Concept to Pilot: Cagney & Lacey
To have any basic understanding of the evolution of women in TV is to know just how important the show Cagney & Lacey, which aired from 1981 to 1988, was and is. This installment of Advanced TV Herstory focuses on the show’s pilot, which in one evening, changed TV for women. Forever.
It gave women opportunities behind the camera. Its quality was such that the two female leads, Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless, captured the leading actress in a drama Emmy for six consecutive years. Daly one year, Gless the next – back and forth. Year in and year out even during a very strong time for women in TV, no other show gave women room to run like this one did.
So the story of the pilot – actually the long slog of developing the premise and selling the idea – is one of resilience, vision, commitment, patience and moxie. It was a time in Hollywood and television when white males dominated every level of decision-making. A few were looking at trends, reading the papers and getting an earful from their wives, mothers or daughters, but most weren’t.
Barney Rosenzweig, the producer and quarterback for the show had become aware of the stark sexism in film when he was on a date in the mid- 70s with Barbara Corday, whom he would ultimately marry. They saw the original Italian version of the movie Scent of a Woman and in the conversation that followed, Corday lambasted it for all the stereotypes and assumptions, within the plot, within the direction, that marginalized women and perpetuates discrimination. This was 1975, three years into the campaign to ratify the ERA and the first years of impact for Title IX.
Rosenzweig has put all the stories of Cagney & Lacey’s development, as well as the highlights and low lights of his Hollywood career into an audio book which is available in the 30th Anniversary boxed set of the series. He packs a lot into his memoir. With candor reveals how that movie date with Corday moved his mindset. From then on, he was determined to blow open the doors of film and TV for stories and realistic roles for women.
Or, as he goes on to tell, Corday came to realize that with the popularity of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, there was no buddy movie that featured women. There was nothing that came that close to depicting a positive, supportive, good natured relationship between two women.
Barbara Corday is a force in her own right and will indeed be profiled in a future installment of Advanced TV Herstory.
At that time, Rosenzweig was a TV producer, not permanently attached to a series. Rather, he stepped in to Daniel Boone, a series that ran from 1964 to 1970 and produced many episodes. Also, he brought his eye for feminism and the appropriate, accurate portrayal of women to Charlie’s Angels, in 1976.
Throughout his storytelling, Rosenzweig frames the chasm between shows produced only by men, or by men’s men, as perpetuating the male mythology. Rosenzweig had originally been in the running to produce Charlie’s Angels, but hadn’t gotten it. However, the position opened up again just as the first episodes were actually going on the air. To hear Rosenzweig tell it, Charlie’s Angels was filled with glaringly sexist details and tone, but viewers glommed on to it immediately. His hunch was affirmed not long into the show’s run, too, that the audience really did consist primarily of young women who were hungry for shows about women.
His tenure didn’t last long, but in his memoir, Rosenzweig illustrates a few key changes to production and plot development that took the show to a higher level of control for the women characters. In doing so, the Sabrina, Jill and Kelly are more believable and stronger in their roles as private detectives.
If that sounds subtle or trivial, Rosenzweig’s recounts these stories with a sense that he was shunned on many occasions for being too critical of the male mythology – that he was forcing change where it wasn’t needed. In those days of broadcast TV, the audiences were already captured. There was no competition.
For five years, he, Barbara Corday and a seasoned writer whom Rosenzweig asked to team up with Corday, Barbara Avedon, worked to develop the premise for the woman’s buddy movie that would compare to Newman and Redford.
In those years, each was involved in writing, producing and development work as so to ensure their continued incomes. They pitched and presented iterations to all the major networks. It was at one point a film, a made-for-TV movie and a series. Each time, the suits were interested, but another project always won out.
It was finally given the green light in 1980. The pilot was made under the auspices of being a made-for-TV movie though many close to it knew that there was enough plot development to make it be a successful dramatic episodic series.
With a budget of about $2 million, they stretched their dollars by shooting most of the movie in Toronto.
You can imagine that when you’ve been incubating a break-through premise like Cagney and Lacey for as long as these three had, it gives you time to develop a vision. The characters become more real, even though the project itself is stalled.
