“Do you mind if I smoke?” Sharon Gless asks.
The question was odd because the actress was seated on the patio of the posh Langham, Huntington Hotel & Spa. Californians tend to object to smokers even if they’re obeying the rules.
It’s also strange because it’s hard to imagine Gless without a cigarette dangling from her digits. On the USA Network series “Burn Notice,” her character, Madeline Westen, is rarely without a smoke. It’s as much a part of Westen’s personality as her white hair and passive-aggression.
Gless never expected she’d be allowed to smoke on TV again.
“But that was the way the character was written: a chain-smoking hypochondriac,” Gless said, sending a puff of smoke into the afternoon air. “My husband said, ‘How happy are you? They’re paying you to smoke.’
“I’m glad they allow me to smoke because I can do so much with that cigarette. I can take a hit, hold it in my lungs, say whole sentences, and then blow it out when I choose for emphasis.”
In “Burn Notice,” her role as the mother of a spy (Jeffrey Donovan) who has been burned (disavowed by the government) has grown each season.
“The way she was originally written, she was described as needy. We did all that the first year. The second season, they told me that the network loved what I was doing, they just wanted more,” Gless said.
“So they are writing richer scenes for her. They made the character very smart. I ran with that. That changed my tone. She still manipulates her son, but she’s not dumb.”
Her character is a supporting player to the explosive spy action handled by Donovan, Bruce Campbell and Gabrielle Anwar. She attacks the role with the same passion and fire as if she were the star.
That means hours of rehearsals at home, often with a speech coach, to make sure every word has meaning.
Gless even used such a simple scene as baking cookies as an opening to tell viewers more about Madeline. She put her cigarette out in the dough.
“Burn Notice” is the latest stop on a long acting road for the 66-year-old Gless. She still gets the same thrill from acting as when she landed an uncredited role on the 1970 TV movie “Night Slaves.”
“I am the happiest when I am working. I am fortunate because most of my peers, the women, simply don’t work anymore.
“I am grateful they continue to let me do it,” said Gless, with a puff of smoke for emphasis.