The three Cagneys of Lacey
Every die-hard fan of the series Cagney & Lacey know that there were three Cagneys in Lacey’s life, which one of them portrayed by a different actress and in unique performances. Each one of those Cagneys showed a different side of Christine Cagney’s personality which in my opinion is crucial to try understanding the flaws and strengths of such a complex character.
The first Cagney:
The first Cagney was portrayed by Loretta Switt in the made-for-TV movie (and pilot of the series) Cagney & Lacey. This portrait of Cagney is the one I dearly use to call “Christine Cagney super star” and despite the characteristic sassiness of Cagney that can be perceived in all the three performances, the most emblematic trait showed by Ms. Switt’s rendition is the ambitiousness of Cagney.
We all know that Loretta Switt was the star of the movie, what made Cagney the main character (differently from what happen when the movie becomes a TV series, when we will have everything centred in both women) of this story, and because of that, being present in almost very single take of the movie, leaving space for Lacey to be her sidekick more than her partner. This explains my “Christine Cagney super star” nickname for this interpretation.
To be objective, then, we can say that besides Christine’s characteristic sassiness and ambitiousness, already enumerated before, we can certainly note Cagney’s sarcasm and irony. All in all, we can really see a proto-Cagney (referring to the later character everyone got to know). I find Ms. Switt acting believable and pretty much likeable.
The second Cagney:
Later on, after the great audience the made-for-TV movie has got, the TV network asked Cagney & Lacey producer Mr. Barney Rosenzweig to make Cagney & Lacey a TV series. Unfortunately, Ms. Switt wasn’t available to play Cagney any more since she was part of M*A*S*H cast, so after getting back Ms. Tyle Daly to be Mary Beth Lacey, the production had to re-cast to find the new Cagney.
Just a note, for those who doesn’t know a lot about the behind the scenes of C&L’s story: Since the very first beginning, Ms. Sharon Gless was the producers’ first choice to portrait Christine Cagney, but because she was working in other series at the time and because of the type of contract she had with the Universal studios, she wasn’t available to play the part.
Back to the second Cagney, the actress chosen to portrait Christine Cagney was Ms. Meg Foster. The biggest difference between hers and Ms. Switt performance is the fact we have a tougher Cagney. The sassiness and ambition were still there, some more toughness was added but we have lost the irony and sarcasm Cagney had before. The character got too much serious, and probably, because of that, lost empathy with the audience, ending to be re-casted for the third time later.
Much had been said to explain the reason of why Cagney had to be re-casted for the third time, from the most absurd theory that Ms. Foster Cagney was too much butchy (alluding the character was a lesbian) to the official reason of being too much similar (physically) to her counterpart Ms. Daly. I do believe though that could be a combination of things (physical similarity between the actress and the lost of empathy with the audience). Ms. Foster interpretation was very believable and well done (we are talking about a great actress here) although the final product was somewhat distant from what the audience (and maybe the network) wanted to see.
The third (and last) Cagney:
After the series got cancelled, and after a good fight of Mr. Rosenzweig for his creation and creatures, he had one last possibility to make the TV series again, but only in case Christine Cagney’s actress was re-casted again. This time, Ms. Gless was finally available but still reluctant on replacing another actress once more (she had done that on her previous work). The Gods of the arts pantheon conspired in our favour and so we finally had the Christine Cagney!
Ms. Gless rendering of Christine Cagney was the best of the three, with an equilibrated balance of the character flaws and strengths. We finally had the right amount of sassiness, ambition toughness, humour, sarcasm, irony and most important, and what surely made the character most more empathic with the audience and much more believable, as if it were a real person, Christine’s human side. No matter how she tried not to be, somehow, emotionally involved in her cases, she ended up being part of it, either being ambitious, critical, cynical, emotional, angry. She was Irish after all! A beautiful, brilliant, ambitious, hot blooded, imperfect, Irish woman.
Finally Cagney was one of us! A perfect imperfect antihero! Ms. Gless always say she loved to portrayed Cagney’s flaws, and I’m pretty sure most of the audience loved to love Cagney’s flaws!
Ms. Gless’ great performance as Cagney, as well as the great performance of Ms. Daly as Lacey, together with their amazing chemistry on and off screen brought to life the most loved New York female detectives of all times.
Ms. Barbara Avedon and Ms. Barbara Corday may have created Christine Cagney character but certainly it was Ms. Sharon Gless who gave life to the most, famous and loved by all, Christine Cagney, as a result of your acting skills and your commitment with the character itself.