DAVID E. KELLEY
This is the story of a Boston lawyer who becomes bored with being a legal eagle, so he writes a script that is seen by a top TV producer. The rest is show business history.
From L.A. Law to Picket Fences and Chicago Hope; to The Practice; Ally McBeal and Boston Public; David E. Kelley has become one of the most successful and honoured television producers in American history. In fact, he was the first producer to win both the Emmy for Best Drama (The Practice) and Best Comedy (Ally)--both in the same year! Plus, he's married to the sexy Michelle Pfeiffer as well. Some guys have all the luck!
But in Kelley's case, it is not just luck. He works at it. He writes for both Practice and Ally, while overseeing his newest hit Boston Public. His workaholic habits have made him the butt of jokes in Hollywood, but how many TV producers write most of their shows' scripts--in longhand, no less?
One downside to Kelley's methods is that when he moves on to another project, his other shows lose his unique touch. That was certainly the case for L.A. Law, Picket Fences and Chicago Hope. But at his best, few producers can top him.
Let's look at the evidence.
David E. Kelley was born in Waterville, Maine in 1956. His father was a hockey coach at Boston University (a sport the younger Kelley would also embrace). In fact, he would read self-penned poems about the BU hockey team during annual dinners. Kelley later graduated from Princeton and the BU School of Law and became an associate attorney at the Boston law firm Fine & Ambrogne. But his creative side eventually began to win out. He wrote a movie script spoofing courtroom dramas, and his new agent began shopping the script around. Somehow, Kelley's script landed on the desk of television producer Steven Bochco, who by this time had left his groundbreaking Hill Street Blues to co-create and produce a new legal series for NBC. Bochco was looking for story consultants for what would become L.A. Law. As Bochco recalled for "Boston Magazine," Kelley "was not only a wonderful writer, but he was a lawyer with an attitude about the law." Bochco hired Kelley, and that script later became the Judd Nelson feature film From The Hip. Within the next three years, Kelley moved up to writer and executive producer of L.A. Law, giving the show some of its best-remembered moments. Kelley also co-created the ABC dramedy Doogie Howser, MD in 1989 with Bochco.
But while Bochco was a fine mentor, Kelley was ready to move on. Kelley created his own production company and hooked up with 20th Century Fox (Bochco's studio at the time). It proved to be the start of a one-man television dynasty.
Kelley's first new drama as an independent producer premiered on CBS in the fall of 1992. Picket Fences was set in the fictional town of Rome, Wisconsin. Tom Skerritt starred as the town's sheriff, Jimmy Brock. Kathy Baker co-starred as his doctor wife, Jill Brock. Others in the cast included Lauren Holly as Deputy Maxine Stewart; Fyvush Finkel as attorney Douglas Wambaugh; and the late Ray Walston as the town's judge, Henry Bone. But in the Kelley tradition, Picket Fences was a quirky show. Strange events happened in Rome. Some of the characters and situations were, to say the least, unusual. Court cases were used to make points about contemporary moral issues, from religion to crime, homosexuality, genetic engineering, parenting, and more.
"Fences" was never a big hit; it was mostly a quality loss leader for CBS. (It won two Emmy awards for Best Dramatic Series.) In the fall of 1995, Kelley left the series and handed it over to new producers who vowed to make the show more accessible to viewers. Ratings dropped, and CBS didn't help matters by moving Picket Fences against Fox's increasingly popular The X-Files. The network took the show off the air with six episodes left to broadcast. (Two eventually aired as the series finale; the other four episodes were burned off during the summer of 1996.)
By this time, Kelley was hard at work on his second series for CBS-Chicago Hope, a medical series that dealt with major issues. "Hope" focused on a high-tech Chicago hospital where the best surgeons and doctors tried procedures others would not touch. Broadway star Mandy Patinkin led the ensemble cast as the eccentric but brilliant Doctor Jeffrey Geiger. Adam Arkin played neurosurgeon Aaron Shutt; Roxanne Hart played Shutt's wife Camille, who was also a nurse at the hospital. (The two would have marital problems, eventually leading to divorce.) Also in the cast was the fine character actor Hector Elizondo as chief of staff Phillip Watters, and Peter McNichol as hospital attorney Alan Birch.
