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A Man for All Directions

David E. Kelley creates, writes and directs groundbreaking TV. Has he ever have a bad idea?

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 16, 1999


PASADENA, Calif. -- It may have been a first for Lauren Holly and Barbara Hershey, two movie stars used to commanding attention when they enter a room.

Facing TV critics weeks ago to tout the revamped Chicago Hope, they were prepared for tough inquiries on why two glamorous actors were slumming in TV land by joining the cast of a medical drama CBS nearly canceled in May.

Instead, they were upstaged by a single question.

How will David E. Kelley pull it off this time?

Kelley is already considered the Michael Jordan of TV for his ability to whip groundbreaking shows out of his back pocket, first as a writer and producer on L.A. Law before developing Picket Fences and Chicago Hope for CBS.

Last season, he raised the stakes with a remarkable hat trick: writing or co-writing nearly every episode of both ABC's The Practice and Fox's Ally McBeal. (Kelley does have a few skeletons in his closet; he co-created Doogie Howser, M.D.)

The success of his two latest buzzed-about hourlong shows, which between them netted 26 Emmy nominations this year, cemented the 43-year-old's reputation as a critically respected TV auteur who can also draw viewers.

So what did he do this year? He took it up a notch.

Flexing newfound industry muscle, Kelley persuaded CBS not to cancel Chicago Hope in exchange for writing the show's first episode this fall, penning "one or two" others during the season and serving as a consultant for all scripts.

(He also jettisoned six cast members, including Emmy winner Christine Lahti, in a bloodbath that made room for Hershey, Holly and former Spin City regular Carla Gugino.)

At ABC, Kelley will write or co-write at least three scripts for Snoops, a high-tech private eye adventure drama starring Gina Gershon and Paula Marshall. Snoops will air before The Practice.

Kelley will oversee assembly of Ally, a half-hour version of "repurposed" footage from Ally McBeal episodes, aimed at showing the industry that it can package reruns of the show for syndication in easy-to-sell, 30-minute bits.

His hope is to eventually convince the networks that they can start a series with 13 hourlong episodes, establish the characters and then move into half-hour mode.

Including work on The Practice and Ally McBeal, Kelley will shepherd five shows this season. Talk about a guy who can produce under pressure.

"I was always able to focus more quickly when writing than doing anything else," Kelley told reporters in bland, almost bored tones, facing a wall of tape recorders stuck in his face. "I do confess to being pretty fast, once I close the door and start to write."

Here's where that trademark Kelley modesty comes into play. The rate at which this Princeton graduate and former lawyer writes a finished script -- three days for a quick one, up to five days for one that's a little trouble -- is more than fast; by most industry standards, it's phenomenal.

"The truth is, he seems to have the ability to generate more material than is humanly possible," Jamie Tarses, president of ABC Entertainment, said in mid-July. "Already, we have two Snoops scripts with his name on them and the first Practice episode. I have no idea how he does that. . . . He's extraordinary."

Hollywood being the cauldron of cynicism that it is, talk surfaced early on that a team of uncredited writers must be helping Kelley, according to Richard Stayton, editor of Written By magazine, a publication of the Writers Guild of America.

Stayton, who is helping to assemble a feature story on Kelley for the magazine, said such talk has evaporated in the face of his continued achievement.

"It's inexplicable to many in the business who struggle with one script a season," Stayton said. "And it's not like he's writing shows that are barely hanging on. These are shows that make a strong impact on our culture."

In typical TV industry setups, a team of writers outlines the general direction of each episode, selecting one or two writers for each script. The scripts then are refined by the executive producer.

Kelley does it all, shutting out the world to write the scripts by hand in a few days, using a felt-tip Paper Mate pen on a legal pad -- "for less smudging," he said. No computers allowed.

"I know it sounds crazy, but . . . I can literally finish Ally at lunchtime and start The Practice -- having just finished a Practice script three days before," he said.

He also does it all on weekdays, between the hours of 9 and 6, with little or no time spent working weekends. All the better to spend time with his glamorous actor wife, Michelle Pfeiffer, and their two children.

"It's really not that complicated," Kelley insisted. "I'm writing (The Practice and Ally McBeal), and I find time within those days to read scripts on the other shows and give my notes on them. Besides, if I take more time than (five days), the script will reflect the lack of adrenaline and it will feel a little flabby."

It's that unwavering focus that fuels Kelley's success, despite a style that flies in the face of Hollywood convention, Stayton said.

"I'm told that he doesn't give good meetings . . . he's a very private man . . . his life, as far as anyone can tell, is very disciplined," the editor said. "All of the things that people think you usually have to do to succeed in this town, he doesn't do."

Along the way, he may have helped change the face of TV writing.

Kelley's trademark style emerges as a mix of in-your-face reality and over-the-top absurdity; it's images as stark as a severed head in a client's bag on The Practice or as silly as a jury singing with a lawyer on Ally McBeal.

On the surface, the shows are strikingly similar, featuring mostly young, attractive lawyers struggling with their jobs and loves in the confines of Boston's bustling metropolis.

Both series also highlight Kelley's talent for well-rounded characters, from Steve Harris' Emmy-nominated turn as conflicted defense attorney Eugene Young, who will do anything to get clients off the hook, to Ally McBeal's calculating Ling Woo, whose brutal snipes bring a certain truth to each episode.

The success of this mix has undoubtedly encouraged networks to take chances with shows that blur the lines of drama and comedy, from ABC's Sports Night to Fox's new coming-of-age series, Malcolm in the Middle.

"The heart of Kelley's genius . . . is a certain sense of humanity that always seems to resonate with viewers," said Richard Walter, chairman of the screenwriting program at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Instead of going for the cheap shot . . . clear winners and losers . . . he is able to address both sides and make them human, which enhances the drama. It binds you closely to the show that is unfolding."

Kelley's creative touch comes at a price. When he leaves a series, other writers often struggle to match his gift for dialogue, whimsy and drama.

Picket Fences, which he left during the 1995 season, drifted into oblivion, a fate that also nearly grounded Chicago Hope, which drowned in preposterous story lines about doctors training to be astronauts and operating on criminals at gunpoint.

"That why he has to write all these shows. . . . He has such a unique voice, you can't duplicate it," Stayton said. "It's like Michael Jordan . . . as soon as you think you've got him down, he'll blow by you in another way."

Nobody knows that better than the actors who fill his shows. L.A. Law star Harry Hamlin left that series in 1991 when Kelley departed; both Mandy Patinkin and Peter MacNicol admit their decisions to leave Chicago Hope in 1995 were influenced by news that the creator was moving on.

When producers approached Patinkin to return for what will probably be Hope's final season, their biggest selling point was summed up in four words: Kelley will be there.

"I said I'd be there in a heartbeat,' " says Patinkin, despite strong statements in 1995 that work on Hope meant too much time away from his family. "If you asked me four years ago, would I be talking about Chicago Hope again, I never would have thought that."

Already, negative buzz is building about the pilot for Snoops, which has received lukewarm responses from critics despite an extensive overhaul by Kelley after ABC scheduled the show for fall. Others remain skeptical that he can pick up the pieces on Chicago Hope without greater involvement as a writer.

That's nothing new for Kelley, who has built one of the biggest careers in television by confounding the skeptics.

"I don't think I've ever thought any of my pilots was working when they aired, so this won't be any different," Kelley said, smiling a little. "I know I don't plan on taking much more on. My agents would love for me to do more . . . (but writing) four may be my limit."

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