Follow along with the transcript below for episode: The Power of Finding Your Purpose With Sharon Gless
[00:00:02] PF: Welcome to Episode 360 of Live Happy Now. A sense of humor and a sense of purpose are key ingredients for living a happy life. And this week’s guest has plenty of both. I’m your host, Paula Felps, and this week I’m really honored to sit down with Sharon Gless to talk about her book, Apparently There Were Complaints.
Sharon made her television acting debut in 1972 and went on to embody iconic roles including Chris Cagney in Cagney and Lacey, Debbie Novotny in Queer as Folk, and Madeline Weston on Burned Notice. Her memoir is a funny and insightful read that also touches on her struggles with alcohol, marriage and menopause. Today, she talks about how her gratitude and sense of purpose have shaped her journey.
[00:00:51] PF: Sharon, welcome to Live Happy Now.
[00:00:53] SG: Thank you, Paula.
[00:00:54] PF: I’m so excited to have this conversation because I read this book, I fell in love with this book, because it is such an adventure and you make us feel like we’re riding shotgun with you through your life and what a ride.
[00:01:09] SG: What a compliment. Thank you.
[00:01:11] PF: Well, what made you decide to write it now?
[00:01:13] SG: Well, actually, how I came by this book is I just was finishing a series called The Burned Notice which I did for seven –
[00:01:19] PF: Yes, we’ve heard that.
[00:01:23] SG: Yeah, right, the USA, and it was about to end and I got a call from CBS asked me if I’d come in and talk with them. “Oh, they’re going to offer another series.” So I got there in the president’s office, Nina Tassler, and Nina when I walked in the door said, “Welcome home Sharon.” I said, “That’s so cool.” Anyway, so I sat for an hour and talked to them and had a good time. And at the end of the hour, Nina said, “You know, Sharon, we own Simon & Schuster.” “So I didn’t know that Nina.” She said, “Well, we do. And I think you have a booking.” And I said, “Well, Nina, I’m not a writer.” And she said, “No, but you’re a storyteller, and I don’t remember even telling me that.” I said, “Okay.” So she had the president of Simon & Schuster call me the next day, and I waited a year. I mean, I signed with Simon & Schuster, and then waited a year before even flew to New York to meet him.
[00:02:15] PF: So you’re a little on the bubble about it?
[00:02:18] SG: I mean, I know I’m going to do another series, that didn’t happen. After I went and met him, I signed and I waited a year again, before I even started writing. And then I finally got on board, and with their help, I wrote a book. It took me seven years.
[00:02:34] PF: Well, it was worth the wait, I got to say. I mean, it’s hilarious. I laughed out loud and read so many parts out loud. That whole time, it’s all the way through. But it’s important to know you also don’t shy away from all that trauma that you went through, and how difficult was it to walk through that again, because man that’s really opening up your heart and pulling things back out.
[00:02:57] SG: It wasn’t difficult and they weren’t difficult to remember. I came up with the title first.
[00:03:05] PF: Yeah, tell us how you came up with that?
[00:03:09] SG: I played Christine Cagney for many years and Cagney was a known alcoholic. And so right after Cagney, they suggested that I might want to check in rehab, and there was a lot of scandal about it. Is life imitating art and all of that? I was there, it’s a 28-day program, I was there seven weeks. So they wouldn’t let me out. Somebody approached me and there’s a lot of scandal about it. So it was all over the papers. I was in rehab, and someone approached me saying, “You were in Hazelden?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Why were you in Hazelden?” I said, I just try to come up with something funny, and immediately, I said, “Apparently, there were complaints.” My husband, who wasn’t my husband standing there when I said it, and he burst out laughing. So I always remembered that. When I was offered the book deal, I think that’s what I’ll call it. And then, as I said the title and formed the book, and I came up with all the complaints I can remember about. I didn’t have to do any research there.
[00:04:17] PF: It was all there. I’ve read memoirs where people kind of gloss over some of those unpleasantries, but you hold yourself accountable. You are very honest about missteps, and you talk about menopause and marital life and what do you think others can gain from reading it? Because I was honestly surprised at how forthcoming you were.