But from the start, Chicago Hope was overshadowed by another Chicago-based medical show that also made its debut in 1994. CBS decided to pit "Hope" against NBC's rookie ER (which ironically replaced L.A. Law.) But it turned out to be no contest. "ER's" diverse cast, fast pace and medical lingo caught viewers' imaginations. Within a few months, ER was the top-rated series on US television, while Chicago Hope found itself in the bottom half of the ratings. In midseason, CBS moved "Hope" to Monday nights, where it fared much better. But in the second season, Kelley left "Hope" to do other projects; and Patinkin also decided to move on. He was replaced with actress Christine Lahti as surgeon Kate Austin. The new executive producers also cut back on courtroom scenes, leading McNichol to depart during the show's second year. New characters came and went, and CBS kept moving the show around its schedule. The result was a lack of continuity. At times, "Hope" could be razor-sharp; other times, it was simply mediocre. Viewers started tuning out.
Chicago Hope was set to be cancelled in 1999, but CBS decided to give it another year after Kelley offered to write new episodes and make major changes in the show. In one fell swoop, Kelley wrote out Lahti and many of the other characters that had survived by that time; only Arkin and Elizondo would stay for the entire run. New actors were brought in, and plots were changed. But again, scheduling proved to be the final blow for "Hope." Slotted back on Thursday night's -up against NBC's Frasier and ABC's quiz show smash Who Wants To Be A Millionaire --the 1999-2000 season would be the last for "Hope." By this time, Kelley returned to his legal roots. It was a decision that paid off.
In March 1997, ABC premiered The Practice, Kelley's first true legal drama since his L.A. Law days. Set in Boston, Dylan McDermott starred as Bobby Donnell, the head of a struggling criminal defence law firm. Kelli Williams co-starred as partner (and eventually Bobby's wife) Lindsay Dole. Others in the cast: Camryn Manheim as heavyset attorney Ellenor Frutt; Michael Badalucco as scrappy Jimmy Berluti; and Steve Harris as the formidable Eugene Young.
Unlike L.A. Law, The Practice was devoid of glamour and six-figure attorneys. Bobby and his team struggled on relatively limited salaries, and had to keep proving themselves in the early episodes. Where the show shines is its ability to balance the inner workings of the legal system with the drama of court cases--a Kelley trait going back to his L.A. Law days. ABC remained committed to "The Practice," despite low ratings in its first two seasons. By the fall of 1999, ABC switched the show to Sunday nights, where the audience increased. With "Millionaire" as a lead-in, "The Practice" zoomed into the top-ten, and remains Kelley's biggest solo hit. But "The Practice" has been overshadowed in publicity by Kelley's other series about Boston law. Of all the shows Kelley has created to date Ally McBeal has turned out to be his most controversial.
Fox Broadcasting asked Kelley to create an hour-long drama with female appeal, and Ally McBeal was born in the fall of 1997. It obviously struck a nerve not only with women, but also with men, the law firm (and staff) of Cage & Fish took on sexually oriented cases (and sometimes lived out their sexual battles as well). The casting was hard to fault. Calista Flockhart (Ally) had appeared in a number of movies and US soap operas, plus a string of off-Broadway plays. Peter McNichol (John Cage) had also done films, and was a regular on Kelley's Chicago Hope. Greg Germann (Richard Fish) appeared in such TV series as Ned And Stacey and Tour Of Duty. Lisa Nicole Carson (Ally's roommate Renee) also appeared on ER while doing "Ally." Courtney Thorne-Smith (Georgia Thomas) had just left Melrose Place, while Gill Bellows (Billy Thomas, Georgia's husband and Ally's former boyfriend) lists Law And Order and the movie The Shawshank Redemption in his resume. Singer Vonda Sheppard (who appears and sings in the show) is Ally's muse who was discovered by Kelley and wife Michelle Pfeiffer.
But as the show became popular (it became Fox's second most-popular dramatic series after The X-Files, feminists and women around the country debated whether the short-skirted, man-obsessed Ally was a role model for progressive females. While Mary Richards struck a balance between work and relationships on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Murphy Brown was a workaholic at the expense of a personal life, Ally had no such qualms. She wanted a career, but was willing to give it up when she met Mr. Right. That drove some women crazy. Plus, Kelley gave Ally (and "Ally") a cartoonish look, with her fantasies played out (inflatable breasts; dumping a man into a dumpster, tongues hanging out onto the floor).
"Ally's" obsession with sex (everything from a man's endowment, to the infamous unisex bathroom at Cage & Fish) came at a time when a growing number of prime-time series started using sex as a hook. In fact, the show's premiere came just months before stories surfaced that US President Bill Clinton had sex with a White House intern. It's unclear whether the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal helped Ally McBeal. It probably didn't hurt.