While the project sat on the shelf, Corday had concluded that Sharon Gless was the definitive Christine Cagney. After a while, Rosenzweig agreed. They had never identified their Mary Beth Lacey. The Cagney preference would only come into play once the made-for-TV movie had finally been accepted for production.
Rosenzweig attempted to secure Gless for the role, but she was already committed to the sitcom House Calls, in which she had succeeded Lynn Redgrave as the lead actress. The network sort of gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
For the role of Mary Beth, Loretta Swit had a say in the decision too, and pushed hard for Tyne Daly.
Swit put a lot into helping develop the character of Christine Cagney, well beyond the character sketch that had been put forth by Avedon and Corday. There’s no doubt Swit’s homework paid off.
Swit’s stories line up with Rosenzweig’s about how the director had more interest in understanding the mindset of the villain – who never had a speaking role – than he did in developing a breakthrough character like Cagney.
Real details 1
When you think about it, holding her legendary role on MASH had to have made Swit feel obligated to deliver as realistic portrayal as possible. She was doing this for the sisterhood of police women, which had to have been small and highly critical. By the time she had been hired for this role, she had the navigated this swamp of the male domain once before. She put those skills to good use – perhaps better than an actress whose experience was not so immersed in an all-male military environment.
Real details 2
Ultimately, it was Swit who was the first face of Cagney, depicted by far to be more of a groundbreaker than married-with-children Lacey.
Okay, so the pilot, originally framed as a made-for-TV movie is shot and edited. Again, Rosenzweig rants in his memoirs about the many compromises that, at least for this first attempt, resulted in a product that he considered inferior.
As a matter of fact, after airing the first cut, Corday was in tears. Head in hands. The director had put Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan into a police uniform, brusque and unlikable.
The director had little interest in developing the Redford and Newman sort of bond that had been part of the vision.
And, as I’ll describe within the plot, it was shot with so much emphasis on Christine Cagney, that the buddy theme is sort of lost. Once the director had completed his contract, Rosenzweig tells of many long days in the editing room, trying to re-orient certain scenes with available footage so as to minimize Cagney’s edginess and loop in Lacey, the buddy and partner.
A movie that had originally been presented as too long had been trimmed. No scenes were struck, but rather there was no room for pause. Dialogue chased from one line to the next. This is where Rosenzweig began incorporating his approach to storytelling, which is to make use of the moves of the actors and actresses, subtle facial expressions or even pauses, for effect. No words, a more effective moment in the story and more efficient with time.
And now, about the pilot itself.
I am a huge Cagney & Lacey fan for many reasons. Primarily, it’s because the show is SO significant in the timeline of women characters on television. It represents a hand off of the baton from Charlie’s Angels and a long, hard run achieving recognition, breaking new ground with story lines and just as important, presenting the memorable, genuine chemistry between Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly over the course of the show’s run. It took that much power to, in turn, hand the baton to Law and Order: SVU.
To the 2015 viewer, the 2-hour movie pilot feels like the writers and producers loaded up as much as they could into the plot, hoping that enough would appeal to enough viewers to be seen as something bold.
Listening to Rosenzweig recount the many years and concessions he committed to in order to get Cagney & Lacey to production, I can appreciate the amount of energy and provocative storytelling Avedon and Corday used to make the splash it would need to become a series.
They loaded up the story with a sophisticated, fairly intricate plot that crossed cultural boundaries. As our heroines crossed those boundaries and conducted their work among residents of cultures other than their own, they brought an accessibility, trust and result otherwise unachievable by men.
It’s been many years since Cagney and Lacey reruns aired and chances are slim that many listeners ever saw the pilot. Unless you own the 30th anniversary boxed set, I am here to refresh your memory and tell you how the show improved from this pilot-movie.
Carry-overs from the pilot to the show were Tyne Daly, Al Waxman, who played Lt. Bert Samuels, Carl Lumbly as Detective Marcus Petrie and Harvey Atkin who was Desk Sergeant Coleman.
As stated earlier, Loretta Swit was cast as Christine. I would expect this was a bit of a mind-meld to have seen at the time, as Swit had really only been known to audiences as an Army nurse in a setting 20 years earlier.