[00:04:38] SG: That you’re not alone. That most of us go through it, at least the menopause. I never had hot flashes. But my menopause was highly emotional, very peak. I just didn’t know who I was and all of the things I used to do, I didn’t do anymore and straining for one. I’m on one of the few people who mourn.
[00:05:00] PF: You did not gloss over this. You could have made this an easy ride, you could have filled this with just hilarious stories, and then like Sharon Gless had a great easy life. But I mean, you were so bold and so vulnerable.
[00:05:14] SG: I was. If you read it, I mean, it sounds like I was abused. I was never abused as a child. But I was raised by a very, very strict parent, who made me toe the mark and face – the grandmothers or even mothers don’t. So a lot of it was painful and a lot of times I failed, but I am a product of what I went through. I like me. Believe it or not, as formidable, I make that grandma sound very, very grateful to her. One of my favorite lines, I may, in the book, from reading the book, all the painful stuff with her, and how I struggled so to make her proud of me. I was one of 17 grandchildren and I was her faith. That means that she was rough. Years later, I went to this, I want to talk to my grandmother and I want to know, all these hits I’ve had on television, the awards I’ve won, and the money I’ve made, and is she proud of me now? She said, “Let me check.” That’s weird. Just comes back, and she said, tell you she’s proud of you still.
[00:06:28] PF: That’s so powerful.
[00:06:29] SG: Oh my god. I knew it happened because that’s exactly what she said. “I’m proud of this”. I guess, she always was.
[00:06:39] PF: And you do a great job of painting how challenging that was for you as a child growing up to try to meet her expectations. And you also talked about your parents’ marriage and your grandparent’s marriage is failing, how that really informed your dating life. I thought that was so incredible, because a lot of women have gone through that, and don’t get that kind of validation, to really explain it to them so well.
[00:07:03] SG: Well, I admitted to things that I’m not necessarily proud of. But I was just a result of divorce sort of family. We were all Catholic. It’s like scandalous. It wasn’t just they were divorced, grandparents and parents and parents. It was just wasn’t done.
[00:07:20] PF: But your resilience and your grit really shined through. I don’t know, if you study character strength, but boy resilience to spare.
[00:07:29] SG: No, I don’t study that. But I had to keep standing because she wouldn’t have had it otherwise. Do you know what I mean?
[00:07:36] PF: Yeah.
[00:07:37] SG: That was part of surviving, that I keep standing.
[00:07:40] PF: A lot of people don’t. They buckle. I think that’s what was so impressive is that there was nothing that happened, where at any time in the book, and in your life, did you just say, “Well, I can’t. Too much.” It was just like, “Okay, how am I going to beat this?” You have such incredible lessons that you share throughout the book of how you utilized resilience.
[00:07:59] SG: Thank you. It sounds like I was abused. I wasn’t. Emotionally I was roughed up a bit. But Paula, I’m grateful to her. I’m absolutely grateful to her. I loved her. I just feared her. I was afraid that I didn’t show it.
[00:08:17] PF: Yeah. And by the end of her life, like the relationship has taken on a much sweeter tone. Within the book, you can see you start to get a little foreshadowing, that she will be proud of you in the afterlife, because you see how she’s softening toward you and welcoming you and, you know, live in this apartment.
[00:08:35] SG: Yes, finally she saved me, really.
[00:08:38] PF: One thing that you talk about in the book, as you say, I’ll read it, “Being happy has always been my goal.” And as part of that, you really talked about having a sense of purpose. So can you talk about how having a sense of purpose has been so integral to you finding happiness?
[00:08:57] SG: Well, I think you have to have a direction. You have to know what you want, or what you want to be. You don’t necessarily have to know how you’re going to get there. But you do have to have a dream. I study metaphysics, and my metaphysics teacher told me once you don’t have to know what it’s going to look like. But you do have to know how you’re going to feel when you get there, whatever it is. I think I’ve just gone through my whole life, just feeling and dreaming and not always knowing what this looked like. But my dreams came true in a bigger way than I think I’d ever guessed.
