Portia de Rossi has a dream job as tough lawyer on 'McBeal'

By MIKE McDANIEL - Houston Chronicle

Her high-horsepower first name and down-to-there blond hair seem to complement the take-no-prisoners toughness Portia de Rossi brings to her role on "Ally McBeal." But it's all an act.

Or is it?

There are some similarities, de Rossi says, between her real life and that of her TV character, Nelle Porter. "For example," she says, "my character loathes frogs, and I discovered from filming the episodes that I do, too."

Ah, yes, the frogs. For those who are not regular viewers of the hit Fox show, John Cage (Peter MacNicol) lost his pet tree frog, Stefan, when it fell into a toilet bowl in the firm's unisex bathroom and was swept away when John inadvertently made use of his remote flusher.

A replacement frog was brought in to assuage John's grief, but Stefan re-emerged on a subsequent episode, startling Nelle and Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith) into an impromptu game of badminton, with frog as shuttlecock.

"All the episodes with the frog were truly horrible for me," de Rossi says, "because when the frog jumped out of the frame, they would replace it with another frog, so by the end of a two-page scene there were six frogs hopping about on the floor. And I had to stand there and deliver my lines, and half the time I was delivering them off-camera because I'd just run out screaming. I got a big-shot nickname after that. I was called Portia de Froggi."

She's really glad that story line is over.

Such is the nature of David E. Kelley's quirky and popular television series that a conversation with a beautiful actress about leaping frogs and remote-controlled toilets is Topic A.

"Nelle Porter is really a dream role," says de Rossi, on the phone from her home in Los Angeles. Her Maltese, Bean, barks in the background.

"When I was a kid, I went to law school for a year. Part of the reason why I wanted to become an attorney was because of the character of Susan Dey on `L.A. Law' (a series for which Kelley wrote). That was the only TV show I allowed myself to watch while I was studying to get into school. Being an attorney on a David Kelley show is my ultimate goal, so I really couldn't be happier."

She attended law school at the University of Melbourne, modeling part time to pay her bills. In 1994, a casting agent saw the 20-year-old Australian and decided she would be perfect for the TV series "Sirens." De Rossi, a.k.a. Mandy Rogers, got the part and moved to Hollywood.

She met Kelley three years ago while he was developing a half-hour show called "Mixed Nuts." He remembered her from that meeting, and now here she is on one of television's most-talked-about series.

Today, Nelle may be the toughest lawyer in the firm of Fish & Cage, smart and snappy but not above displaying her feminine wiles -- for example, by unpinning and letting down her long blond hair -- when it serves her.

"It's so typical of my character to not just have hair but also give it a job to do," de Rossi says. Her hair "introduces a softer side of Nelle's character and walks into court with her and argues sex discrimination cases and works really hard for its shampoo."

Her hair also falls when she's around the man she's attracted to -- frog-loving, nose-whistling, moment-taking and diminutive John Cage, a.k.a. the Biscuit.

"A lot of people have commented that it's an odd coupling," she says. "But I actually think John is a very attractive character because he voices his emotions as he experiences them. It's very rare for men to admit to having emotions, much less needing to take moments to allow them to pass so they can get on with their daily routine. I know a lot of girls are very attracted to that character and a lot of them envy me right now."