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Kathy Bates tries her wings as a legal eagle on 'Harry's Law'

The actress says her character is an unconventional curmudgeon like herself.

January 09, 2011|By Melissa Maerz, Los Angeles Times
  • Aml Ameen as Malcolm Davies, left, Brittany Snow as Jenna Backstrom, Kathy Bates as Harrriet Korn, Nate Corddry as Adam Branch in "Harry's Law."
Aml Ameen as Malcolm Davies, left, Brittany Snow as Jenna Backstrom, Kathy… (Matthias Clamer / NBC )

After decades in Hollywood, Kathy Bates still believes it's a great place — if you're looking for somewhere to fire your shotgun.

"I'm a bit disillusioned with this crazy business we're in," admits the 62-year-old actress, who once claimed the only work offered to unconventional-looking actresses was "the friend, the killer or the lesbian." Ironically, that cynical attitude has won Bates her ideal role as Harriet "Harry" Korn on "Harry's Law," a new drama from David E. Kelley ("The Practice," "Boston Legal"), which premieres Jan. 17 on NBC.

"Harry's a bit of a curmudgeon like me, and she's disillusioned with her life, too," Bates explains. "She carries a .44 in her purse, and if things aren't to her liking, she's quick to pull it out and rectify the situation. I wish I could be more like her!"

Not that Bates has ever been what you'd call shy. She's still widely known for clubbing James Caan's character's leg to a bloody pulp in "Misery" and hopping naked into a hot tub with Jack Nicholson in "About Schmidt." But the more extreme her roles get, the more natural her performances feel. Often using little makeup and wearing everyday Kathy Bates clothes, she fuses each character with her own off-camera personality. With Harry, it's as if she's not acting at all — which is saying a lot, since Harry falls somewhere between Dirty Harry crazy and cat-lady-nuts.

An eccentric patent lawyer who quits her job of 32 years to start a criminal law firm inside a shoe store, Harry is the misfit Matlock, a folksy defender of albinos, fast-food junkies, and old ladies charged with armed robbery. "When we first meet Harry, she's smoking pot and watching cartoons," Bates says, summing up her character pretty well. "She doesn't apologize for who she is."

Anchoring her first TV series at age 62 wasn't exactly on Bates' bucket list — but that's mostly because, as she says, "There aren't many starring roles on television for women with silver hair." Consider that, in Kelley's first draft of the pilot, Harry was a man. But after auditioning countless male actors, Kelley felt that Bates was the best man for the job.

"Harry was supposed to be funny, even though he didn't go around telling jokes, and I could see that in Kathy," says Kelley. Having seen Bates as the brassy Southern boss on the most recent season of "The Office," Kelly observes, "She has impeccable comic timing."

For Kelley, the story of a woman starting over late in life couldn't be more timely, especially with the economy forcing so many older people to reevaluate their career paths. Lately, Kelley's staring down his own second act: since "Boston Legal" went off the air two years ago, he's been struggling to find his next hit. His most recent series — Fox's "The Wedding Bells," about three wedding planner sisters — was canceled after seven episodes, while his comic legal drama "Legally Mad" was rejected by NBC.

"If you look at my work historically, it seems totally arbitrary which shows are hits and which shows aren't," he says. He was thinking about this random luck when he wrote the pilot for "Harry's Law," which finds Harry in one chance encounter after another: her first client literally falls on top of her after jumping off a building, and she hires a legal whiz after he hits her with his car. "Things seem to happen for no apparent reason," Kelley says, "but there's always a reason at the end of the day."

Bates isn't sure there's any reason behind her joining "Harry's Law." But lately, she's feeling inspired by Harry's story — especially the part where she tells her old boss to shove it. "I've been in this business for a long time now, and sometimes I long for a different path," she admits. Lately, she's been working on a writing project, and though she won't reveal much about it, she says, "I want to spread my wings in a different way." Spread her wings? C'mon, didn't she just call herself a curmudgeon? "Things are starting to happen for me," she says. "That's all I can say."

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