Cagney & Lacey survived two cancellations and multiple re-castings to become a TV groundbreaker

Cagney & Lacey survived two cancellations and multiple re-castings to become a TV groundbreaker

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodeswe examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

One evening in 1974, Barney Rosenzweig had an epiphany while on his second date with a young writer named Barbara Corday. While the two watched the movie Scent Of A Woman (the Italian original and not the Al Pacino-starring remake), his eyes were opened to the way Corday—who was fully involved in the feminist movement of the period—perceived the film’s treatment of the sexy younger women who made up the bulk of its female cast. Where Rosenzweig laughed with delight and recognition in seeing the older men objectify the younger women around them, Corday seethed at that objectification. Through her eyes, Rosenzweig was able to better understand the feminist movement, even if he would never describe himself as a card-carrying feminist. He tried to see the film as if it were being shown in Nazi Germany and made Jews the object of its laughter, instead of young women. It was an epiphany that would ultimately change both of their lives.

Rosenzweig recounts this moment in his perhaps too forthcoming memoir, Cagney & Lacey … And Me, a book that details the history of the show and his involvement with it. To modern eyes, the show that gives the book its title—and made Rosenzweig’s career as a TV producer after decades in the trenches of less prestigious projects—is nothing remarkable. It is, in many ways, just another cop show, without the dense tapestry of urban life that gave many of its contemporaries, such as Hill Street Blues or St. Elsewhere their spark and verve. But in its time, Cagney & Lacey was condemned harshly and subject to all manner of controversy. It was canceled three times, though only one of them took, and three different actresses played one of the title parts. It was an odd duck of a show, an uneasy blend of ’70s detective show and ’80s social-issues drama. And though it was a groundbreaking series for women in the entertainment industry, it always had Rosenzweig at its center, the man who was unquestionably the show’s primary creative force, even if he didn’t create the series and only had credits on the scripts for its première and finale.

The creators of Cagney & Lacey were Corday and her writing partner, Barbara Avedon, who never actually received credit for a script. (They would share “story by” credits on two pivotal fourth-season episodes, in which the character of Mary Beth Lacey struggled with breast cancer, and the first episode of the first season, “You Call This Plain Clothes?”) At Rosenzweig’s prompting, Corday and Avedon first conceived of Cagney & Lacey as a screenplay for a film in the mid-’70s, one that would fit in with the groundbreaking work hitting American cinemas at the time. It would be a sort of feminine spin on something like The French Connection, as two female cops took down the bad guys while struggling against the sexism that greeted them every step of the way. Cagney was to be a single woman, focused on her career. Lacey had similar career interests, but she also had a husband and children. Even with Rosenzweig (whom Corday met when they worked on the short-lived teen drama Sons & Daughters) in their corner, no one would make the Cagney & Lacey movie, and the project disappeared into the drawer.

At the present moment, the idea of a movie or, especially, a TV series about two female police officers doesn’t seem all that provocative. Both The Heat and Rizzoli & Isles have featured rough spins on just that format and have been largely successful this summer. But in the ’70s, when Rosenzweig, Corday, and Avedon tried to get Cagney & Lacey set up as first a film and then a TV series, the idea of female law enforcement officials portrayed in a forthright and realistic fashion, as opposed to something more glamorous (as seen on Police Woman or Wonder Woman), was something that made network suits queasy (and in fact would contribute to the show’s first cancellation). Oddly enough, another female law enforcement drama that Rosenzweig worked on likely opened the door just enough for network TV to consider a series about two female detectives who were partners and friends, though no one would accuse that series of being forthright or realistic. Charlie’s Angels, which ran throughout the mid-to-late-’70s and boasted Rosenzweig as a producer, ended up being a huge hit. Even if it was completely ludicrous, it did feature an all-female cast solving crimes and saving the day. The time was right for a more realistic spin on the idea.

