Harry Hamlin wasn’t supposed to touch the food on the table during the conference scenes on “L.A. Law,” NBC’s Emmy Award-winning 1986-94 legal series.
The sandwiches were strictly props. But Hamlin, who played attorney Michael Kuzak, the serious-minded youngest partner in the City of Angels’ firm McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak, had other ideas.
“If you go back and watch the pilot as the very first conference room scene ends, I reach over and pull a sandwich toward me,” recalls Hamlin, who plays an ad executive on AMC’s “Mad Men.” The move was unexpected
“I picked it up as they were shooting my last bit. I had my mouth full of food. We shot another conference room scene, and there was a plate of croissants. I thought, ‘I will make this a “thing.”’ If you look go back and look, I will be eating in every conference room scene. It became a running gag with the prop department.”
Nearly 30 years after he read the pilot, Hamlin maintains the script “remains one of the most brilliant two hours of TV. I never read anything quite as a good as that.”
In September 1986, then-L.A. Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg was also laudatory in his praise of the pilot. “There should be a law requiring more series like NBC’s new ‘L.A. Law,’” he wrote.
The ensemble series, which seamlessly blended current events, stark drama, soap opera and outrageous comedy, was created by Steven Bochco, who co-created the groundbreaking ensemble police drama “Hill Street Blues,” and Terry Louise Fisher, a former L.A. County prosecutor and a producer on “Cagney & Lacey.” David E. Kelley, who went on to create his own legal series, “The Practice” and “Boston Legal,” was a writer and eventually became an executive producer. On Tuesday, Shout! Factory is releasing the first season on DVD.
Besides Hamlin, the series also starred Corbin Bernsen as the handsome, vain divorce attorney, Arnie Becker; Susan Dey as deputy D.A. and Kuzak’s love interest, Grace Van Owen; Richard Dysart as the level-headed senior partner, Leland McKenzie; Alan Rachins as the obnoxious money-minded partner, Douglas Brackman Jr.; Jimmy Smits as the firm’s passionate Latino attorney, Victor Sifuentes; and Susan Ruttan as Roxanne, Arnie’s motherly secretary.
Real married couple Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker’s characters of idealistic attorney Ann Kelsey and sweetly nebbish tax attorney Stuart Markowitz turned a lot of heads in an episode in which he tells her about a sexual technique mysteriously called “The Venus Butterfly.”
Though Bernsen, currently a regular on USA’s “Psych,” became an overnight sensation as the womanizing divorce attorney, he admitted that he couldn’t get into the mind-set of Arnie during his first audition in New York with Bochco, Fisher and co-executive producer-director Gregory Hoblit.
Still, said Bernsen, Bochco told him that “if you ever come out to L.A., we’ll do something with you. So give us a call. I got in my Jeep the next day and drove across country.”
He got insight into what made Arnie run, quite literally running on Mulholland Drive one day. “I saw this girl in this white Jeep with her blond hair flying behind her. I kind of remember her turning her head in slow motion looking at me running along.”
It was exactly what would have happened to Arnie. “I called my manager and said get me back to Steven Bochco, I know the character,” said Bernsen, who is trying to bring Arnie back in his own TV series. “I went in the next day and essentially the day after I got the job.”
Smits’ first audition was with some NBC executives in New York. “It went horrendous,” said Smits, currently on FX’s’ “Sons of Anarchy.” Then a friend of his from graduate school who had come to L.A. encouraged Smits to fly out here and try to arrange a meeting with Bochco.
When he met with the show’s casting director, “I was very prepared. She said, ‘You have got to meet Steven and Greg. Steven has all of this sports memorabilia in his office.’ I remember walking into his office and Steven had this bat. He was swinging his bat, and I said to myself, ‘If you mess up on this one, you know what’s going to happen.’ It went well, thank God.”
Over the years, Latino attorneys and politicians have told Smits they went to law school because they were inspired by his character. “That can be the strength of the small screen,” Smits said.
Reactions to Rachins’ Brackman were a bit different. Fans weren’t shy tell him how much they hated his character. “I’d say, ‘Well, thank you,’” said Rachins, laughing.
Rachins, who is married to Bochco’s sister, actress Joanna Frank, loved that his brother-in-law and the writers gave Brackman “a wonderful series of extracurricular activities,” including affairs with a sex therapist, his father’s ex-mistress and a young woman who was his trainer.
“There were a number of women I got to become involved with,” said Rachins, who later starred on the series “Dharma & Greg.” Why? “He was so buttoned up, he had to have some outlets,” Rachins speculated.
Ruttan recalled the immediate effect of the series on her life. The day after the series premiered on Oct. 3, 1986, she went to lunch with a friend and noticed that people were looking at her when she walked through the restaurant.
“It was like at that moment, you kind of feel your world shift,” she reflected. “It was incredible because people loved my character. People automatically liked me.”
Bochco wrote the parts of Ann and Stuart for Eikenberry and Tucker. But the couple nearly didn’t do the series after shooting the pilot because Eikenberry discovered after it wrapped that she had breast cancer. “When I got the diagnosis, Mike called him and said we can’t do the show because Jill has cancer,” Eikenberry said.
Though she didn’t have to have chemotherapy, Eikenberry did have to undergo radiation treatments. Bochco made sure she could continue on the show, working it out so she could leave the set at 5 p.m and go to UCLA for her treatments. Two years later, Eikenberry revealed publically that she had had breast cancer.
“People were no longer afraid to go public,” said Tucker to his wife. “You really led the way with that.”