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The cigarette is part of Sharon Gless' act

They pay her to smoke on USA's "Burn Notice," and she couldn't be happier.

Sharon Gless , without the nicotine prop she brandishes on "Burn Notice," whose third season began last night. She plays the mother of a spy - a role that has grown steadily meatier.
Sharon Gless , without the nicotine prop she brandishes on "Burn Notice," whose third season began last night. She plays the mother of a spy - a role that has grown steadily meatier.Read moreJUSTIN STEPHENS / USA Network

PASADENA, Calif. - "Do you mind if I smoke?" asked Sharon Gless.

The question was odd because the actress was seated on the patio of the posh Langham, Huntington Hotel & Spa. Californians tend to object to smokers even if they're obeying the rules.

It also was strange because it's hard to imagine Gless without a cigarette dangling from her digits. On the USA Network series Burn Notice, her character, Madeline Westen, is rarely without a smoke. It's as much a part of Westen's personality as her white hair and passive/aggression.

The third season of Burn Notice began last night. More than 7.6 million viewers watched the second season finale in March, making it one of this year's highest-rated cable shows.

Gless never expected she'd be allowed to smoke on TV again.

"But that was the way the character was written: a chain-smoking hypochondriac," Gless said, sending a puff of smoke into the afternoon air. "My husband said, 'How happy are you? They're paying you to smoke.'

"I'm glad they allow me to smoke because I can do so much with that cigarette. I can take a hit, hold it in my lungs, say whole sentences, and then blow it out when I choose for emphasis."

She knows plenty of people disapprove. Gless said she doesn't care because it helps her act and she enjoys it.

That's Gless. She's had the focus of a bloodhound ever since she started acting almost 40 years ago. In the '80s she used that determination to make Cagney & Lacey a blueprint for TV cop dramas to follow. The show, a mix of the personal and professional lives of the detectives, was nominated for 36 Emmys and won 14. Gless picked up two as outstanding lead actress in a drama series.

Even when Hollywood ignored her in the '90s because of her weight gain, she stayed steadfast and returned to TV with the Showtime series Queer as Folk. She had to fight for it.

"I was doing a play in Chicago and someone sneaked it to me. I called Showtime and told them I wanted this part. They told me I didn't want the part because there was no money in cable. It didn't matter. I knew what I could do with it," Gless said.

The producers agreed to see her. Gless asked them if they knew what she looked like. They did and she was who they wanted to play Deborah Novotny, mother of a gay son and president of the Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays chapter in Pittsburgh.

Gless has no doubt Queer as Folk changed her life.

"First, it brought me back. And because they weren't beating me up about being heavy, I decided I wanted to lose weight. That was because no one had asked me to," Gless said. "Also, I learned more about the gay world than I ever knew even though I have a lot of gay friends.

"Since that show, I have never stopped working."

In Burn Notice, her role as the mother of a spy (Jeffrey Donovan) who has been burned (disavowed by the government) has grown each season.

"The way she was originally written, she was described as needy. We did all that the first year. The second season, they told me that the network loved what I was doing, they just wanted more," Gless said. "So they are writing richer scenes for her. They made the character very smart. I ran with that. That changed my tone. She still manipulates her son, but she's not dumb."

Her character is a supporting player to the explosive spy action handled by Donovan, Bruce Campbell and Gabrielle Anwar. She attacks the role with the same passion and fire as if she were the star. That means hours of rehearsals at home, often with a speech coach, to make sure every word has meaning.

Gless even used a simple scene of baking cookies as an opening to show more about Madeline. She put her cigarette out in the dough.

Burn Notice is the latest stop on a long acting road for the 66-year-old Gless. She still gets the same thrill as when she landed an uncredited role on the 1970 TV movie Night Slaves.

"I am the happiest when I am working. I am fortunate because most of my peers, the women, simply don't work anymore. I am grateful they continue to let me do it," said Gless, with a puff of smoke for emphasis.