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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

August 12, 1990|STEVE WEINSTEIN

"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.

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