without the writers. So I've been very lucky."
Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See the Feed blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.