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Sharon Gless Out on a Limb : Theater: The TV star takes flight in the stage version of ‘Misery.’ The tale about an obsessed fan hits close to home.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is hard to imagine Sharon Gless as the star of a stage play--hard, indeed, to summon any image of her not framed by a television screen. After six years in “Cagney & Lacey,” in which she won two Emmys as the tough-talking but vulnerable cop Christine Cagney, Gless is indelibly stamped as a TV actress, even if an undeniably superior one. Her resume says as much: only one feature film role of any size (opposite Michael Douglas in “The Star Chamber”) and one theater appearance, in the Lillian Hellman play, “Watch on the Rhine,” in Springfield, Mass.

It seems odd, then, that she has gone out on a limb to star in the West End in a stage adaptation of Stephen King’s best-selling novel, “Misery.” Her choice of play might seem another oddity; after all, it has only been two years since a film version of “Misery” was released--one that saw Kathy Bates pick up an Oscar for portraying the very role now taken by Gless.

“Stage work is different,” admitted Gless, 49. “As an actor I try to convey truth, but on stage I have to convey it bigger. The people here keep telling me, ‘Sharon, just overact.’ ”

She plays Annie Wilkes, a disturbed ex-nurse who lives alone in a remote cabin, reading romance novels. When her favorite author (played by Bill Paterson), driving near her home, skids off the road and breaks his legs, Annie takes him in, and keeps him a helpless prisoner. On learning he aims to kill off the heroine of his books that she loves, she becomes enraged.

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Annie--unattractive, overweight and quite unbalanced--represents a real departure for Gless. In her dressing room before a rehearsal last week, she was reveling in the fact. “Will ya look at this,” she said lovingly, fingering a grubby, food-stained dressing gown on a coat hanger. “This is what Annie gets to wear. Now I have this, I feel I know her.”

“Misery” opened Dec. 17 and audience reaction has been enthusiastic. A source close to the production reported outbreaks of “nervous laughter” among audiences: “But that was to do with the subject matter. After all, you do laugh at horror stories--it’s just unusual to see them in a theater.”

Gless has approached the part with great seriousness, deliberately gaining 30 pounds to play Annie. “Everyone’s impressed when Robert De Niro puts on weight for a role,” she said, “but when a woman does it, they just go ‘eeuugghh!’ I simply eat what I want whenever I want, something I haven’t done since I was an adolescent.” And has that been pleasurable? “Are you kidding?” she shouted, roaring with laughter. “I’m having the best time. I’ve been going to bed with buttered popcorn.”

When she received the offer to portray Annie in “Misery,” she added, “I’d just quit smoking and put on seven or 10 pounds. And I was at home one day, doing this whole spiel about how ridiculous it is that women have to be thin to be actresses--as if all women were thin. Anyway, this letter arrives the very next day asking if I’d be interested in ‘Misery.’ So I guess someone was listening.”

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Annie Wilkes is a fictional example of the crazed fan syndrome that caused an unhinged man to murder John Lennon, and another to shoot President Ronald Reagan as proof of love for actress Jodie Foster. It is a behavioral extreme that, chillingly, has touched Gless’ own life.

Three years ago, a young woman fan obsessed with Gless broke into her Los Angeles home with a rifle and barricaded herself. “At first, the police thought I was in there with her,” she recalled. “They thought they had a hostage situation on their hands. In fact, I was driving home at the time. I’d had a fight with Barney (her husband Barney Rosenzweig, who produced “Cagney & Lacey”) and I turned around and went back to the studio to apologize to him. I must have an angel on my shoulder--if I hadn’t done that, I might have been in the house when she broke in.”

The woman evidently meant Gless no harm, but apparently wanted to kill herself in front of the actress. A police SWAT team surrounded her house, but it took seven hours and prolonged coaxing before the woman surrendered. “She was sentenced to prison, but she’s out now,” said Gless. The incident made for outrageous headlines in tabloid newspapers (“Cagney & Looney” was one notable example), but at the time Gless was deeply distressed.

“I’d known about the woman for years,” she says now. “She used to write to me, just out of love. A sick love. But now I never think of her. I can’t let it bother me. I carry on my life as I did before. As far as I’m concerned it was one isolated situation. The thought of people wanting to harm me never occurs to me, and I’ve never actually been harmed.”

Did that experience now give her any insight into Annie Wilkes? “Well,” mused Gless, “Annie’s a different character. She has her own agenda. She’s corny, she lives in romance novels. But she’s lethal. Her emotions are huge.”

Still, if “Misery” is viewed as a work that examines the downside of celebrity, Gless has yet more experiences to draw upon. The tabloids and fan magazines hounded her when her affair with Rosenzweig became known (the couple finally married 18 months ago). Then there was the time she tried to tackle her drinking problem by secretly checking into a rehabilitation clinic. “It was not one of the fashionable ones,” she noted sternly. All went smoothly until she stopped at a nearby bar for a last drink just before admitting herself; a barman saw her, drew his own conclusions, and tipped off the press.

Small wonder, then, that after “Cagney & Lacey” she took 18 months off. “Overall, the show was one of the very best things that ever happened to me. I got a husband in Barney, and a very dear friend for life in (co-star) Tyne Daly. But I wanted to work on myself and my relationship with Barney. All of a sudden, everything became more important than show business.” On re-emerging, she starred in another TV series, “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill,” in which she played a public defender. But it failed to capture public imagination as “Cagney & Lacey” had done, and was dropped in its second year.

Despite her lack of stagecraft, Gless’ West End debut is eagerly awaited. She is popular in Britain, where “Cagney & Lacey” is one of the few remaining American TV shows broadcast on terrestrial channels. People who liked her as Christine Cagney clearly want more of her; advance ticket sales have been healthy.

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The play’s director, Simon Moore (who also wrote and directed the well-received feature film “Under Suspicion,” starring Liam Neeson, last year), believes “Misery” can succeed. “I went to visit Stephen King at home in Maine, and got his permission to adapt it for the stage, said Moore. “I had far less resistance from him than I had expected.”

Moore ignored the one ominous precedent of staging King’s work: The Royal Shakespeare Company musical version of “Carrie” was a fiasco. “Not surprising, really,” he noted. “After all, it was a musical about menstruation.” Moore also rejected the idea of approaching Kathy Bates to play Annie in the stage version: “That really would have been rehashing the film version.

“There’s always a lot at stake for people in Sharon’s situation. She has a terrific reputation already. She really has nothing to gain from doing “Misery” in a sense--it won’t make her a huge amount of money, but she comes to it wanting to do it on its own merit. I’m very impressed with her, considering she’s done so little on stage. She’s a fantastic actress.”

Gless says her present commitment to “Misery” is for three months: “After that, we’ll see what happens.” At this heady stage, there is optimistic talk of a transfer to Broadway, but she remains calm. “I’ve signed a holding agreement with CBS. They want me to do a half-hour sitcom. I want to do an hourlong dramedy. It just remains to be seen what happens.”


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