Sharon Gless has made a career of playing tough broads.
With her signature low, gravelly voice and her commanding screen presence, Gless is quick with the sarcastic comeback. And, she always gets in the last word.
Gless, 66, will be presented with the Gay Icon Award on July 19 at the 15th annual Philadelphia QFest for being "a compassionate champion for the gay & lesbian community." The fest, scheduled today through July 20, also features a screening of her new film, Hannah Free.
"Isn't that nice! I know! I know!" Gless said of the award in enthused amazement.
Gless' rep as a gay icon goes back to her role as career-minded cop Christine Cagney in the groundbreaking 1980s police procedural, Cagney & Lacey (1982-88), which earned her two Emmys. One of the first dramas to address women's struggle for parity in the workplace and the pressures of balancing the demands of work and home, the show earned Gless a big lesbian following.
Her icon status was solidified with her turn on Showtime's Queer as Folk as a mother who is proud of her son's homosexuality.
Gless, who married Cagney exec producer Barney Rosenzweig in 1991, said she's always been nonplussed by the phrase gay icon, having quipped that she's far too young to be an icon.
"I hope I don't let anyone down," she said on the phone from the Canadian set of her cable TV ratings-winner, Burn Notice, in which she plays the chain-smoking, fast-talking and overprotective mother of a spy played by Jeffrey Donovan.
Given her rep, it's ironic that Hannah Free, an adaptation of Chicago playwright Claudia Allen's play about a lifelong romance between two very different women, features Gless in her very first gay role.
"It was kind of freeing [to play Hannah], I was amazingly comfortable with it," said Gless. "I was a woman who loved another woman - a human being who loved another human being."
The film, directed by Wendy Jo Carlton (Brushfires), is about Hannah as a free-spirited woman comfortable with her sexuality. Now wheelchair bound, she finds herself in the same nursing home as Rachel (Maureen Gallagher), a homemaker she has loved since childhood. A series of flashbacks starring younger actors shows us the history of the couple's troubled relationship.
"I am in a wheelchair and in bed most of the time, so I could concentrate on the heart work," Gless said. "I was very conscious of not doing some caricature of how people think a lesbian acts."
She credits Allen with creating a character who appears tough on the surface, but whose "heart was remarkably soft."
Gless, who starred in Allen's 2000 play, Cahoots, says she didn't hesitate when the playwright called to offer her the role.
"[Allen] writes women so beautifully, Gless said. "She gets it."