He’s the Final Authority on ‘L.A. Law’ : Four years ago, David E. Kelley was a Boston real estate lawyer; today he’s the head of one of TV’s most-acclaimed series
“The ridiculous thing is that now I get to go out to lunch with judges,” says David E. Kelley, the executive producer of NBC’s “L.A. Law.” “When I was an actual lawyer, I couldn’t get judges to listen to me when I was the only one standing in court talking directly at them.”
It was only four years ago that Kelley was a lawyer, working in a high-rise office building in Boston, litigating disputes over real estate transactions and minor criminal cases. Now he is beginning his second season at the helm of one of television’s most-acclaimed shows.
His is the kind of amazing Hollywood success story that makes those who peddle scripts for years and years without a sale sick to their stomachs. It’s also the kind of story that encourages thousands of others to spend their after-work hours banging away on the next great American screenplay with dreams that surely they can do it too.
“I had no idea what a fluke it was until I landed at LAX four years ago and got in a cab and saw several scripts on the front seat that the driver was trying to sell,” Kelley remembers. “I know now, after learning for four years what it takes to produce a television show, that if I came out here cold today and said, ‘Here’s what I know,’ I could very easily spend four years driving a cab myself.”
Thanks to what he calls sheer luck--but which others attribute to talent and tenacity--Kelley instead has spent those years working his way to the top of the TV creative heap--going from a five-figure annual salary as an associate at Fine & Ambrogne in Boston to a five-figure weekly salary as head of the fictional McKenzie, Brackman, Cheney, Kuzak & Becker. He sat down recently in his office on the 20th Century Fox lot to reflect on his short but meteoric Hollywood career and the pressure he endured last season in trying to fill the shoes of “L.A. Law’s” former senior partner, Steven Bochco--one of television’s best known and most successful drama producers and the co-creator of the series and the renowned “Hill Street Blues.”
By TV’s two most telling standards, Kelley had stood tall. The show had suffered no defections from the big, upscale, advertiser-prized audience that has followed the show from the beginning. And it had suffered no apparent drop in quality. Earlier this month, “L.A. Law” was nominated for 13 Emmys, the second highest total for any show on television, including best dramatic series. Kelley nabbed three of the nominations himself.
All this for a 34-year-old lawyer from Maine who not only enjoyed practicing law but also had never even tried his hand at creative writing during his school years. Even in the harried midst of hectic work days that often find him writing scenes at home into the night, Kelley says he sometimes has to pinch himself to make sure this whole thing isn’t some fantastic dream.
The dream-come-true began in 1983 when Kelley, like thousands of other doctors, lawyers, butchers and candlestick makers, decided he had hit upon a “perfect idea” for a movie, based on some of his legal experiences. “Just for fun,” and with only a vague notion that he could get through it from beginning to end, Kelley started to write a screenplay about a young, overly ambitious attorney, scribbling down lines of dialogue in long hand after work.
Through a family friend and client at his firm, who was a partner in a film production company, he was able to option the completed script and secure an agent early in 1986. At that time, Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher were giving birth to “L.A. Law” and were searching for writers with some legal background. Bochco was sent Kelley’s script--which would soon become “From the Hip,” starring Judd Nelson--and invited the attorney to Los Angeles to discuss a single-episode assignment for the new series. The interview went so well that Bochco put him on staff.
“I only read about the first 30 pages of his script,” Bochco said, “and you could see in the courtroom stuff--he wrote it with such real feeling and it was very funny. And that’s exactly the voice you want to locate for ‘L.A. Law.’ You want to take the viewer into the courtroom and make it come very much alive and also find the humor inherent in that environment. Most TV writers fall into the trap of writing courtroom stuff very ponderously; it’s so overwrit-ten. It’s like bad French cooking, where everything is bathed in too much cream sauce.”
At first, Kelley was cautious, asking only for a five-month leave of absence from his law firm. If he or the show flunked out, he still had his office and law books waiting for him. But “L.A. Law” took off immediately, winning big ratings and then, at the end of its first season, the Emmy Award for best dramatic series. It won that honor again last year for its third season.
