Gail Shister | Gless took her cues for role from Sen. Clinton

Sharon Gless stars as U.S. secretary of defense and Jason Isaacs as the British ambassador in the mini-series "The State Within."

Bold blondes stick together.

Sharon Gless, who plays the U.S. secretary of defense in BBC America's gripping new mini-series, The State Within, says she modeled her tough-as-titanium character on Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"I've met her several times, and she's absolutely charming," says Gless, 63. "Behind closed doors, I'm sure she must be formidable. But I'm not a political person. I'm an actress."

A six-part conspiracy thriller, State follows the meltdown of U.S.-U.K. relations after a British commercial jet taking off from Washington is blown up by terrorists. Jason Isaacs (Friends With Money) costars as the British ambassador.

Parts one through four will be shown Feb. 17 and 18 (two each night), with the final two on Feb. 24. All begin at 9 p.m. BBC America reaches about 53 million homes.

State was shot in Toronto, where Gless has lived off and on since her days on Showtime's 2000-05 series Queer as Folk. She spends three to four months a year there.

"Canadians are a very polite people," she says. "They don't honk. They're not aggressive like we are. They're more gentle."

Most of the year, Gless resides in Florida with her husband, producer Barney Rosenzweig. They met in the early '80s, when he was her executive producer on CBS's then-radical female cop drama, Cagney & Lacey.

Gless loves Toronto and says it's easier for older actresses to find work there. Also, as a "landed immigrant," she has a better shot at shows produced in Canada than do full-time Americans, she says.

"The Canadians' tendency is to be more like the British," Gless says. "They respect women of a certain age and experience more than they do in the U.S."

And it's not restricted to the small screen, in Gless' view. In the United States, mature movie actresses "can't get arrested anymore," she says.

As a result, so many film stars have migrated to the tube - Sally Field (Brothers and Sisters), Glenn Close (The Shield), Geena Davis (Commander in Chief) - that "TV has become its own snob, and producers only want motion-picture actresses," Gless says.

State's script was the most complicated of Gless' career, she says. When her Toronto-based agent got it to her, "I had to read it three times before I performed it."

For the first time, she hired a dramaturge to break down all the characters and plotlines. It filled a binder, according to Gless.

"I think the British are pretty stellar at this kind of thing. You can't blink or you're going to miss something. Every single character is somehow involved in the end result."

Gless' Lynne Warner, a former defense contractor, is the most powerful American in the show. Her son, a soldier, was killed in Afghanistan.

On a sartorial note, Secretary Warner wears large brooches shaped like American flags with every outfit "as an homage" to Madeleine Albright, the first female secretary of state.

Warner "is driven by power, and I don't mean that in a bad way," Gless says. "I really liked her. She believes everything she does is right. She takes no prisoners, but she never loses her control."

Gless lost her control last weekend in Toronto, dragging herself to the ER after spiking a fever of 105 degrees.

Following a battery of tests, Gless says a doctor informed her she had cancer of the lungs, bone and brain, and that she had six months to live.

"I was in shock," she says. "I sat in my car, feeling like I was in a bad movie." The next day, she flew to Omaha, Neb., where a friend who is a lung specialist immediately ordered tests.

She didn't have cancer, her friend said. She had pneumonia. Armed with meds and ordered to take it easy, Gless returned to Toronto. She's too weak to confront the alarmist doctor, she says.

"I had this whole thing rehearsed that I was going to do. God bless America. We have the best health system in the world, if you can afford it."

The fifth quarter. Craig Ferguson's Late Late Show will broadcast live from Miami following Super Bowl XLI Sunday, immediately after the 11 p.m. local news.

Hmmm, wonder where David Letterman will be?

It marks the first time that CBS's Late Late Show - normally seen at 12:37 a.m. weekdays - will be seen live outside its L.A. studio.

Guests will include a bunch of players from the game (winners, we assume) and actor Billy Bob Thornton, with musical performances by Hank Williams Jr. and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Contact TV columnist Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or Read her recent work at