In November 2008, Emmy-award-winning actress Sharon Gless came to Chicago to star in a low-budget independent film called Hannah Free, produced by her friend, acclaimed Chicago lesbian dramatist Claudia Allen, and journalist Tracy Baim.
Gless is well known for her roles on Showtime's Queer As Folk, FX Network's Nip/Tuck, and for the BBC action miniseries The State Within, but she is perhaps still best known for her seven-year starring role, from 1982 to 1988, as Detective Christine Cagney in the police drama Cagney & Lacey, the first television drama series ever to feature two females as lead roles. On Queer As Folk, Gless played proud PFLAG mom Debbie Novotny, but to the delight of her legions of GLBT fans, in Hannah Free she would be starring in her first out lesbian role.
At the time, Gless had just concluded shooting the third season of the TV action adventure series Burn Notice, a USA network hit. Gless went from filming the glamorous big budget Miami-set spy drama to starring in a deeply personal, intimate story dealing with issues of aging and lesbian relationships.
Gless has strong feelings about Hannah Free and was eager to take on the title role. "Hannah Free is a very unusual, very intimate storyand it's a story that really needs to be told," said Gless. "And I think for everybody who worked on it, it was a labor of love. Nobody's in it to get rich. In fact, a third of the people working on the film did it gratis. It's very touching, and it's worth it. I've always believed that for an actor, your initial intention is to entertain. But if you can educate also, that's a really nice thing."
Gless was also impressed at how smoothly the shooting went: "We were working in very, very small rooms, and nobody got on anybody's nerves; each department let the other one do their job, The more the filming went on, the more I felt itthere was a lot of respect, as everyone saw the story unfold. And we were working under very severe conditions: we only had three weeks to do this whole feature in."
"I started my career late," recalled Gless. "I worked behind the camera for years, and didn't even admit that I wanted to be an actress until I was 26." Once she set her sights on that goal, however, it didn't take long for her to be noticed. By the following year, 1972, she had signed a long-term contract with Universal Studios. At that time Universal was the largest television studio in the world, and as a contract player Gless guest-starred on many popular shows of the day, including McCloud and Emergency, landed a recurring role on Marcus Welby, and also appeared in miniseries and TV movies. She starred in a series called Faraday and Company, and appeared on Switch for three years alongside Robert Wagner and Eddie Albert. Then the studio system was dissolved and, she said, "I walked into Cagney & Lacey, and it change my life and my career."
"Cagney & Lacey was a groundbreaking show, but we didn't know it at the time. I don't think we had any idea that it would become what it became. It was enormous. and it was quite heady to be part of it." Gless and her co-star Tyne Daly, between them, won the Emmy for Best Lead Actress in a Drama for six years in a rowa record that is still unbroken not just for dramas but for a show in any major awards category.
With two women stars, Cagney & Lacey had a huge fan base among lesbians. "The lesbian following was quite extraordinary," said Gless. "Judging from the mail, it was Cagney's character that attracted the lesbian audience, and I'm so grateful. The gay community has kept me going, all my career, since then. I think Cagney is still the best, most complicated woman ever written for television. She was troubled, she had attitude, and she was boyish. I insisted that all my jackets come from men's stores. It wasn't intentional to attract the gay and lesbian audience, it just did. And I enjoyed that, it was fun for me. But it wasn't planned that way."
Some years after her popular successes, Gless found that the choice TV offers had dwindled. "I started doing theatre. I hit 50 years old, I went into menopause, I quit smoking, and put on sixty pounds. So nobody was really interested in hiring me." One of the stage plays Gless did was in Chicago at Victory Gardens, in Claudia Allen's Cahoots. She also met drama coach and agent Peter Forrester, who sent her a script, saying, 'You're perfect for this part." When Gless read it, she recalls, "Well, I flipped." It was the part of waitress and PFLAG mom Debbie Novotny in Queer As Folk. "It was so daring I knew it was going to be trouble, and I love trouble. I got the job." As a result, Gless's career again went into high gear. "It changed my life. And since Queer As Folk, I haven't stopped working."
Respect for the work of Claudia Allen was the main reason for Gless's participation in Hannah Free. "I've had the great pleasure of doing Claudia Allen's work in three different forms," Gless recalled during filming. "In 1994, Tyne Daly and I did Deed of Trust for radio here in Chicago. Then in 2000, Claudia invited me to come do Cahoots on stage. And now here I am doing Hannah Free on film. I love Hannah," says Gless. "She isn't anything like Christine Cagney but she's got the same feistiness, the same independence, and a little immaturity. She's a tough one, but there's a sadness to her that appeals to me. I love that she traveled all over the world, but she'd always come home to Rachel. I love the fight in herand that's really what this story is about. It's about the whole lifetime of these women, from the time they're ten years old, but the thrust of it is Hannah's fight to get into the room to be able to say goodbye to the love of her life. And the daughter won't let her in."
Gless pointed to Hannah Free's relevance to the issue of Proposition 8, which forbidding gay marriage, but added, "Claudia wrote this years and years ago, before any of this was an issue on the political forefront. It's amazing that, tragically, Proposition 8 passed in three states while we were shooting Hannah Free, which is a little piece of that story. But it's more than that, too; it's a love story. And I do believe love wins."
Gless remains a featured actress in Burn Notice, which has been renewed for a fourth season. The first season of Cagney & Lacey ( 1982 ) has been released on DVD and is also sometimes shown on classic television channels. So viewers are able to see Gless not only in her current role as Madeline Westin, the mother of Jeffrey Donovan's "burned" ex-spy character, but in her quintessential, Emmy-winning role of Christine Cagney. And now, they can discover yet another facet of Gless's extraordinary, versatile talent, as the witty, cantankerous and moving lesbian character Hannah Free.
Hannah Free will have a one-week limited engagement in Chicago Sept. 25-Oct. 1 at the Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 164 N. State. Tickets to each screening are $10/general admission. Other ticket prices are $7/student and $5/Film Center members. All tickets may be purchased at the Film Center Box Office, 164 N. State St. Both general admission and Film Center member tickets are available through Ticketmaster, 800-982-2787, www.ticketmaster.com, and all Ticketmaster outlets. The Film Center and its Box Office are open 5-9 p.m., Monday-Friday; 2-9 p.m., Saturday; and 2-6 p.m., Sunday. For more information about the Film Center, call 312-846-2800 ( 24-hour movie hotline ) or 312-846-2600 ( general information, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday ) , or visit www.siskelfilmcenter.org . A special 7 p.m. Sat., Sept. 26 show will feature Sharon Gless and the cast and crew, followed by a gala; tickets are $100 and can only be purchased by emailing email@example.com or call 773-387-2394.
Jorjet Harper was an extra in Hannah Free, and some of her paintings can be seen in the film.