NEW YORK - Sharon Gless plays women with toughness, drive, and, when it counts, a comic streak.
No matter how vulnerable her character may be, she's no shrinking violet, nobody's patsy.
She's in her third season on her latest series, the action drama Burn Notice, which airs at 9 p.m. Thursdays on USA (Buckeye CableSystem Channel 4).
But for many viewers, Gless will always be Det. Chris Cagney, the crime-busting, disappointed-in-love cop partnered with matriarchal Det. Mary Beth Lacey (Tyne Daly) on the classic CBS drama Cagney & Lacey. A "buddy drama" with realistic women heroes, it broke new ground in the 1980s.
Since then, Gless, to no one's surprise, has remained an unstoppable force.
A few years ago she tackled an unusual role, even for her: The fiercely proud mother of a young homosexual man in Showtime's Queer as Folk, which depicted a gay lifestyle in startlingly frank terms. Gless' supporting character - quirky and colorful - worked at a diner.
"I always said Queer as Folk was about this waitress," says Gless with a hearty chuckle.
And what about now, with Burn Notice?
"It's about this chain-smoking mother," she replies, beaming.
That's not entirely accurate, of course.
The lighthearted caper show centers on Jeffrey Donovan as Michael Westen, a mysteriously blacklisted spy stranded in Miami, where he's trying to wangle some work while he clears his name and flushes out the person who "burned" him. He keeps his sanity with the help of fellow renegades including Gabrielle Anwar as Fiona, a gorgeous ex-IRA operative, and Bruce Campbell as Sam, a washed-up intel contact and Michael's closest pal.
Also in the picture is Madeline, Westen's meddlesome mom who, a Miamian, just loves having her formerly wayward son stuck close at hand.
Gless is a culprit whenever she appears: She is likely to steal any scene within reach.
How did she land the role? She has a theory: "They needed the mother from hell. 'Let's get Gless!'•"
A native of Los Angeles, Gless has logged movie, stage, and TV credits reaching back to Marcus Welby, M.D., where in the mid-1970s she was cast as the love interest for series co-star James Brolin. "They said there was no chemistry between us," she recalls with no argument.
At 66, she sports a sleek, ivory-white haircut and great round eyeglass frames. She's on a publicity hop to New York from her native Miami, where she lives with her husband of 18 years, producer Barney Rosenzweig, whom she met when he cast her for his show, Cagney & Lacey.
"He's the first feminist I ever met," she declares with clear admiration. "The kind of feminist who says, 'You want to be equal? Open your own door.'" She bursts out with a laugh. "So there's an edge."