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No suit, more stubble

"The Practice" behind him, GQ-ish Dylan McDermott goes scruffy in two new films and taps a darkness rooted deep in a difficult past.

September 21, 2003|Irene Lacher | Special to The Times

Dylan McDERMOTT was standing at the edge of Wonderland Avenue not long ago when a garbage truck came rumbling down Laurel Canyon. The lanky actor was waiting to be photographed in the notorious house where four people were brutally murdered in 1981, a gruesome scar on L.A.'s history examined in the coming film "Wonderland."

The garbage guy called out to McDermott as he passed by. "Hey, I love your show!" he yelped. "I watch you every Sunday." McDermott, the intense star of ABC's "The Practice" for seven years, beamed warmly at his fan. "Thank you, I appreciate that," he said. "But I'm not on it anymore."

After the truck rolled out of sight, McDermott turned to a reporter and said with a wry smile, "That's my audience."

When you're an actor with big ambitions, the good news about having a long-running hit TV show on your resume is that everybody knows you. The bad news? Everybody knows you.

At least they think they do.

"Most of America will find out who you are," McDermott says later, "but if you get pigeonholed in that character, are people going to accept you as anything else?"

That question had been consuming McDermott for years, long before "Practice" uber producer David E. Kelley called him in July to say he was fired from the show. The TV math had been pointing toward that call for a while: By then, McDermott was making too much money and the show too little for things to continue. The Sunday night legal drama had dropped in the ratings after the network switched it to Monday nights opposite the juggernaut "Joe Millionaire" and "Everybody Loves Raymond." ABC returned "The Practice" to its Sunday slot, but by then the show had been "hammered," as McDermott puts it. Even before Kelley's call, he'd cleaned out his dressing room. Also axed were co-stars Lara Flynn Boyle and Kelli Williams as well as several other cast members.

"I was being paid very well, and I knew that with the eighth year coming up, I was going to get another big bump in my salary," McDermott says. "By the time December rolled around, the writing was on the wall. I knew that probably I was going to go. I didn't think everybody was going to go.

"I don't know that I felt betrayed. The television business in general is very cutthroat. You are there for the advertisers. You are feeding that lion every week. I look at it very simply: I had seven years on television, which is unheard of. I feel grateful that I had such a great character to play. The show was so tenuous when it began that I expected to have 13 episodes. I ended up doing 146. So for me, it's all gravy."

Still, the 42-year-old actor has been haunted by the specter of a post-"Practice" future toting a yoga mat around Brentwood, a has-been still in his prime.

"Although I have done many films, people identify me with 'The Practice' -- the lawyer with the suit and tie, the whole megillah that goes with that," McDermott says. "So I knew how important it was to do something different. And watching people who have stumbled before me coming out of a television show and trying to have a feature career, it's a very hard and dangerous thing, because a lot of people don't have the luck or they're not accepted, and then years go by and what happened? I had thought long and hard about that transition."

A little darker side

McDERMOTT is slouching on a sofa in a corner of the Chateau Marmont lobby. He may be touted as a fashion icon (literally a GQ kind of guy, having been a cover boy for the men's style bible), but in real life he seems far less self-conscious. He's dressed in nondescript jeans and a T-shirt, and his 5 o'clock shadow is settling in for the long evening ahead.

McDermott's lack of pomposity quickly impressed people on the set of "Party Monster," the edgy, recently released low-budget film about drugging divas in disco-era New York. McDermott plays club owner Peter Gatien, who succumbed to crack while running the infamous Limelight. During his first day on the set, he played a particularly dark scene in a hotel room where he was supposed to be smoking crack on a toilet.

"I remember telling everyone to be really respectful and sensitive because he was doing a vulnerable shoot," says co-director Randy Barbato. "I brought Dylan out and I said, 'You can look at the monitor and you can see the way we frame it.' He said, 'Why don't you take your pants down and show me how it works?' He was being fun and sassy. Here was the new guy from Hollywood on the set, and there was this air of apprehension, and Dylan came in, cracked a joke, set everyone at ease and within five minutes he had his pants off and was sitting on the toilet."

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