Still, the journey to the air wasn’t easy. After the rejections of a film and TV series version, Rosenzweig decided to try selling the original screenplay as a made-for-TV movie that might, then, serve as a pilot for a TV series. ABC and NBC passed, but CBS had a contract with M*A*S*H star Loretta Swit that required her to make one additional TV film for the network, and saw this as a good chance to capitalize on that contract. In many ways, CBS was a poor fit for Cagney & Lacey, as it was the number-one network at the time and driven by conservative programming strategies that emphasized ultra-traditional TV entertainments. (Not that there was anything wrong with this. One of the network’s biggest hits of the time, Magnum, P.I., is enormously entertaining.) What Rosenzweig, Corday, and Avedon had in mind for Cagney & Lacey was more down-to-earth, more in keeping with the drama revolution happening over at NBC with Hill Street Blues and its descendants. But beggars can’t be choosers, and the TV movie version of Cagney & Lacey finally aired in October of 1981, with Swit and Tyne Daly in the lead roles.

It was an atomic bomb on the TV landscape. Rosenzweig was always great at self-promotion, and in Cagney & Lacey, he finally had something worth all the promotion. He cannily shopped the show out to Gloria Steinem and Ms. magazine, so that it was making headlines and driving conversation. By the time the movie aired, 42 percent of the TVs in the country were tuned to it, and it scaled the heights of the Nielsen chart with ease. CBS, seeing a new cash cow, asked Rosenzweig to pull together a TV version for the spring of 1982, ordering six episodes that would prove whether the concept had legs or not. 

The problem was that Swit was still attached to M*A*S*H, which was then in the middle of its next-to-last season. Unable to use Swit, Rosenzweig and the series’ other producers cast their lot with a young unknown named Meg Foster, against CBS’ wishes. The network feared that where Swit had brought an element of feminine softness to Christine Cagney, which played well off the more hard-charging energy of Daly, Foster would bring an equal amount of said energy. Still, Rosenzweig and company were confident in Foster’s abilities, and the series moved into production with the Foster and Daly in the lead roles. These earliest episodes of the show are tentative. It’s very much a cop show centered on two women, who at times seem almost terrified that the TV audience won’t take them seriously as cops who aren’t reduced to cheesecake. Indeed, the first episode to air would feature Cagney and Lacey going undercover as prostitutes, the better to show off their sex appeal.

These six episodes bombed in an entirely different way from the TV movie. Swit hadn’t just provided a necessarily distinct energy from Daly; she had also been the well-known star who lured viewers to the project. With the less-known Foster, the series had trouble holding the eyeballs of those who watched its lead-in, Magnum, P.I. Furthermore, CBS executives saw their uneasiness about both the series’ premise and the casting of Foster validated by the numbers, and one unnamed CBS programmer, as recounted in Robert J. Thompson’s Television’s Second Golden Age, a history of the great dramas of the ’80s and early ’90s, said:

“They [Cagney and Lacey] were too harshly women’s lib. The American public approves of women getting the same pay for some jobs, but the 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 intend on fighting the system than doing police work. We perceived them as dykes.”

(All of this despite the fact that the first six episodes all feature Cagney and Lacey solving crimes—i.e., doing police work.)

The show was canceled, but Rosenzweig moved into overdrive. Digging into the ratings data, he saw that the big losses for the show after Magnum weren’t coming from men or women—both of those numbers held respectably—but from young people, who tuned out after the earlier series. Therefore, Rosenzweig surmised, if the program aired in the 10 p.m. timeslot, it would have a more acceptable ratings level. He persuaded CBS to try one Sunday night rerun in the 10 p.m. slot, a rerun that would hopefully improve upon the usual numbers drawn by Trapper John, M.D., in the same slot. He volunteered to pay the promotional budget—which he actually drew from the production company’s coffers—and send Daly and Foster out to promote the show. When the episode finally aired, it drew a number significantly above Trapper John. It was limited data, but it was good enough to get the show a second season—provided Rosenzweig replaced Foster.

Finding the perfect replacement for Foster hinged on the political problems swirling around another CBS show, the much more highly rated House Calls, which had been a top 10 series in its second season but had collapsed in season three after producers fired Lynn Redgrave over disagreements about breast feeding. (Redgrave wanted to do so on set; the producers interpreted this as a demand for more money. Ladies and gentlemen, 1982.) Redgrave was replaced with a young actress named Sharon Gless, who was the last person ever signed to an acting contract by Universal. With Gless in the cast, the ratings stabilized somewhat, but the show still fell significantly. In the end, CBS canceled it, and after some creative wrangling around Gless’ Universal contract, she joined Cagney & Lacey and created the show known to viewers today.

