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The Man Behind the Curtain

From 'Picket Fences' to 'The Practice,' 'Chicago Hope' to 'Ally McBeal,' David E. Kelley Creates Shows That Are Rewriting the Rules of Contemporary TV. You've Probably Never Heard of Him. And He'd Like to Keep It That Way.

November 30, 1997|GREG BRAXTON | Times staff writer Greg Braxton covers the television industry

Kelley says Fox came to him looking for a female-oriented show that could be paired with the veteran Monday night soap opera "Melrose Place." Fox "made it easier for me to take the leap into something more experimental and unconventional," he points out. However, Kelley the storyteller is also Kelley the businessman.

"We could utilize sets already used on 'The Practice,' " he says. "We would have more opportunities production-wise to deliver episodes we were proud of, and the opportunity to economize was something I couldn't ignore."

Though he is pleased that "Ally" and "The Practice" are performing well--neither are among even the Top 20 shows, but they attract the sort of prosperous young adult audience advertisers covet--Kelley says he is not in it for the ratings.

"I don't obsess about numbers," he says. "I'm certainly aware of what they are, but there are certain things I can't belabor. 'The Practice' is in a rough time slot, and 'Ally' is on Fox, so no one is expecting huge numbers. That takes the pressure off us. Both networks look upon the growth as long-term."

Still, he can't hide his frustration with ABC's scheduling "The Practice" at 10 p.m. on Saturdays. Speaking at a banquet given by the Center for Law at which he was honored for his work, Kelley made a few barbed jabs at ABC, thanking them for scheduling the series when most people are out or not watching television. Jamie Tarses and Stu Bloomberg, the heads of ABC Entertainment, looked on with frozen smiles.

"No, I wasn't happy with the way things turned out at ABC, but it is what it is," Kelley says with a slight edge in his voice. "At the end of the day, I'm here in this room, doing the work. I don't expect many of them to be speaking at my funeral. However, I would love to speak at all of theirs." (After "The Practice" was renewed, Kelley telephoned to amend his statement thus: "Instead of speaking at their funerals, I'd be satisfied just to visit them in the hospital.")

It is a rerun of the nightmare he endured with "Picket Fences," when CBS declined to move the series from Friday nights--another dead-end time slot--despite the show's critical acclaim and its Emmys. Kelley felt the stalemate limited the show's chances to gain a larger audience (it ended its four-year run in 1996).

Looking back, Kelley says, "Yes, the time slot was very frustrating. I regret living in that situation as much as we did. That's one thing in terms of being older and wiser."

"Picket Fences" remains Kelley's favorite and most personal project. "It was the first series I created, and it came from a place in me that was more personal," he says. "Once every two months, I think we should bring 'Picket Fences' back."

The show's fictional small town of Rome, Wis., was a heightened and distorted microcosm of society. No real town has a Dancing Bandit or puts on a production of "The Wizard of Oz" in which the Tin Man dies of a heart attack. Tom Skerritt, who played Sheriff Jimmy Brock, says he was especially fond of Kelley's gallows humor. "We were always saying, 'David, you are not going to get away with this.' " Skerritt recalls one episode in which an elephant is stolen by a midget from a circus. When the elephant is found in a backyard, the animal is cranky, and Brock's wife, Dr. Jill Brock (Kathy Baker), deduces he is constipated.

"It's decided that he needs an enema, and there's this point-of-view shot of Kathy from out of the elephant's anus as Kathy puts in the enema," says Skerritt, laughing at the memory. "It was wonderful."


Becoming a powerful television producer was furthest from Kelley's mind when, after graduating from law school, he was practicing civil litigation in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston.

He was filled with adrenaline and ready to argue, but found himself mostly regulated to handling routine matters and motions. He eased his boredom by scribbling out a screenplay. "What I could do was go off into this imaginary world," he says.

The result was "From the Hip," about an outrageous, irreverent young attorney who "attacked law like John McEnroe played tennis." "From the Hip" was eventually made into a poorly received film starring Judd Nelson and directed by Bob Clark of "Porky's" fame. Kelley was less than pleased with the film, but there was one positive result: The script wound up in the hands of agent Adelstein, who knew that veteran producer Bochco was seeking attorneys to help out with story lines on "L.A. Law." He sent the script to Bochco.

"What impressed me initially about David was the disrespect with which he portrayed courtroom proceedings," Bochco says. "He informalized them and made those interactions which writers make so formal funny and informal."

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