By the 1998-99 television season, David E. Kelley pulled off a feat no one else in US television history ever did before: He became the first producer to win for both Best Dramatic Series (The Practice) and Best Comedy Series (Ally McBeal) in the same year. Not only that, "Ally" broke Frasier's five-year hold on the Best Comedy Emmy. Some critics felt Kelley was heading for a fall. And soon enough, that prediction had some truth to it.
When you're on top of the world, sooner or later you have to become mortal. That's what happened to Kelley in the 1999-2000-television season. First, there was Snoops. Kelley's throwback to the Charlie's Angels days for ABC proved to be too little, too late. Gina Gershon, Paula Marshall and Paula Jai Parker starred as female investigators who solve crimes using (among other things) the "nipple cam"--a camera in a bra! As "Entertainment Weekly" put it, "These poor women slog through detective plots that were predictable when Mannix and Cannon were on 25 years ago." Snoops lasted through December 1999. Next, there was the shortened version of "Ally." Kelley saw how local stations picked up half-hour sitcoms for far more money than the hour-long dramas he specialized. Kelley thought (and Fox agreed) that viewers would watch a half-hour "Ally McBeal" with much of the original episode intact and new footage added. Both were wrong.
"EW" said the result had "all the small annoying mannerisms of the show...magnified in these 22 ½ minute plus commercials versions. It turned out to be yet another failure for Kelley. It also didn't help that his efforts to revive Chicago Hope failed that same season.
But the worst wasn't over. Critics began carping that The Practice was losing some of its steam (and indeed, newcomer The West Wing would beat Practice to win an Emmy as Best Drama, while Ally McBeal became yesterday's news in the Best Comedy category--the winner that year was Will And Grace.)
Before the fall 2000 season began, Kelley vowed there would be changes to Ally McBeal. He admitted that the 30-year-old lawyer would "finally get a grip." As he told "Entertainment Weekly," Ally would "become the emotional counsellor to others" at Cage and Fish, rather than the near basket case she became in the disappointing 1999-2000 season.
Kelley made good on his promise. The new Ally McBeal was much improved over the previous season, thanks in part to fewer flights of fancy and a seemingly matured Ally. But the show was also helped with the addition of Robert Downey Junior as a regular. Downey was signed to do at least ten "Ally" episodes after his well-publicized prison stint for drugs. His performances seemed to bring the acting on the show to a new level. (Flockhart improved the most in that respect.) The result was improved ratings, with many disenchanted "Ally" fans coming back to the fold. (Unfortunately, Downey's relapse and arrest in Palm Springs last November has clouded his future, but at this writing, he will finish the episodes he has committed to, and if he avoids more prison time, he could be back on "Ally" in the 2001-2002 season.) Another star who has had much-publicized personal problems-Anne Heche-has also signed on to do a number of "Ally" episodes. Is this David Kelley's version of celebrity rehab?
Meanwhile, Kelley began overseeing his next series. Unlike his previous shows, Boston Public was not set in a legal firm. But it had the Kelley touch nevertheless. Kelley wrote the first six episodes, but other writers have since taken over. Set in fictional Winslow High, "Boston" looks at education from the staff point of view, led by the powerful and sometimes heavy-handed principal Steven Harper (Chi McBride); his by-the book assistant principal Scott Guber (Anthony Heald); and teachers played by Jessica Gilsig; Fyvush Finkel; Joey Slotnick; Nicky Katt; Sharon Leal and Loretta Devine. Harper faces a number of problems in the pilot: A teacher shoots off a gun as an anti-violence move; another teacher kicks a student out of class for not wearing a bra; a third teacher writes what looks like a suicide note on the blackboard of her classroom; and the school's star football player receives a failing grade before the big cross-town game.
Boston Public has improved since the pilot episode, with major issues being addressed in an intelligent fashion (such as racism among teachers, and a major scandal involving a teacher who knew a fellow instructor was having sex with a student but did not tell school officials--a plot that led to a crossover episode with Kelley's "The Practice" in February 2001.) Boston Public has become a hit series for Fox, giving Kelley three hit shows (counting "The Practice") on US television. It should also be noted that Kelley has written and produced three feature films: To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday; Lake Placid and Mystery, Alaska--all done during his "Practice/Ally" years!
And if you think David E. Kelley will slow down anytime soon, think again: In 1999, he signed a 50-Million dollar deal with 20th Century Fox, to keep pumping out new television series.
So what is the secret to Kelley's success?
Fellow TV producer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) asked Kelley how he managed to balance work and a personal life. In an interview with the "Seattle Post-Intelligencer," Sorkin quoted Kelley: "Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, I write Ally McBeal. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, I write The Practice. Sunday I'm with my wife and kids."
For the crazy world of television, David E. Kelley has his life in perfect balance!
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