MANHATTAN BEACH, California (Los Angeles Times Syndicate) -- In an area south of Los Angeles International Airport, about 1,000 surfboard lengths away from the Pacific Ocean, is a tranquil strip of land. The air is crisp, the ocean breeze invigorating, and the buildings modern with clean lines.|
This is where David E. Kelley houses his production company. You see his name on such TV hits as "The Practice," "Ally McBeal" and "Chicago Hope." He collects awards, Emmys in particular (10 so far), like little kids collect Pokemon cards. He writes every line Dylan McDermott and the rest of the cast in the ABC legal drama "The Practice" say, and he thinks up all those funny situations Calista Flockhart finds herself in on Fox's "Ally McBeal."
Kelley admits: "I like to concentrate on one show at a time. For instance, today it's an Ally day." He paused before adding, "It would have gone faster, but I threw out 20 pages that just didn't feel right!"
'I write every line in longhand'
Born in Waterville, Maine, Kelley graduated from Princeton and went on to earn a law degree in '83 from Boston University. With such a pedigree, I thought sure he would be surrounded with the latest high-tech office equipment. Instead, his desk was a surprise. Not a typewriter, much less a computer, in sight.
Smiling, he admitted, "I write every line in longhand on a standard legal pad. Thankfully, I have a secretary who can read my handwriting. I do all my work here and never take it home."
Tall and thin, he had just had a haircut, and looked more like a fourth-year law student than the 44-year-old whiz kid of television. He assured me that when he's rough-housing with his kids -- he's married to actress Michelle Pfeiffer -- ages 7 and 6, he's a typical suburban father.
From his early days writing "L.A. Law" for his mentor, Steven Bochco, to his groundbreaking "Picket Fences," Kelley has never strayed too far from the law. The exception was "Doogie Howser, MD," but that four-year series was a co-creation under the Bochco banner.
Kelley suggested that we visit the set of "Ally McBeal," since most of the cast was breaking for lunch. As we walked across the lot, he explained, "Writing for 'The Practice' ... I was a lawyer, so I'm on solid ground. My longest stretch is Ally, which is more comedy. I'm not one of those who works from the standpoint that there has to be 18 jokes every 30 minutes.
"I think the writing on 'Frasier' has already proved a comedy can be character-based. You establish the personality of a character so well, the viewers feel they know her. I try to always be true to my characters. That's why this morning I threw out 20 pages. When I asked myself, 'How would Ally respond?' The answer came back, she wouldn't. It didn't ring true, so it went into the wastebasket."
This brings up the often-asked question, how does he write about women so knowingly? He scooped a forelock of hair off his forehead and gave me a steady gaze. "I think the dirty little secret is, there aren't as many differences between men and women as one might perceive."
'Ally' gets 'a great infusion from the music'
With that, he opened the heavy refrigerator-like door on the sound stage where "Ally McBeal" is filmed. We went to the club set, where most of the law office heads after work for a drink and a dance. "I love the music on the show," he confided. "I think it adds to the fun. I especially enjoy it when Barry White or some other great performer is on the show. We all get a great infusion from the music. When you get into February and March and are writing shows, you're running on fumes. You can't underestimate how important the music is, it comes back and feeds me and the show."
Kelley feels fortunate to be housed at the outlying studio, miles away from the usual studio lots. The land was developed by Roy Disney's Shamrock Enterprises. There are several buildings for offices and post-production work, plus seven full-size sound stages. Kelley Productions currently occupies most of the office space, and until recently three of the sound stages.
"There's plenty of room to expand," he said. Since Kelley's recent detective series "Snoops" was canceled, there is even more room. "I don't feel the critics were too hard," he said and shrugged. "if we'd had more time, maybe 'Snoops' would have sailed."
Kelley took a little bruising from TV reporters when some hissed with a little glee -- the golden boy got a cancellation. "Look," he insisted, "my dad (now retired) was a basketball coach for a long time at Boston University. After the game, he'd be surrounded by the press, with cameras and microphones in his face. He was always honest, so it was easy for him. I watched him win and lose games since I was 7 years old.
"It's not so different with me. There's a press conference, and the cameras and mikes are there. ... You go to a premiere, and the mikes are there, the photographers are there, and you just answer the questions as frankly as you can. I do feel watching how my dad handled winning and losing basketball games has helped me a lot. When he came home, he was dad; when he was on the field, he was the coach."
No work at home
At home, Kelley said, "Except for the playoffs, I don't watch TV much. Michelle tunes in weekly for 'Ally' and 'The Practice.' By the time we have dinner and play with the kids, it's time for them, and me, to go to bed. I don't have any tape recorder or notebook by the bed to 'capture' an idea. When I sleep, I sleep. Someone once said if it's not worth remembering, it's probably not important."
Kelley admitted that he didn't have any real urge to do something different. "'Ally' and 'The Practice' are fun for me. After three seasons of 'Picket Fences,' I really felt creatively spent. I don't react that way writing either of these shows."
Kelley recently signed a long-term, first-look deal with FOX. "I began at Fox 14 years ago, and I'm happy to stay here," he confided. Since he has created two of the No. 1-rated series in their time slots, FOX is also delighted to have him.
"They give me freedom," he explained. "I was trained as a lawyer. I know how it is to stand before a judge who clearly doesn't want to listen to you. It's nice to be in front of people who will let you talk. The new deal is a term deal, which is what I wanted. For the next five or so years, I'll give them first look at what I do. It's not a series commitment like most networks insist on, where you must create a series for an unrealistic deadline. If I get an idea for a new series, I'll still try to write `The Practice' and `Ally.' I'll just cut down on the shows; instead of writing 22 scripts, I'll deliver 12 or 14. The one thing I've yet to learn from Steven Bochco is how to delegate -- how to work a writing staff as well as he does. He's a master at that"
Still on Kelley's wish list is filming in Boston. "I think that's why I located both shows there. In my heart, I figured we'd go to this favorite city to film. So far, it's the second unit that gets to go, but there's still next season."
The thing that slightly bugs Kelley about his work isn't his long days, or heavy writing assignments, or even juggling the writing and producing and overseeing of two series. It's when friends and fans ask about a show that aired two weeks earlier. "Gosh," he'll admit, "that was 40 scripts ago!"
(c) 2000, Bonnie Churchill. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.