Character of Harvey was very different. In addition to being played by an actor who presented a bit more macho and defensive about the condition for which he could not be employed in the trades, there wasn’t much warmth between him and Mary Beth. Watching this you’d think they were on the brink of divorce, or that maybe he takes out his anger on her or their sons.
There was no Detective LaGuardia and no Detective Victor Isbecki. When Cagney and Lacey walked into the 14th Precinct, the yucks came at their expense, the sexism was palpable and they seemed incapable of change.
From the pilot to the series’ start, the production team took huge steps forward in terms of character exposition and plot development.
The character of Christine Cagney comes across as much more of a hot dog, one-woman-show than she did eventually in the series. Presumably, Rosenzweig’s work in trying to mitigate this took an unacceptable product and made it palatable. In the end, buddies don’t ditch buddies to collar the perp solo.
In the first 20 minutes of the pilot is out getting to see a bit of the personal lives of these two women police officers. Driving to work in her own car, MaryBeth happens to have picked up Christine en route to work. They are in uniforms, when they see a burglar running across the street with pillow cases full of loot. They set off on foot to chase the guy, eventually cornering him on the roof of a building. With guns drawn, there’s a certain cat and mouse drama unfolding when MaryBeth looks down into the skylight and spies a heroin operation. They apprehend the suspect on the roof, handcuff him to a drainpipe and proceed to bust the 10 person heroin operation just the two of them. No back up, no communication, nothing.
Bold. Realistic? I have no idea. It seemed a bit ambitious, but it was a moment of suspended belief that was necessary in order for the end result to have its effect. The huge drug bust earned MaryBeth and Christine the rank of detective.
I have to say it is believable that it could have taken an accomplishment of that stature in order to move women officers up the ranks… in 1982.
As newly-minted detectives, they are out of the uniforms. Their first assignment?
While this is no documentary, you get the feeling it couldn’t have been too far from the truth.
So going undercover as hookers, they become acquainted with the other women on the street. They see and hear about the violence that comes at the hands of the pimps and the feeling of powerlessness.
As viewers, we’re not quite sure where all this is going but it had to have been a bit of a novelty to have the call to “clear the streets of those women” be answered with “this is a bigger social problem than getting these women off the streets.”
While Cagney and Lacey are working undercover with the prostitutes, Detective Samuels is nursing a murder case that is growing colder by the day. A Jewish diamond broker was murdered a year ago and a second one just a few days earlier. Diamonds vanish both times. Samuels has nothing, yet is highly territorial about it.
Chris is intrigued by it and stays late one night going through the files related to it. Petrie discovers her and expresses a disapproving stare. The following is a totally believable Cagney and Lacey exchange – not in the ladies room, but rather, the practice range.
Here’s how the rest unfolds and I am pretty sure this is safe to share because you’d rather have it in five minutes than think about sitting through a two hour made-for-TV movie.
Chris goes to the recently murdered Jew’s home for shiva. She visits briefly with his wife and learns that both of them had been interned at Auschwitz. Meanwhile, one of their hooker-contacts has given them a lot of information about her pimp, Sugar. Cagney and Lacey need to return to ask their contact, Female, a few more questions when it’s discovered that Sugar the Pimp has been knifed in her apartment.
Female describes the John who she had intended to meet as an observant older Jewish man. Chris rifles through the apartment looking for clues and finds a vest that quite possible isn’t adorned with rhinestones, they’re really diamonds.
Chris goes all out to put together the pieces. MaryBeth goes home to her family for the night, though she has brought along with her Female’s son. Female is considered the number one suspect in Sugar’s death, though Cagney and Lacey do not believe she did it.
Chris combs the Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods looking for clues. She’s determined that the Jewish john killed Sugar because Sugar was too close to Female. If the Jewish john also killed the two diamond guys, why? Chris sends the vest adorned with diamonds to a dry cleaners for safe keeping.
She consults the widow of the first deceased diamond guy. They talk about the Jewish community. They talk about the camps. The widow takes Chris to see a colleague of her husband. Chris gets more intel. Chris probes the widow some more. What kind of a Jew, an observant Jew would kill other Jews for diamonds? If the person isn’t a real Jew, what sort of person assumes that identity?