[00:09:33] PF: Yeah, I don’t think anyone could have envisioned your career because women weren’t doing your career at the time that you entered it. Going under contract was a rarity.
[00:09:45] SG: Except for comedies, women didn’t start. Barney Rosenzweig is the first man whoever developed dramatic series. I can very proudly say, thanks to him, it changed the history of television for women.
[00:09:58] PF: Oh, absolutely. And you changed the way women saw themselves. So, I want to talk about Cagney and Lacey to begin with, because you really that’s where it started. I know you did some guest roles and had some other parts in series. But I mean, obviously for many of us, Cagney and Lacey is like that iconic jumping in point where we really got to know you. What was it like? Can you talk about the effect that being Chris Cagney had on you?
[00:10:29] SG: Well, it certainly changed my life. It also formed me. I mean, I do not believe I was a feminist when I signed on the deal. I was not a feminist. I wasn’t anything. I never had to fight against men for parts unless they wanted to wear a skirt. But I learned a tremendous amount about feminism and eventually learn what that show is doing for women in the United States. When you shoot on a soundstage, nobody’s applauding, occasionally if you really it, the cruel come up. But you are not aware of the impact you’re having. And then of course, we learn we’re having 30 million viewers a week. I’ll tell you, when I first came aware of the impact he had, and I’ve been on the show, it would be five years by then, six. During the women’s march against Washington, it was Whoopi Goldberg and Gloria Steinem. I mean, I was up there with all this women. Steinem was holding the flag and marching, going to the Washington Monument. And there’s a big stage, and we’re backstage and I’m just looking around not knowing what I’m supposed to do.
I think it was Gloria, who said, “Go out there to go out there. Aren’t you coming with us?” “No.” “Two of you go.” I said, “What do I say?” She says, “Don’t say anything, just walk out.” So we’ve walked out, I am telling you, the audience, hundreds of thousands of women and Barney Rosenzweig started screaming, and crying, and clapping. Nobody was more shocked than I. I just turned [inaudible 00:12:14]. She said – I won’t say it, but she said it. It’s a family show. But that’s when I first became aware of the impact and the positive effect we had on the women of America. It was so – anyway, it was a great honor.
[00:12:35] PF: Yeah. I told you, as we were kind of doing some pre show talk, I do some work with the International Association of Women Police. I’m editor in the magazine, and, boy, the impact that you have had on female police officers. So it’s really two groups, like you’ve got women who are just inspired to go out and chase their dreams and be what they wanted to be. And then you’ve got police officers. I cannot tell you how many times if your name comes up, and it does that, that’s the show that inspired them to become police officers.
[00:13:05] SG: I’ve had them tell me that. I’ve had young girls come up and say, “Write me.” Say, “I’m going to join the force because if you.” I want to write back and say, “Are you crazy? What if you get hurt? It’s a dramatization.”
[00:13:19] PF: Those are real guns, honey.
[00:13:20] SG: No kidding. Now, I’ve had women come to me and say, “I’ve put in my 20 years. Thank you.” Today, I live on an island. My husband was over having lunch and he said, “Get over here.” I said, “I’m not hungry.” He said, “Get over here. There are 42 Miami female police officers sitting here having lunch.” I’m going over there, they’re all in uniform. It’s an honor. It’s International Women’s Day. I walked over to them and when they realized who it was, they all stood up. I just said, “Thank you. Thank you for keeping our world safe.”
[00:14:02] PF: That’s an incredible ovation. And how is that to you when you realize because it’s not just that you’ve impacted these women and have given them their career. Think of all the lives that they have touched when you extrapolate out the lives that you have changed because of that, what goes through your mind?
[00:14:22] SG: Gratitude. Gratitude that I got to play that character. Cagney’s character, because she’s so flawed. And gratitude that we have so many women activists now and we’re safer.
