“You call this plain clothes?”
Few shows in television history have the kind of storied history that you’ll find with Cagney & Lacey. The show’s own story would make for compelling television drama in its own right. It didn’t end with simply trying to get on the air. The trials continued through three cancellations and an unprecedented recasting of a lead…twice. It’s no small miracle that the show made it at all, let alone lasting for six years and a total of over 130 episodes and television movies.
It all started when Barbara Corday began to get involved with the feminism movement in the early 1970’s. There she met Barbara Avedon, who was a television writer who was taking a career break to help with the movement. The two became fast friends, and Corday ended up sharing a book with husband Barney Rosenzweig. The book, From Reverence To Rape by Molly Haskell. The book ended with a statement that there hadn’t been any female buddy cop shows or films to that point. One could argue the point, as Charlie’s Angels would certainly appear to fill that description. Still, Rosenzweig was intrigued enough with the idea to write a female buddy cop movie. The original title was Newman And Redford, an homage to their buddy films, but the legal department promptly put an end to that title. It was shopped as a feature film, but there were no takers. It appeared that Cagney & Lacey would be stillborn.
The next step was to try to shop it as a television series. Again there were no takers, and you would think that would have been the end of it. It would have been if not for interest from a CBS executive assistant who bullied her boss into looking over the project as a television movie. He suggested it needed to star Raquel Welch and Ann Margaret and budget under a couple of million bucks. It was a non-starter, and for a third time it appeared the project was history.
“Too tough, too hard ,and not feminine. 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.”
A break came when CBS had a pay or play option to put M*A*S*H star Loretta Swit in a television film. Rosenzweig initially balked because he knew there would be no chance of a series with Swit already in a huge moneymaking show. He was quickly reminded that he’d already been turned down for a series, and the one-off television film was his take-it-or-leave-it opportunity to get Cagney & Lacey on the air. Obviously, he took it, and the film scored huge ratings. The show stared Swit as Cagney and Tyne Daly as Lacey. Within 24 hours the studio was demanding the series they’d twice before refused. Of course, Swit was not available, and the role of Cagney had to be recast. Meg Foster was brought in to take over the role of Cagney and six episodes were filmed. Only four made it to air before the ax fell on the fledgling show. A CBS executive made the unfortunate above comment. Still, the television gods were shining on the series, and they were given an unheard of third attempt to cast the role of Cagney and try again. This time it was the producer’s first choice, Sharon Gless, who would take over the Cagney role, one she had refused on two previous occasions.
Detective Chris Cagney (Gless) was a single policewoman with a zest for life and guys. She was a bit of a tomboy but also was a little loose with the men she might invite into her bed. Detective Mary Beth Lacey (Daly) couldn’t have been more her opposite. She was a married mother with children and a husband (Karlen) who was unable to work because of his health. Still, the two made a good patrol cop team; that was until they stumbled upon a huge drug bust that catapulted them into a detective squad where they would be the first and only female detectives. The squad room included Lt. Bert Samuels (Waxman) who was the head of the unit. He was the typical rough-exterior guy with a hidden softer center. At first he wasn’t happy having the female detectives under his command, but as the show went on he warmed up to them considerably. There was Detective Isbecki (Kove) who was a young single guy who liked to flirt with the ladies, particularly Cagney. Detective Mark Petrie (Lumbly) was breaking his own barriers as a young black detective in an otherwise all-white squad. He was the calming force on the team and rarely showed any kind of emotional outbursts. He also had a family at home. For a while there was Detective La Guardia. He was the wise veteran officer and remained an official part of the team even though actor Sidney Clute died in 1985. Instead of recasting or removing the character the show runners decided to continue his presence but always off-screen. A few other detectives and series roles would come and go, but this would remain the core group for the entire series run.
The two leads did share a strong chemistry which was not easy to come by. After the first episodes with Meg Foster, Daly and Foster had taken a bit of a promotional tour together to try to revive the show. Daly was not exactly happy at first that Foster was getting replaced. They even had a bit of a rough time settling who got top billing. That was settled with an unprecedented creation of two show intros. They alternated top billing week to week. Gless was concerned about playing the “bimbo” blonde, so she had them bind her breasts so that she would not appear so “well endowed”.
The show broke more than just the female cop barriers. These characters were among the first television cops to have personal lives that we were privy to. We went home with Lacey and were witness to the domestic issues of being a working mother and the ego hits her husband had to deal with because he wasn’t the breadwinner. We met Cagney’s guys and were given an idea of what her social life might have been. The series also touched on highly emotional and controversial issues. The two leads dealt directly with such topics as alcoholism, rape, psychotic breakdowns, infidelity, breast cancer, depression and abuse. These were flawed characters that attempted to splash some reality into what was otherwise a routine procedural cop show. It was also nice that they did not always get the bad guys. They lost cases.
While the television film scored huge ratings, the series never really did. It was cancelled twice and resurrected each time by a unique letter-writing campaign. Rosenzweig encouraged fans to write, not to the networks, but their local newspapers. When stories began to be written there was pressure to keep the show on the air. Women’s groups and publications also applied tremendous pressure to keep the series going. It worked. After six stormy seasons the show finally breathed its last…or did it?
The cast reunited for four television reunion films that were initially intended to be a part of a wheel of films much like the early days of Columbo and McCloud. The movies were a bit stiff and didn’t generate the kind of numbers the network was looking for. The final hammer fell not with a bang but with a small whimper as Cagney & Lacey disappeared forever from our television screens.
The show was indeed groundbreaking, but it did have its flaws. The idea started in the early 70’s, but it literally took the show ten years to get on the air. That created a rather dated feel to the show. It was the early 80’s now, and this one still looked a lot like a 70’s series. It was, without a doubt, much like a female version of Starsky & Hutch. The production values still make the show look more like it belonged in the mid-1970’s.
The series could also be a bit heavy-handed with the social issues. Viewers were constantly reminded of the liberal issues of the day. Signs that decried fur or other issues got to be a bit overbearing at times. It also dates the show almost fatally today. It hasn’t really been a favorite in syndication even though it crossed the magical 100-episode mark. It maintained its solid core of fans but has dwindled a bit into obscurity in recent decades. It’s actually more in England that the show has its largest following.
Now Visual Entertainment has lifted that veil of obscurity a bit and given the series a bit of a new life with an impressive complete series release. You get everything here. The original Loretta Swit film is included as are the rarely seen Meg Foster episodes. The set includes some rather candid interviews with the cast and crew. There is a reunion panel from England that sheds a lot of light on the show. The set finishes with all four television films and Rosenzweig’s E-Book autobiography. It’s a generous helping that makes this a complete set and a centerpiece for any fans of the show. Each season comes in its own plastic case with another case for the films and bonus features. All of it fits rather snugly into an attractive box that is shelf-friendly. It’s a fitting tribute for a series that set some television milestones in an effort to be “richer, deeper, fuller, better”.
You can also go to Visual Entertainment’s web site here: Visual Entertainment