Though the reasons for Foster’s firing were mostly bullshit, it’s hard to overemphasize just how much the casting of Gless made the show what it was, which was one of the most acclaimed shows of its era. Other elements of the series—its episodic nature, its shoehorning of social issues into too many plots, its courting of controversy—haven’t aged particularly well, but the chemistry between Daly and Gless is the stuff of TV casting agents’ dreams. The two had so many fights that would seem to irreparably sever their relationship over the course of the series, then always made up, and Daly and Gless always made both states of that relationship seem perfectly natural. (Rosenzweig’s memoir sells the two of them as perpetually neurotic about screentime and close-ups and the like—and Rosenzweig would eventually marry Gless!) They anchored a strong ensemble cast that included such character actor ringers as Carl Lumbly, Al Waxman, and John Karlen (as Lacey’s husband, the one constant domestic presence on the series). And as Cagney, Gless walked a fine line between traditional femininity and the working-class edge the writers wanted for the character, in particular in storylines featuring her former police officer father, including the emotional sixth-season finale, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” revolving around his death and its effect on his daughter.

Despite finding this final piece of the puzzle, Cagney & Lacey wasn’t out of the woods yet. It competed well against Monday Night Football for the first half of its second season, but the numbers quickly began to soften when it went up against made-for-TV movies after the NFL season was over. The show was canceled for the second time, and Rosenzweig took to the press to lament that it had never quite turned the corner and become a success. A curious thing happened in the summer of 1983, however. The series went from also-ran to Nielsen champ, as its reruns regularly climbed into the top 10. The capper to that was a surprisingly strong haul at the Emmys, marked by Daly’s ultimate win in the Drama Actress category. And as if that wasn’t enough, CBS began getting bombarded with letters from a new group that would evolve into the hugely influential Viewers For Quality Television, headed up by Michigan homemaker Dorothy Swanson, who was encouraged by Rosenzweig (who became a kind of founding father of the group) to write letters supporting Cagney & Lacey. By the end of the year, CBS relented, and a seven-episode third season went into production. It landed with extensive promotion from the press and ads from CBS, and ended the 1983-84 season in the Nielsen top 10.

To watch Cagney & Lacey now is to find it almost impossibly quaint. What got interest groups riled up—in both directions—in the ’80s now seems rather tame, and the thought that a show about two female cops could stir controversy via its very existence is somewhat bizarre. The stories are usually tied up in little bows at the end of each episode, and though most of the episodes are good—particularly for their time—it’s harder to appreciate the show than it is many of its most substantial peers of the time. It’s a series that’s more interesting for its history—the three actresses, the three cancellations, the way Daly and Gless locked up the Drama Actress Emmy category for six years straight, Rosenzweig turning himself in to the P.T. Barnum of quality TV—than for its actual content, which is fine, as these things go, but hardly essential. A quick survey of the series’ best episodes—say, the ones it submitted for Emmy contention each year—gives a good idea of its strengths and weaknesses.

But there’s another side to Cagney & Lacey that shouldn’t be forgotten, a side that paved the way for women in drama as surely as The Mary Tyler Moore Show did for comedy. Look at the writing credits of the show’s 125 episodes, and an amazingly high percentage of them have women involved in the writing process—even when compared to most dramas today. The series launched the careers of Patricia Green (who won an Emmy for her work on the show) and Terry Louise Fisher, and it also employed a number of female directors, including Karen Arthur and Sharron Miller, who would go on to great work elsewhere. Perhaps the greatest triumph of Cagney & Lacey is that it now seems so staid. TV’s groundbreakers have a tendency to come to feel old hat over time. It’s sometimes nice to remember that they, too, were considered as daring and risky as any bold show of the moment back when they first aired.

Next time: Gunsmoke

More 100 Episodes