[00:14:39] PF: Another character, you’ve had so many great characters, but another one that just has really changed people’s lives was from Queer as Folk and Debbie Novotny, and oh my god, like you were the woman –
[00:14:52] SG: I went after that part.
[00:14:53] PF: Tell us about that and what made you want that?
[00:14:55] SG: I’ve never gone after a role before. I mean, the passion, I wanted it. I called up the network who’s going to shoot it. Showtime. I said, “I want that part.” And the President of Showtime’s assistant used to be my husband’s assistant. So I knew her very well. She said, “You don’t want this part Sharon. There’s no money.” I said, “I don’t give a shit.” And she’s in Canada. I wanted it, because I knew it was a wonderful show. I also was very fascinated with the sexiness of it. I mean, there was just class. Man, I wanted to be there.
[00:15:31] PF: It’s really important to note the time was different, though. It was not as welcoming and as gay friendly as today’s world, and it was really controversial when the show first came out.
[00:15:41] SG: Well, yes. I guess it was. I don’t remember reading any complaints about it. The night we air, oh, my gosh, they’re religious writers that arise, and it was the night that Bush stole the election from Al Gore. And of course, all that was going on. So we just sort of slid out into the radar for opening night. But from then on, we developed this very unusual clarity, it was made for gay men. That’s what it was fashioned for, and gay women. But we got this added audience that we weren’t expecting. Because all the straight women want to see these naked guys.
[00:16:19] PF: Because they’re all gorgeous.
[00:16:21] SG: They’re gorgeous and their butt naked. And so they all tune in, and their boyfriends would watch it with because the girls would get so hot, they get lucky. So this whole other audience that we didn’t expect. It was a yummy part, and I’m closer to that cast, than any of the cast everyone played to this day.
[00:16:41] PF: I think for so many people in the gay community, you became that mother figure that we wanted. Maybe you don’t have that at home, but gosh, if you can find that character somewhere, and I think like a lot of people felt that mothering from you in that role.
[00:17:01] SG: That’s really interesting. I thought she was so outrageous that people start write about her. You’re talking about like, she’s a saint. She had the worst mouth. She had the worst mouth on the show.
[00:17:11] PF: I know. All the love. All the love and acceptance.
[00:17:15] SG: She did love them. She loved all of them.
[00:17:19] PF: Yeah, she was quite a character.
[00:17:21] SG: Yeah, I love that.
[00:17:24] PF: Is that your favorite role? Is there one character that you say, like you carry with you most in your heart?
[00:17:29] SG: Probably the character that changed my life the most was Christine Cagney. it enabled me to do roles like Queer as Folk. But queer is focused a role from which I learned the most, that character, and I’m one of those to go around for years saying so my best friend’s a gay, and we have a great time. There are a lot of things they handled in various folks. I didn’t know. I didn’t know the flight, serious flight to begin. I learned a lot from that show. And now I’m very active. If he wants me, I’m there. So I came away from that show with most knowledge.
[00:18:06] PF: Yeah. And it does reflect in the way that you have become so supportive of the gay community and continue to be that way.
[00:18:15] SG: My pleasure. Thank you. Thank you gay community. And the lesbian community is very powerful in Cagney and Lacey. Then we brought them inwards.
[00:18:25] PF: There was something for everybody there.
[00:18:26] SG: Yeah, something to offend everyone.
[00:18:31] PF: So as people read your book, I mean, it is just, it really is a delight. What is it that you hope resonates with them the most that they walk away from this book feeling?
[00:18:42] SG: It’s wrong for me to say that you can survive, because it wasn’t a dastardly childhood. But I just hope it’s mixed. I hope we close the book saying that was a good ride. That was a good ride. Because some of it’s funny, and some of it, you said, when I was recording the audio, which I’ve won three awards, thank you.
[00:18:59] PF: Awesome.
