On Sunday, August 18, the Herbst Theatre (401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco) will be the setting for Help Is on the Way 25, a concert and gala that celebrates Broadway while raising money for HIV/AIDS and hunger programs.
The evening will see 95-year-old Carole Cook receive a lifetime achievement award, and features appearances by the San Francisco cast of Hamilton, Kimberley Locke, Constantine Maroulis, Sam Harris, Jai Rodriguez and more, with a duet by Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly as one of the main attractions.
Emmy and Golden Globe winner Gless, whose legacy includes the iconic shows Cagney & Lacey and Queer as Folk, was kind enough to speak with me in advance of the show, presented by the Richmond/Ermet Aid Foundation, and to break a little news on the likelihood of a Queer as Folk reboot …
Boy Culture: How did you get involved in this event?
Sharon Gless: Years ago, in Los Angeles, there was an event that just grew out of proportion, so we had to do it in three nights to house everybody. We finally had to move it to San Francisco, which is an even gay-friendlier town. And it grew and grew and grew, and it’s always been done as a fundraiser for AIDS. This is the 25th year.
I used to always go as an audience member because it was the best show in town. One night, Tyne and I agreed to do this song together and — back by popular demand, I guess — we’re going to do this exact song, with a few little changes for age, called “You’re Nothing Without Me.”
BC: I'm so mad I won't be there!
SG: Me, too! I think Tyne will probably be singing something else from Broadway. “You’re Nothing Without Me” is from a Broadway show [1990's City of Angels], but Tyne has her Tony, so she’ll be doing a single, too.
BC: When fans see you and Tyne reunited, it's emotionally charged because it's nostalgic and reminds us of that important series and where we were when we watched. When you reunite with her, is it just seeing your old friend, or do you also have those kinds of nostalgic feelings?
SG: Both. She is my friend now. We’re even closer friends than when we were shooting together. When we were shooting together, we didn’t really have a chance to develop our friendship. We developed tremendous respect for each other, because all alone we carried that show, which was how Barney Rosenzwieg [the producer, Gless's future husband] conceived it — there was not a scene we were not in. So our livelihoods depended on each other, but at the end of each day, she’d go home to her family and I’d just go home. After shooting ended, we really became friends then because then we could just talk about girly stuff and not about the show, and it’s been that way for — well, since it ended, 1988 or 1989.
BC: Coming, as you have, from two series that were so especially meaningful for LGBTQ people — not just us, but especially us — does that in some way fuel your willingness to do so many charity events for our causes?
SG: Yes. I like to show up. I like to do when I can to help. Sometimes I show up to events where my name isn’t even known, but AIDS needs help and that requires money, and anything we can do to improve that situation, we show up.
How blessed am I? I’m serious. First of all, Cagney & Lacey, which changed the history of television for women after being canceled three times — I mean, that was a hard climb. We were under, I think, much more duress with Cagney & Lacey than we were with Queer as Folk. The world had changed enough by the time Queer as Folk came on that all of their episodes aired. Some of Cagney & Lacey’s episodes were forbidden to air on some affiliates’ stations. So I think I was the fortunate one that I got to be in both of those shows.
BC: Do you think young people fully appreciate the progress that's been made in the past 30 years?
SG: I don’t know. Young people, I don’t know what you define as young — millennials? But they don’t even watch TV, they watch their phones. And no, I don’t think they realize how much things have changed, but I don’t know if I’ve realized how much things have changed. You experience what you live. They can certainly participate now in where things are for the women’s movement and politically. That the work has been pre-done to get things as far as they’ve gone doesn’t mean there isn’t work for these kids to do for us.
BC: And we can't take any of our progress for granted, as we've seen.
SG: Oh, no! Absolutely not — especially with a vice president like Pence.
BC: Speaking of your gay-friendly projects, I first knew you from the little-known 1979 series Turnabout, in which you and John Schuck played a husband and wife who switch bodies. I always wondered if, at the time, that show felt subversive to you or like you were making a gender statement, or if it was just played for laughs?
SG: Oh! I got to play a man trapped inside a woman’s body. I think it was pure entertainment. It was based on a novel written by Thorne Smith, who wrote Topper, and he also wrote Turnabout. Topper had the ghost and he sort of, I guess, he always dealt in the supernatural. Turnabout, they did a movie in the '40s that did not do well.
It never occurred to me that it would be taken as anything but comedy. I sort of like that — I don’t know if it was that deep. [Laughs] It was fun doing it. When my mother said, “I don’t know why he calls you Sam?” I knew we were in trouble. It didn’t last past seven episodes, but it was really fun.
BC: Help Is on the Way features Carole Cook, who is so Old Hollywood; you and Tyne; and the Hamilton cast, who are the latest things — it really covers the bases. You really are like the bridge. I understand that you were the last person with a studio contract?
SG: I was the last one in Hollywood.
BC: Do you feel fortunate to have been in that unique position?
SG: Oh, very. Very, very. To get that contract, we got paid whether we worked or not. We only got paid $186 a week, but it didn’t matter. I was with the biggest television studio in the world — Universal — the last studio to have contract players. I got to work with wonderful actors who are no longer with us and we were taken under their wing.
Even though they didn’t pay us much, people used to say, “Sharon, you don’t want to take that deal. You’ll become a contract player and nobody’ll ever hear from you again!” I said, “Nobody’s heard of me now! I’ll take that chance!”
I did ask the head of talent why she signed me, and she said, “I’m not gonna tell you because then you’ll become aware of it.” So I said, “Oh… okay,” because I was afraid of her. She said, “Alright, I’ll tell you — nothing about you fits. Your face doesn’t match your walk, your clothes don’t match what comes out of your mouth, nothing fits, but you put it all together and it works.” So I went away from that lunch still not understanding why she signed me. I guess it was the face of an angel and the mouth of a trucker. [Laughs]
BC: You'll be surrounded by fans at Help Is on the Way — how do your fans approach you?
SG: The Queer as Folk fans still approach me and want a hug. I’m flattered. It’s never a bother. I don’t understand actors who shun their fans. Where would they be? Nowhere!
BC: Queer as Folk was certainly the kind of show to have rabid fans.
SG: It was the first, and no one’s done it, really, again. Or better. I say that protectively because I’ve seen the other attempts. And also, when you’re the first, it takes more courage. Those boys were not exhibitionists, they were actors, but it’s not easy doing what they did. Great respect was always given on the set for the nudity scenes.
BC: Would you be game for another go at Queer as Folk?
SG: Oh, absolutely! We’ve had people say, “Why aren’t they doing a remake of Queer as Folk, they're remaking shows that — ” you know — “we wonder why.” The man at Showtime, Jerry Offsay, had the courage. He's the one who backed it and put it on the air. HBO refused it. Turned it down. Didn’t have the balls. But Showtime stood up. But Jerry's not there anymore, and we have fans saying all the time they want Queer as Folk back with the cast to see how they’ve grown now, what happened to them — but Showtime now just isn’t interested. We as a cast even let them know: “Let’s do it!” And Showtime just turns their back on us.
BC: We'll turn up the heat on them for you.
SG: That’d be nice — thank you!