The widow quakes in her pumps, shudders and recalls the name Shirmer. Shirmer was a Nazi guard at Auschwitz who all the internees knew climbed into prison garb as the camp was being liberated and assumed a Jewish identity. He escaped discovery during the liberation and it had long been rumored in the community that he had assimilated right there in New York.
Seriously, this is how Cagney and sort of by association, Lacey earned their stripes in the 14th Precinct detective room.
Chris then hunts through the neighborhoods, Shirmer overhears her. He grabs her and puts a knife to her throat, ordering her to drive to the dry cleaners so that they can retrieve the vest that has the diamonds on it.
This is all during the night. MaryBeth and Harvey are at home having a spat and taking care of Female’s son. MaryBeth gets a call from Chris just moments before Shirmer grabs her. Sensing that Chris is in danger or at least needs assistance, MaryBeth calls in for back up. She’s in for a hard sell, trying to convince these men to believe in Chris’ detective work and instincts.
Chris drives the car to the dry cleaners while Shirmer holds a knife to her throat. They break into the dry cleaners and once in, Chris is able to break away – cat and mouse with one of those rotating hanging contraptions mounted near the ceiling. MaryBeth has retraced clues from Chris and remembers the dry cleaners.
The rest of the team shows up and descends on Shirmer. But it is Chris, having recovered her revolver, who puts two shots in him. Dead.
So let’s add up all the big themes in this plot. Women in the police force. Hookers and the danger they risk everyday with their pimps. Jews in the garment and diamond districts in New York who had survived the concentration camps and lastly, the outlier rogue Nazi who is murdering the survivors.
As a result of this big bust, it would seem, Samuels got promoted to Lieutenant and Chris and MaryBeth were welcomed as equals into the 14th Precinct’s Detective Fraternity.
This was crime fighting, clue collecting and witness interviewing through the eyes of women. Perhaps it was the depth of resolve from Corday and Avedon that cast the plot so strong that even misguided direction couldn’t spoil it.
From a ratings and interest standpoint, the pilot did its job. CBS picked up the show to begin in fall 1981. At the beginning of this episode, I used the following words to describe the long, arduous effort of getting this show from the germination of an idea – that of creating a woman’s version of Newman and Redford in Butch Cassidy – to the screen. These are words that likely accompany many who are attempting a big breakthrough, in whatever field or industry applies. Resilience, vision, commitment, patience and moxie – from Rosenzweig’s many years selling the story, to Avedon and Corday developing a script without much in the way of guideposts – to Loretta Swit spending days with women police officers so that she could drop the “realistic” card when and where she needed to.
This story fits the Hunter S. Thompson quote “anything that is worth doing is worth doing right.” History was made when so many grew to see that Cagney & Lacey was worthwhile on many counts.
In a future episode of the Cagney & Lacey Chronicles, we’ll track the six lost episodes, which assigned the role of Chris Cagney to Meg Foster. A lot got ironed out in those shows that ultimately brought us to a more sophisticated, developed show that became the runaway hit.
Resources for this installment of Advanced TV Herstory include a great interview with Loretta Swit that appears courtesy of the American Archive of Television on YouTube’s EmmyLegends channel. Also, Barney Rosenzweig tells all in his memoir Cagney and Lacey and Me. That audio book and the pilot are contained on the 30th Anniversary DVD set.
Music you hear in the background is by Jared Balogh, found at Freemusicarchive.org.
My final thought is this: A year ago, our cable service added the channel Heroes & Icons, which is owned by Weigel Broadcasting of Chicago. Can you think of a show that better fits the category Heroes and Icons? Me neither. The website for Weigel is WCIU.com and Cheryl Esken is the director of strategic sales and marketing. Best we all write Ms. Esken a note and let her know an audience is waiting.
This has been Advanced TV Herstory, raising a ruckus and drawing connections on behalf of women in TV. We’ve got more excellent shows in the hopper and yes, I am keeping track of all those that I’ve said we’ll cover, at some point. In the meantime, send in your ideas about a show or theme. You can do that by sending an email to AdvancedTVHerstory@gmail or finding us on Twitter at TVHerstory. Find this and past scripts at my website cynthiabemisabrams.com.
It’s my pleasure to be your host. I am Cynthia Bemis Abrams. Thanks for listening.