[00:19:01] SG: Thank you. There are parts where I’m reading, again. I mean, when you write it, it’s a long, long process to know. But in reading it, as if it were for the first time, I got moved by my own words. It was one part where I started to cry. It was about my grandma. I got choked up, my voice. I lost control of the voice. And I said, “Oh, please. Guys, let’s back up. Let’s rerecord that section.” And a friend of mine, Brighton from California to direct me. When I said, “No, let’s back it up. Redo that part.” She said, “Are you kidding? That’s gold.” Actually, she said another word in front of gold. She said, “Leave it in.” I even touched myself. So I think there is something you offend everyone, you laugh, and you cry at times and feel hopeful because the hardest chapter to write was the last, because I’m not having to work from memory. I’m not having – no, I’m not being a storyteller. Now, I have to talk about me now, and that was really –
[00:20:06] PF: Interesting, because it would seem in reading it that it’d be pulling out the past that would be more challenging.
[00:20:14] SG: The past lives with you. I’m carrying it around, and I don’t say that it’s complain, it’s just that, I’m a product, that I went through. And again, it’s not an approving childhood, but emotionally, it was tough. I’m a people pleaser. When you have a grandmother like that, it’s just you never stopped dancing.
[00:20:33] PF: You’re not going to please until the afterlife. That’s great. So what are you working on now? Because again, you thrive and it becomes so apparent you thrive on work, you thrive on –
[00:20:49] SG: I do. I just took a job and I’m not allowed to talk about it. It’s a wonderful role. A brief role, but very awesome. Also, I’m standing in for Barbara Eden. Remember Barbara Eden?
[00:21:04] PF: Yeah. I Dream of Jeannie.
[00:21:06] SG: Jeannie, Barbara Eden, she’s now an amazing 90 years old.
[00:21:11] PF: Wow.
[00:21:11] SG: She’s been touring, I guess for years, doing love letters.
[00:21:16] PF: That’s right, with Barry Bostwick.
[00:21:17] SG: With Barry Bostwick. So I’m having the pleasure of stepping in for her this weekend with Barry Bostwick.
[00:21:24] PF: Oh, you have to sit on a stage with him for two hours and look at him?
[00:21:27] SG: I know. You think everybody’s going to look at me? Nah.
[00:21:31] PF: That’s a rough gig. I’m sorry.
[00:21:35] SG: But it’s fun. It’s a fun piece, I’ve never done love letters. Once time and I were asked to do it.
[00:21:40] PF: Really? Interesting.
[00:21:42] SG: I don’t know what happened. But I’m one of the few actresses in the world who has never done and it’s quite a piece. I thought it was a comedy.
[00:21:50] PF: It’s a heavy comedy.
[00:21:52] SG: Yes.
[00:21:52] PF: Well, this is fun. As we have to let you go, then what is your best advice for people who are looking to find that happiness with their life? Who are looking to find peace with their past, no matter what their past is?
[00:22:05] SG: You have to have something to get up in the morning. There has to be something that lists your heart, and either you have it now and you’re enjoying it. It’s a dream of the future. You absolutely, I believe, can have it. I believed it. I believed it. I got through all those years being good girl, and I went into an industry that my family, kidding, my grandfather said it’s a filthy business. But I always held my dream and I’ve been wanting to work again, since the book is over. I thought, “Well now, what do I do?” Boom, two jobs come up. One, very good. And it’s because I always kept the dream out there.
Another thing I learned, you didn’t ask me, but you sort of asked me what did I learn during this stuff? I learned to stop blaming anybody else. Never any more do it. Don’t ever blame anybody for anything, because it’s my responsibility. Somehow I don’t know how I created it. I brought it in, and it’s a wonderful thing of lifting me blaming my grandmother off my shoulders. So freeing. I put her there, clearly for a reason. Here she is folks. You know what I mean? So many of us, at least I go through life of blaming. “If she’d been nicer”, and once I got that off my shoulders, forget it, take it on yourself. Take on your dream or make up one. You got to have a dream. So this is Richard Rodgers, Rodgers and Hammerstein.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:23:49] PF: That was Sharon Gless, talking about her new book, Apparently There Were Complaints. If you’d like to learn more about her book or follow her on social media, visit our website at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all new episode. And until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every, day a happy one