Jury's Out on Susan Bloom : Does New Lawyer on 'L.A. Law' Come Too Close to the Truth?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Her name is Susan Bloom. She's a chunky, brassy, shrewd, '90s version of Cass Elliott, but focused on entertainment industry power-brokering instead of Mamas and Papas.

And she is both real and not real, according to Conchata Ferrell, the veteran actress who portrays Bloom on this season's revamped "L.A. Law."

Since the hit series' Oct. 10 return, the Bloom character--an entertainment lawyer--has taken over a rented suite in the hallowed fictional offices of McKenzie, Brackman and ridden herd over the staff:

* She is loud and aggressive, a chain smoker in a nest of yuppie health nuts.

* Her first hire was a smarmy shark who immediately took on a Mob boss as a client.

* When officer manager Roxanne (Susan Ruttan) tried reprimanding her for subletting office space to a movie crew for an after-hours shoot, Bloom complimented her assertiveness and tried co-opting her by offering to negotiate a better contract for her with her bosses.

"Susan Bloom is the attorney from hell," said one prominent entertainment lawyer who, like more than a half dozen others, asked for anonymity in commenting on the character because they did not want to alienate actors, producers, agents, networks, studios or other lawyers.

Their fear is probably misguided, according to Ferrell. Though based on real-life people, Susan Bloom is chiefly a work of fiction, she said.

"What I'm doing is basically from my own imagination, but (co-executive producer) Pat Green explained to me that she created this character from two legends: Sue Mengers and Jake Bloom," said the 48-year-old Ferrell. "Susan Bloom is a combination of the super agent and the super lawyer."

The role models are, indeed, legendary. Mengers, the 54-year-old former agent for Cher, Burt Reynolds, Barbra Streisand and a host of other stars, was described in a People magazine headline last spring as "mightymouth"--a tough, often profane negotiator from the pre-Michael Ovitz school of studio executive browbeating. And Jacob A. Bloom, the 49-year-old Sunset Strip lawyer whose clients include Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, is described by more than one of his peers as an absolutely enchanting gentleman with an infallible instinct for the jugular.

"He's a very expansive guy with a client list that reads like a 'Who's Who' of Hollywood," Green said. "He probably bills as much per hour as any lawyer in town. Maybe Marvin Mitchelson bills more, but I doubt it."

Neither Bloom nor Mengers responded to attempts to determine their reaction to the character, but a sampling of opinion of some real-life entertainment attorneys was greatly divided. Some believe that Susan Bloom is right on the mark. Others, like Peter Dekom, Jake Bloom's law partner, view the character as unbelievable--although, in Dekom's case, he was responding to a reporter's description of the character, not having seen her himself.

"None of us get home in time to see any of that crap," Dekom said of NBC's Emmy Award-winning series. "We're too busy. You work all day and get home at 10 or 11 at night. Everybody thinks that this is an easy job. Hey, give me a break! It's a business of relationships and relationships don't just happen. You have to work at them."

Susan Bloom, who seems to keep banker's hours at McKenzie, Brackman, would never survive in the real world, according to Dekom. In addition to pumping out documents and poring over deal memos, scripts and correspondence, a lawyer like himself or Bloom take or make up to 300 phone calls a day and still find time for power breakfast, lunch and dinner.

"You don't want to live after a day like that," he said.

One studio executive who has dealt with both Bloom and Mengers over two decades sees more agent in the character than lawyer. "Jake isn't like that at all," said the executive. "He's a cute little teddy bear." A high-profile industry lawyer agreed: "She is a person in desperate need of therapy while at the same time making a unique fashion statement," said the lawyer. "She's not so much Jake Bloom as she is Sue Mengers as a lawyer."

But Donald Zachary, another entertainment lawyer, has a different take.

"I think in terms of personality, the Susan Bloom character is quite accurate," he said. "There are a number of people I have dealt with in the entertainment business who, in terms of approach and ego, are quite like this character: brash, bullying, overpowering. There are people in this business who say things that sound good and they say them with such conviction, vigor, positive self-assurance, that it's almost irresistible. People who will flatly say, 'This deal will never happen' or 'I'll sue you to the ends of the earth' and make you believe it, even though they haven't the slightest intention of carrying out their threat."

Producer Green said that she created the character to replace another abrasive "L.A. Law" regular.

"I came up with her after (then-executive producer) David Kelley insisted on dropping Rosalind Shays (Diana Muldaur) down an elevator shaft," Green said. "One of the things that Rosalind did was shake up the firm. Some object to the flamboyance of the Susan Bloom character. She will say or do just about anything and, in her way, I don't think she would have gotten to where she is without being ruthless. But I feel good about her. We consulted two entertainment lawyers while we were creating Susan."

Ferrell, who maintains that it was Bloom's power manipulations that first drew her attention, did her own consulting after she landed the job.

"I didn't know anything about entertainment law. When I got the job, I called up this friend of mine, Henley Saltzburg, who is a corporate lawyer. The first thing he told me was that an entertainment lawyer doesn't like to go to court. He'd much rather go to a screening."

That's true, Dekom, Zachary and several other lawyers said. A sizable number of entertainment attorneys never see the inside of a courtroom, including Dekom.

"There are a few lawyers with dual practices: entertainment as well as the other stuff," said Dekom, citing veteran dealmaker/litigator Bert Fields as an example.

"But if you try to litigate, you always have to win, and winning isn't how you make deals," he said. "That doesn't mean that you don't make incredible deals for clients by being a negotiator instead of a litigator. It can be adversarial. But it doesn't have to be combative."

In fact, according to lawyer Eric Weissman, being a psychologist is usually far more important than being a trial lawyer in the tight-knit movie business, where the stakes are high, careers are short and "you're only as good as your last or next-to-last picture."

"It is a curious mixture of commerce and art," Weissman said. "Most deals are done on a handshake, and it's such a small industry that it's hard to get away with sleazing around."

In her own life, Ferrell maintains that she is nothing like the character she portrays. She is a "people pleaser" who let's everyone from her dogs to her three daughters run roughshod over her. She hails from West Virginia, where even enlightened parents like her factory worker father and housewife mother never believed a girl could grow up to be a ruthless, Machiavellian dealmaker.

"Some people saw Bobby Kennedy as ruthless," Ferrell said. "I'm sure he did not see himself as ruthless. Neither does Susan Bloom. Everything makes perfect sense. If she's for you, she's for you. If she's against you, you better watch out. But if she's against you, she may be for you next week."

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