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In the Court of Sexual Appeal

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The role that Holland Taylor now considers a “matchless opportunity” didn’t seem like it at first. When she initially donned the robes of Judge Roberta Kittleson for “The Practice,” she only had a one-episode commitment. The sizzle that would mark her character was yet to come.

Bob Breech, co-executive producer of the ABC drama created by David E. Kelley, cast her after seeing her last year in a small part in the critically acclaimed independent film “Next Stop, Wonderland,” a movie she appeared in as a favor to the filmmaker, her nephew Brad Anderson.

“She was strong in those two scenes and intelligent,” Breech says. “I thought she might make a good judge on our show. . . . I also had a sense that if she performed well for us, David might want to write for her. She has a lot of virtues--she has good instincts, she’s very bright and, I think, above all, a totally committed actress.”

The show’s exploration of the mature judge’s sexual side “just kind of happened,” Breech says. “When David saw her on the screen, he saw that she was an attractive woman as well, and the idea of a judge who is in her mid- to late-50s and is sexually self-aware would be an interesting character to explore. Particularly, to explore the dilemma that can arise when her sexual appetite causes her to come in conflict with her ethical responsibilities as a judge.”

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The 56-year-old actress considers the part a “groundbreaking role” because it paints an intricate, sexy portrait of a strong older woman while leaving ageism out of the picture.

“I think we’ve gone through a 20-year backlash against portraying women who are humans and fully viable sexually and psychologically, intelligent and capable,” says Taylor, pretty much describing the character she recently earned a best supporting actress Emmy for playing.

It’s a “gift” that writer and executive producer Kelley has given her, she says, and after spending a great deal of her career “in the vineyards,” she has every intention of helping him make fine wine.

“It’s not about the actress making it into something. It’s something so rich in David’s mind. And then I’m lucky enough to be playing it,” says Taylor, curled up on an overstuffed couch in the living room of her cozy, Italian-style home in a Los Angeles canyon.

Her father was a lawyer, which was one of the reasons she was drawn to the role. “I’m interested in the strangeness of trying to fit human life into these rules. I’m rather fascinated by it.”

She says “RAH-ther,” which betrays her East Coast roots and brings an elegance to the four-letter words she pointedly drops into conversation, whether she’s questioning the absence of well-rounded roles for older actresses or talking about the terror of filming her first nude scene, for “The Practice.”

The nude scene aired Sunday. If you blinked, you missed it, but barely revealing any flesh is in keeping with the relatively pristine standards of “The Practice,” Breech says. Despite being “freaked out” by the idea of standing nearly naked in front of a crew of 40, Taylor called the one-day shoot “a gas.”

Judge Kittleson is “mindful and conscious, which is always a struggle in this world,” says Taylor, who tries not to be too analytical about the character because of the way Kelley works. The same twists and turns that surprise “The Practice’s” audience also have caused the actress’ jaw to drop more than once when she’s reading a script at 1 a.m. (The judge has been sued for sexual harassment, briefly suspected of attempted murder and, last Sunday, shocked when police officers inadvertently walked in on her nude.)

Yet she views the judge as “a professional woman who is totally integrated into her work and wants to be accepted as a fully rounded person,” Taylor says. “I just think of her as being a very clearsighted woman who is not on automatic.

“She may be going through a very odd patch in her life, but she’s trying to be very awake and not operating according to cliche, habit or cultural dictates.”

Since an early episode suggested the judge is a widow, Taylor “has justified the promiscuity” by putting it in context of what might have been the character’s life. Maybe she had a long marriage, grown children and her husband was ill for five years. “He died three years ago, and now she’s rebelling against breaking through whatever that life was and reacting to the end of a long marriage,” she says.

“She’s hot to trot and alive,” Taylor says. “Since I don’t think ongoing promiscuity is very interesting, I don’t imagine David will either. So hopefully her life will become more substantial in terms of her relationships with men. But then, I might be an ax murderer next week, and you have to go with David. And who wouldn’t?”

She has had other roles she is particularly proud of, including two shows from her 26-year television past--"Bosom Buddies,” which ran on ABC from 1980-82, and “The Powers That Be,” which NBC aired from 1992-93.

“Both shows were ahead of their time and both had great casts and were completely unrecognized by their own networks for their value,” says Taylor, a stage-trained actress who debuted on Broadway in 1965 in “The Devils” with Anne Bancroft.

Judge Kittleson may be ahead of her time, too, in terms of how American culture portrays older women on the screen, especially compared to Europe, which “reveres” the mature woman, Taylor says. But the judge might be staying around long enough to make at least a small difference.

“Not that I think David’s creation has been a sensation or that she’ll change everything,” she says. “But it’s one real cornerstone in the structure, because we are so influenced by TV. How can it not be?”


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