While he has not ruled out a return to law someday, Kelley has no immediate plans to go back. He is committed to “L.A. Law” for now and has a deal to develop a series for CBS. From his first days writing scenes for the show, he explained, he loved the process. Commiting to television full-time became an easy choice.
“I think the first thing I remember loving was that I could make up the facts,” Kelley said. “In three years of practicing law, I was always stuck with the cards that were dealt. If you had a bad case, you had a bad case. It’s such a luxury in this (TV) law firm that if I had a bad case, I could just change a fact or change an answer from a witness and suddenly the case was going better again.”
Kelley became so adroit at making up cases that he flew up the creative hierarchy, from story editor his first year to executive story editor in year two. Then, when Fisher left the show in a dispute with Bochco, Kelley became the supervising producer and the heir apparent to take charge when Bochco relinquished the reins at the end of the series’ third season.
“He just soaked up the learning,” Bochco said. “He advanced so rapidly, I think, because he has a wonderfully fertile story mind and he really understood what ‘L.A. Law’ did best. Plus he has a tremendous work ethic. He’ll work and work and work until he gets it right no matter how long it takes.”
By the time Bochco did depart to create new shows under an exclusive, long-term pact with ABC, there was no apprehension about Kelley taking charge, recalled Brian Pike, NBC’s vice president of drama development.
“It was always acknowledged that Steven would not stay with the show forever, and the fact that he groomed David from the beginning made us all very comfortable,” Pike said. “That’s the right way to do it, and it doesn’t usually happen that way in television. Often the creator of a show will leave to do something new and there is a crisis. The network and the studio run around trying to find some experienced producer, often from the outside, to take over, and then that person doesn’t know the show or the actors or the politics. But with David, I don’t think we missed a beat.”
Nonetheless, in his first year as the boss, Kelley said, his top priority was proving that he wasn’t going to ruin the show. And the pressure to maintain the quality reputation of the series is one reason he worked so obsessively on the scripts. Either by himself or in collaboration with supervising producer William M. Finkelstein, also a former attorney, Kelley was credited with writing an amazing 18 of the 22 episodes that aired last season. (While it is rare for anyone to write so many scripts for one season, especially hourlong dramas, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, one of the executive producers of the comedy “Designing Women,” wrote 37 of the first 44 episodes.)
“It’s amazing to me that David and Bill Finkelstein are even alive today,” Pike said. “I call it cowboy producing. They just decided to do the whole thing themselves, which is virtually unheard of in my experience.”
Though Kelley is ultimately responsible for the entire production of the show--including casting, shooting and editing--Rick Wallace, the series’ co-executive producer, oversees the production for him, allowing Kelley and Finkelstein to spend days and most nights on the stories. Two of Kelley’s scripts from last season, one co-written with Finkelstein, earned Emmy nominations for outstanding writing in a dramatic series.
“Sure there was pressure and it is a big challenge trying to follow in Steven Bochco’s footsteps,” Kelley said. “The bad side is (that) we seem to be here all the time and life is very one-dimensional. The good side is that we get so wrapped up in the work that we don’t have time to worry about the pressure. But I really didn’t feel compelled to put my own stamp on the show. Steven left behind a machine that was working, and if I was going to break it, I wasn’t going to break it in my first year.”
Which is not to say that Kelley was paralyzed by a compulsion to follow formula. He shook up the show’s office chemistry by introducing the villainous Rosalind Shays, played by Diana Muldaur, who tried to wrest control of the firm, forcing the regular characters to new heights of distrust and self-aggrandizement. Though Shays was finally ousted, the office will remain a volatile political environment this season, more reflective of the competitive mood that pervades many law firms.
