TV Legends Revealed | Why Did CBS Replace 'Cagney and Lacey's' First Cagney?

TV URBAN LEGEND: The Cagney from the first season of “Cagney and Lacey” was replaced because CBS executives though the show seemed as if it was about a pair of lesbians.

“Cagney and Lacey,” about two female police detectives, was one of the most acclaimed television dramas of the 1980s, winning the Emmy Award for Best Drama Series twice and Best Lead Actress a remarkable six times. Producer Barney Rosenzweig used the series to address a number of social issues over the course of its seven-season run, but at its heart it was about the interactions between two female friends who worked together as cops. That interaction, however, proved to be a tricky one for CBS, as the show was actually briefly canceled after one season for an awful reason: the belief that the show seemed to be about two lesbians.

“Cagney and Lacey” began life as a film screenplay by Barbara Avedon and Barbara Corday, produced by Corday's then-boyfriend Rosenzweig. It didn’t make it as a film, but Rosenzweig was able to retool the project as a TV series. CBS had a deal with Loretta Swit, one of the stars of its hit sitcom “M*A*S*H,” in which here she had to do a TV movie for the network every year. So “Cagney and Lacey” aired in October 1981 as a TV movie, with Swit playing Christine Cagney and Tyne Daly playing Mary Beth Lacey. Rosenzweig really pushed the TV movie as a major feminist achievement, landing the cover of “Ms.” magazine for his efforts. The result was a ratings smash.

CBS agreed to turn the project into a midseason replacement in 1982. The only problem was that Swit was still locked into her “M*A*S*H” contract, a particularly agonizing situation for the actress, who knew the long-running series was coming to an end (the following season would be its last). While Swit was thrilled at the opportunity to star in her own series, she was too valuable to “M*A*S*H*” and couldn’t be freed up for “Cagney and Lacey.” Rosenzweig instead cast a young Meg Foster in the Cagney role. (It’s fair to note the contrast between Swit and Daly was a lot different than that between Foster and Daly. Daly was a bundle of energy, and Swit sort of played off of that, while Foster was similar in energy to Daly.)

The ratings for the six episodes of “Cagney and Lacey” produced in 1982 were poor, losing a good of the rather large audience from its lead-in “Magnum P.I.,” leading CBS to cancel the show. However, when Rosenzweig looked further into the ratings data, he noted “Cagney and Lacy” performed well with adults, just not with younger audiences. Today, that would be even more of a death knell, but back then, it was enough for him to convince CBS to move the show to 10 p.m. to see how it fared. Sure enough, the ratings rose.

CBS was willing to work with Rosenzweig on "un-canceling" the show. However, there was a major obstacle: The network needed Meg Foster gone.

In a shockingly candid (and also gross) interview with TV Guide at the time, an anonymous CBS executive explained their reasoning, noting that the stars were:

[T]oo tough, too hard and not feminine. They were too harshly women's lib. The American public doesn't respond to the bra burners, the fighters, the women who insist on calling manhole covers 'people-hole covers.' These women on “Cagney & Lacey” seemed more intent on fighting the system than doing police work. We perceived them as dykes.

Rosenzweig naturally didn’t like that, but at the same time, he wanted the show to continue. Lucky for him, another CBS show, “House Calls,” was also getting canceled, freeing its star Sharon Gless as an option. (Gless actually had just replaced Lynn Redgrave on the show in the middle of its just-completed third season, which was a major hit for two seasons with Redgrave. However, Redgrave and the show's producers got into a dispute in Season 3.) Gless initially was wary about being a replacement yet again, but she relented and was cast as the new Christine Cagney. Gless' Cagney was seen as more conventionally "feminine," and therefore worked better as a contrast to the brash Lacey.

While the reasons behind her casting were uncool, it’s fair to say the chemistry between Gless and Daly really stood out for the six seasons they worked together (Gless won two Best Lead Actress Emmys while Daly earned four). Amusingly enough, though, the show was canceled again after Gless and Daly's first season together! This time, Rosenzweig organized one of the relatively few successful letter-writing campaigns, and the publicity led CBS to relent. The ratings improved in Season 3, and “Cagney and Lacey” wasn’t canceled again until its seventh season (every year brought cancellation rumors, however, as the ratings were never exactly great).

Looking back at 1982 from 2015, what seems particularly shocking is not so much that the CBS executive had such beliefs, but that they felt free to share them with a journalist.

The legend is...

STATUS: Sadly True

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