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September 27, 2007

Cagney & Lacey

New Book Tells The Tale Behind The Emmy-Winning Series

By James Tella

Rosenzweig's book  will be available soon in a hardcover edition.
In a contemporary telescape filled with strong female leads, it’s hard to believe there was a time when a program about two women detectives would be considered groundbreaking. But as producer Barney Rosenzweig recounts in his new memoir, the 1982 launch of Cagney & Lacey turned programming, and the industry, on its head.

“I’m still learning about the show’s popularity and how deeply embedded it is in the American lexicon,” said Rosenzweig. Serving as the program’s executive producer, he noted that the basis for creating the series stemmed from reading feminist film critic Molly Haskell’s statement that there never had been a buddy movie for women. “I knew right then that I was going to be the one to make it,” added Rosenzweig, who also serves on the school’s Board of Councilors.

Airing on CBS from March 25, 1982 to May 16, 1988, the show starred Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly as New York City police detectives who led very different lives: Christine Cagney (Gless) was a single, career-minded woman, while Mary Beth Lacey (Daly) was a married working mother.

In the soon to be available in a hardcover collector edition Cagney & Lacey….and Me: An Inside Hollywood Story Rosenzweig relates the journey of the series, which was co-created by former Production Division Chair Barbara Corday and her partner Barbara Avedon. Regularly staffed by female writers (in 1985, 15 of 22 episodes were written or co-written by women, including Writing Associate Professor Georgia Jeffries), Cagney & Lacey was honored with 14 Emmys over the course of its run.

Even the show’s run was the stuff of television legend. After producing the original TV movie/pilot and original episodes, CBS cancelled C&L in 1982, only to resurrect it for the 1983 season in the wake of an unprecedented letter writing campaign by its fans.

Cagney & Lacey is the stuff of television legend.

“Understand that we were done,” Rosenzweig said when asked about the similarities with the recent action by those followers of another CBS show Jericho. “Everyone from the actors to the writers was released from their contracts. The set and the lease to the building where we filmed were gone. The show was not only dead it was buried. It was the first and only time a show has been brought back under those circumstances.”

When it aired, Cagney & Lacey hit a humanistic level that was not usually seen on the small screen, a fact that was largely due to the writers’ ability to delve into the personal lives of the show’s main characters as well as its supporting players.

“The plots were revealed through the principals,” Rosenzweig said. “Without being Bionic or Wonder Woman, these two women showed that they could have a real-life job and do it well.”

With the memory of the show still resonating with its fans and in the pages of broadcast history, one reason the author admits for having written the book was “to make myself current again,” commenting that he’s looking forward to guest lecturing at the school.

The executive producer circa 1983 with his favorite photo of the show's stars.
“The reality is I always preferred talking about the process of making movies rather than actually making them,” he said. “It’s a sometimes tedious and messy business that requires a time commitment beyond the imagination. I escaped unscathed, but the ability to do something to influence an audience is endlessly fascinating.”

Among many of the lessons he learned from his years on the hit show, Rosenzweig is quick to offer very specific advice to anyone starting out in the business.

“Be in the moment,” he said. “I paid attention to what I was enjoying. The more I stayed with it, the better it got. You have to know who you are and realize that you’re not going to have the time to be in the present again.”

It’s a way of thinking that has made Cagney & Lacey an iconic show that will live in perpetuity, because “25 years later, it still works. We had two characters—two women who looked each other in the eye and told the truth. That is rare in television and we did it.”