But it was probably in the courtroom that the show most often wowed the jury of Kelley’s mentor, his network and his viewers, delving into cutting-edge, sometimes exotic legal issues. One episode dealt with the “outing” of a heroic policeman whose career was ruined when a gay journalist, hoping to raise the public image of gays, published the fact that the officer was a homosexual. Another explored the appeals process involved in death penalty cases, ending with the execution of a convicted murderer. Another told the story of a woman with a brain tumor who sued for the right to be frozen until medical science came up with a cure. One of the characters defended a couple who had murdered their disabled infant and then claimed the child had suffered crib death. Another story centered on a man who had been tortured years before in a foreign nation, suing his torturer, who had since immigrated to the United States.
Other cases showcased the writing duo’s sometimes bizarre sense of humor. In one trial, an elderly Jewish mohel was sued for having snipped a bit too much at a circumcision ceremony. Another found a disgruntled and fanatic Chicago Bears fan suing the team for fraud after suffering through last season’s dismal 6-10 season.
While Kelley admits that the show is designed around the affluent, rather glamorous side of the legal world and that his primary goal is to be entertaining, he says he does scour legal publications searching for cases that prick at the framework of the system. He thrills at the opportunity to try all the cases and practice all the kinds of law he dreamed about when he went to law school.
“I’m constantly fascinated by the law and where is it right and where is it wrong,” Kelley said. “That’s where we are at our best. If we can expose a flaw in our judicial system and get people to argue about whether it should be changed, then that’s a good story. And that’s fun for me as a lawyer.
“But I’m not on a crusade to make the world a better place. If we can challenge the system, great. If we can look at an interesting legal question that appeals to the emotions of lay people, we’ll do it. Last year we had a story where the lawyer knew about a dead child lying in a ditch but the lawyer-client privilege prevented him from telling the police or the parents where the kid was. That was shocking to people who aren’t lawyers and also an interesting question for all the lawyers out there. But we aren’t ever going to sit down and say, ‘This is an interesting legal conundrum, let’s share it with the world.’ Not if it’s boring.”
“I think last year the show was every bit as good, if not better, than it’s ever been,” said Bochco, who discussed the characters and story arcs with Kelley and Finkelstein at the beginning of the year and commented regularly on all their scripts. “After about the fifth or sixth show, I called David and said, ‘You’re making me look bad.’ ”
If there was anything to find fault with last season, it may be that the personal lives of the lawyers, which in the past had been rather flamboyant and tumultuous, became “almost pastoral,” TV Guide wrote recently. After a steamy office fling with a new secretary, former playboy extraordinaire Arnie Becker (played by Corbin Bernsen) got married. The wildly neurotic Brackman (Alan Rachins), after a stint with a sex surrogate, seemed well-adjusted at year’s end. Kelsey and Markowitz (Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker) had become blissed-out parents, while former lovers Van Owen and Kuzak (Susan Dey and Harry Hamlin) had become sweet best friends.
“Writers write to their strengths and, to some degree, given their backgrounds, they relied on their strengths as lawyers,” Bochco said of Kelley and Finkelstein. “I, as a non-lawyer, tend to look at drama in more personal terms. So perhaps there was a slight reduction in that side of the show, but I think in this coming season you will see some really interesting stuff with the characters and their personal lives.”
Now that he has survived his first season at the controls without wrecking the machine, Kelley hints that he is ready to stir some of his own special seasoning in Bochco’s time-tested stew. Van Owen has joined the firm and will now have more time for personal relationships. Becker is married, but his sexy secretary is still lurking and his trusty secretary Roxanne (Susan Ruttan) is still hot for him.
Even in the current climate of keen advertiser sensitivity to controversial subject matter, Pike said that NBC maintains a hands-off attitude toward Kelley and “L.A. Law,” allowing the series free rein to explore “virtually any issue"--personal or legal. “They would have to really cross the line before we would ask them to rethink their subject matter,” Pike said.
With such an unrestrained vote of confidence from both Bochco and NBC, is now the time for Kelley to put his personal stamp on the glitzy tale of lawyers in love?
“You never know,” he answers, coyly. “I’m not going to give any of the story lines away, but we will make some changes this year. You are going to see some people going down some very different paths. No one tuning in is going to have their ‘L.A. Law’ sensibility completely shocked, but after four years, change is really the only way to keep things fresh.’