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Gless: Free At Last

By Lawrence Ferber

Decades after she claimed the mantle of lesbian icon thanks to her starring role as NYPD Det. Sergeant Christine Cagney on TV's Cagney & Lacey, Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actress Sharon Gless has finally taken on her first explicitly lesbian part with the feature film, Hannah Free.

Written by Claudia Allen (based upon her play) and directed by Wendy Jo Carlton, Hannah Free stars Gless as Hannah, a wanderlust-stricken elderly woman confined to a nursing home whose life-long, comatose lover, Rachel (Maureen Gallagher), is kept in a separate room. Due to a lack of legal access that would come with marriage or "official" family member status, and further interference from Rachel's sour, homophobic daughter, Hannah is prevented from seeing her one true love - until a mysterious young woman enters her room and lends a hand.

An outspoken activist for LGBT and women's rights (she was honored this past July with a Gay Icon Award at Philadelphia's QFest), much like her character Debbie Novotny on Queer As Folk, Gless lives with husband Barney Rosenzweig in Miami, where she also shoots her role as Madeline, mother of covert officer Michael Westen in USA Network's hit series Burn Notice. Here Gless discusses channeling her inner lesbian, her scariest stalker experience, and whether she would don Debbie's curly wig again for a Folk reunion.

Had you been offered any lesbian roles prior to this one?

"No, this was the first and it's written by a friend of mine. She's an award-winning playwright in Chicago and has written like 32 plays and most have a lesbian bent. I met her when Tyne Daly and I did a radio show of one of her plays, and I did one on stage. She called me and said, 'they're putting one of my plays on film for the first time, would you do it?' I said, 'sure, I don't even have to see a script - if it's yours I'll do it.'"

Where did you most connect with Hannah or her experiences?

"I didn't pull from anything from my life. I actually believed I was Hannah and I have seldom been as comfortable as I was playing that character. Make of it what you will. I believed I was she. I believed I loved this woman [Rachel] all my life. I've always played strong women and this one was a fighter. I loved Claudia's dialogue. I had laryngitis when I did it so the voice was appropriately low because she was older. How do I explain that Hannah takes off on Rachel all the time and leaves her? That's who she was. A wanderer. But the feelings were legitimate, the love was true, and the sadness now is losing the woman she loved and not being able to say goodbye. That's really what it's about. It's very timely because of Proposition 8. We showed Hannah Free on Rosie O'Donnell's [R Family] cruise and, my God, the emotional reaction in that room, I was stunned. One of the women stood up and said, 'I'm a lawyer and those of you who don't have your papers in order, they won't let you get married, I will help you with being able to get into that hospital room.' People started applauding and talking about their personal lives and how they're held back legally. That's the neatest thing that's come out of this movie so far. "

Do you find there's a lot of confusion or speculation amongst your LGBT fans as to whether you're lesbian in real-life?

"That's been going on since Cagney & Lacey. Yes, that's always been the belief and I don't try and dissuade them. I got a huge lesbian following from that show and I have gratitude. I always think the gays have more fun than we do, anyway. I'm serious. A lot of women think Barney is a beard. (laughs) The gay community's really kept my career going."

Would you like to see a lesbian redux of Cagney & Lacey?

"A lot of people are talking about doing a feature [film version] of it now. In fact, Barney got a call recently from some studio that said these two girls want to take a crack at it as a feature. Young women. If someone wanted to do a lesbian version, sure, go ahead! It would be interesting. I don't think it would become a big film. Maybe a very fun and must have film in the gay community."

You've played some hardcore stalkers - on Nip/Tuck's Season 5 and as Annie Wilkes in a stage version of Stephen King's Misery. You've had an experience with a cuckoo stalker yourself, correct?

"I have. A woman entered my home with a rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition. Seven-hour standoff. The [police] thought I was inside. I was not. The woman was in love with Cagney and wanted us to die together so we could be in heaven. I have a philosophy. I think the people who are stalked are usually only TV people. Very seldom is a movie star stalked. Television personalities are stalked more than anyone else because we're in their homes every week. Television, I promise you, is still to this day the most powerful medium in the world. They sit in the dark and watch you and some people misunderstand."

Do you feel the time is nigh for a Queer As Folk reunion?

"I think we're absolutely ready for a reunion. It's timely and they never did anything to try and copy this show. I just don't think L-Word did the job. It became a Victoria's Secret catalog, that's my opinion. They didn't have the chance to really have the depth we did on QAF."

Do you have any pop culture addictions today?

"Rachel Maddow. She's so smart and funny. Just brilliant, but so witty. I have to like her style of humor."

For some fair and balanced reporting, have you ever dared yourself to watch Sean Hannity's or Glenn Beck's shows on FOX?

"No. I am a news junkie but I'm very into Keith Olbermann and Rachel. I do have a guilty pleasure I don't admit to anybody - I'm hooked on Nancy Grace. She saves those kids though! She gets those children found or their murderers nailed!"

What other projects are coming up for you?

"I'm just finishing my third year of Burn Notice, the highest rated cable show in the nation, and a play based on a book I optioned 8 years ago called 'A Round Heeled Woman.' It's about a woman who taught English, she took an ad out saying 'before I turn 67 next March I want to have a lot of sex with a man I like.' And she wrote a book about what happened and a sequel because she couldn't fit all the men in! I'm gonna play her."