Mystery TV Flashback: Cagney & Lacey

May 21, 2016 | 2016 Articles, Deborah Harter Williams, Mysteryrat's Maze, TV

by Deborah Harter Williams

Who could be more perfect than Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly to play the iconic leads forever etched in our minds as Cagney & Lacey, which aired for seven seasons on CBS from March 1982 to May 1988.

Christine Cagney: the single, ambitious one—blond and tough. Mary Beth Lacey: the married, blue-collar mom, ever reasonable in the face of her partner’s outbursts. Friends through thick and thin.

The partnership was envisioned and re-envisioned multiple times with different actresses before it became a groundbreaking hit.

The Concept

Writers Barbara Avedon and Barbara Corday, along with producer Barney Rosenzweig, shared an epiphany that there had never been a woman buddy movie. They set out to make one. The project was called Newman and Redford for quite a while, because the elements were the same as Butch and Sundance—-strong leads who are buddies going up against the bad guys with comedic style—only this time with

Rosenzweig had worked on Charlie’s Angels, so he knew what he was up against in pitching a movie with female leads. And these were not young, nubile Angels but 40-something women, pushing to be taken seriously, and cracking wise. In 1975, when he first took the idea to studio exec Daniel Melnick, Melnick said, Sure he’d make the movie—-if they cast Ann Margret and Raquel Welch.

Dream casting for the “C&L” team was Sally Kellerman and Paula Prentice.

Six years later, after many pitches and turn-downs, through a long circuitous route and slog through network hell, Cagney & Lacey went into production as a TV movie starring Loretta Swit and Tyne Daly.

But weeks before the air date the producers were despondent when they saw the first cut of the film. The humor was gone, The director had Swit coming across as more of a competitor with Lacey than a buddy. Years of effort down the drain.

The Editing

Re-cutting almost every scene, Rosenzweig had the editor use Daly’s reaction shots to switch focus away from the harshness of Swit’s portrayal. They added music to change the pacing and lighten up the mood. It was a whole new movie and more like the old concept. The show got great ratings—-and now the network wanted a series-—right away.

The Writing

April Smith, from The Lou Grant Show, and Robert Crais, from Quincy, came on board. (Mystery readers know her from the Ana Grey FBI series, and him from the Elvis Cole/Joe Pike books.) With an incredibly short amount of prep time Cagney & Lacy, the series, debuted in 1982, this time with Meg Foster and Tyne Daly. After only six episodes they were cancelled.

The network said low ratings, but one exec was quoted as saying the leads were too tough. This provoked just enough protest and attention to get more people to tune in. Ratings picked up. But another show failed to deliver better numbers, and so the network agreed to another season—if they would recast.

Foster was replaced with Sharon Gless (the early favorite but, at the time, locked into a contract with Universal).

And so the real Cagney & Lacey was launched. Only to be cancelled again. Rosenzweig argued for another chance and another time slot. The actresses went on the road to drum up viewer support and the people spoke. A major letter-writing campaign brought the show back for 1984-—in a time slot where their ratings soared. Tyne Daly’s Emmy award for the show helped the network think twice, and the series finished the season in the top ten.

Ensemble Casting

It was a winner, and the actresses made it that way. For six years, one of the two would win the Emmy for Best Lead Actress in a Drama. A rich team of supporting actors and their characters gave them the environment in which to shine.

Harvey Lacey (John Karlen): Remarkable as it was to show two strong women cops, the writing of a believable married couple was no small accomplishment. Harvey was a former construction worker, now his own boss doing remodeling jobs. This makes it possible for him to work around Mary Beth’s schedule, sharing household and parenting responsibilities. Harvey was a rock—loving, supportive, and mostly even-tempered. (Karlen got to show his evil side on the series Dark Shadows.)

In the TV movie Harvey showed a cranky side, as Rosenzweig describes:

“Harvey dropped Lacey off at work just as Cagney was arriving. The two women exchanged pleasant enough greetings and Cagney expanded hers to include Harvey. Not only did Harvey fail to reciprocate, but he then stomped on the car’s accelerator to speed away in a manner that amplified the insult. Both women were a little embarrassed. Then, in an effort at making light of the whole thing, Cagney quipped, “His time of the month or what?”

The CBS censors balked. Menstrual cycle jokes were not allowed.

Rosenzweig fought back. “This is essential to the character of the picture we are making. Women—especially in the workplace—have to put up with this kind of demeaning, sexist slander all the time. We are debunking that kind of mythology with humor throughout the picture. If you attack that, there is no reason to make the film.” He won the argument. (Cagney, Lacy and Me by Barney Rosensweig, ebook edition 2011, Publisher: The Rosenzweig Company)

Victor Isbecki (Martin Kove): the lovable, unenlightened macho hunk who would have liked to be a wild-west gunfighter but settled for cop. He doesn’t quite know what to make of “broads” in the squad room. He and Cagney exchange zingers and, over time, become friends.

Lt. Bert Samuels (Al Waxman): the boss, a classic short guy, New York character perplexed by why women are getting promoted when guys are out of jobs. He is always assigning Cagney & Lacey to John duty, dressed in ridiculous hooker-wear.


The series continued on Monday nights, a perfect counterpoint to Monday Night Football, until the middle of the 1987-88 season. A shift to Tuesday nights marked the beginning of the end. Exhausted, the team celebrated their successes and bowed to the

Death is not always final in television. Five years later the movies started. Cagney & Lacey: The Return (November 1994) was as big a hit as ever. This prompted three more TV movies: Cagney & Lacey: Together Again (May, 1995); Cagney & Lacey: The View Through the Glass Ceiling (October 1995); and Cagney & Lacey: True Convictions (January 1996). The DVDs were packaged as Cagney & Lacey: The Menopause Years, quoting The Boston Globe:
“Cagney & Lacey became the prism through which all other dramas with women would be viewed, upheld as a social document of professional women’s lives in the late 20th century.”


Current furor about the lack of female participation in the entertainment hierarchy, suggests it might be time to bring them back again. Rizzoli & Isles comes closest to the Cagney & Lacey model, but not a lot of other current drama shows come to mind. Gless was the mom on Burn Notice, and Daly recently appeared in the feature film Hello, My Name is Doris. If we move quickly they might be available. Or…what would you do if you had to recast the parts? Who would you choose?

Note: Cagney & Lacey was such a phenomenon that it generated thousands of pages analyzing the series. Two good books are: Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney & Lacey by Julie D’Acci, and Rosenzweig’s Cagney, Lacy and Me, which provided the behind-the-scenes information cited above.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways, & short stories in our mystery section.


Deborah Harter Williams works as a mystery scout, seeking novels that could be made into television. She blogs at Clue Sisters and was formerly a mystery bookstore owner.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.