Corbin Bernsen had some concerns about returning to the law firm of McKenzie-Brackman for NBC's "L.A. Law: The Movie." After all, it had been eight years since Steven Bochco's Emmy Award-winning legal series had left the airwaves. Bernsen didn't know if he would be able to get back in the shoes of his colorful character, the womanizing divorce lawyer Arnie Becker. "Eight years is a long time; does the suit still fit?" he wondered.
To his pleasure, Bernsen says, it fit like a beautifully tailored Saville Row garment. In fact, he describes the experience as akin to revisiting an old friend.
"Really good friends, you don't even talk about what has happened" in the intervening years, he says. "You don't even have to comment on the changes, you are just comfortable with it. Not only do I feel like that with this character, I feel it with the other characters."
Harry Hamlin, who departed the series after five seasons as the honest, straight-laced attorney Michael Kuzak, had left his character far behind. But he agreed to return because William Finkelstein, a former executive producer and writer on the series, was set to pen the script.
"The cast coming back was another part of it," Hamlin adds. "One of the reasons why the show was so successful is that it painted a canvas that was filled with a lot of different colors, and each character represented one of those colors. If you didn't have all of those colors back, I didn't think it would work."
Susan Dey, who played Dist. Atty. Grace Van Owen for six seasons, was thrilled with what Finkelstein did with the characters. "He is not picking up where people left off," she says. "The law firm has continued, and all of these characters have continued and he's just opening the door and saying, 'You want to see where they are today?' Here they are."
The movie finds Kuzak running one of L.A's hottest restaurants, having left his legal career behind because he was disillusioned. But he returns to his former profession when the daughter of a convicted police killer he once represented pleads with him to handle the man's death-penalty appeal. His opposing counsel just happens to be Van Owen, who is also his former lover.
At McKenzie-Brackman, meanwhile, the rigid Douglas Brackman (Alan Rachins) is operating the firm since the retirement of Leland McKenzie (Richard Dysart). Married attorneys Ann Kelsey (Jill Eikenberry) and Stuart Markowitz (Michael Tucker) learn that their spiritual guru has left them bankrupt. Office manager Roxanne (Susan Ruttan) is suddenly drawn back into the life of her ex-husband, and Becker is in the midst of an ugly divorce with his estranged wife, who is represented by former McKenzie-Brackman associate Abby Perkins (Michele Greene). Office assistant Benny (Larry Drake) is still helping to keep the firm running smoothly.
Finkelstein says he wouldn't have been interested in writing the movie if it were to be solely an exercise in nostalgia. "The stories really needed to have some legitimate, dramatic effect as opposed to just being where they are now," he says. "I think that would have thinned out quick. Once it became an opportunity to write for these actors who I love and to sort of factor in the passing of time.... The characters are all different. I tried to make that part of the story."
Noticeably missing is original cast member Jimmy Smits, who played attorney Victor Sifuentes. "I had always known that Jimmy was sort of iffy about it," Finkelstein says. "He had other things going on."
Another thing different about this "L.A. Law": As with many TV movies these days, it was filmed in Canada for financial reasons. When Hamlin learned it was to be shot in Vancouver, British Columbia, he says, "I suggested they change it to 'B.C. Law.' I was not happy about it."
But Bernsen says there was an advantage to shooting out of town. "We were all on location together, and every night we went out," he explains. "We had these fabulous dinners and talks. Where if we would have been here, everyone would have gone home at night."
"L.A. Law: The Movie" can be seen Sunday at 9 p.m. on NBC. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14).