LOS ANGELES -- It didn't take long for "L.A. Law" newcomer John Spencer to discover he'd made a favorable impression on the show's typically intense fans.
"Three of my episodes had aired, and then I was out shopping for Christmas presents for friends and family back East," Spencer says.
"And I was amazed. People were saying, 'Hey, Mullaney! Hey, Mullaney!'" He says it was the same with Amanda Donohoe, who plays a second new attorney. "They'd say, 'I love the addition of you two guys to the show.' "
It's true. The rookies are hot.
Spencer's rough-edged, working-class Tommy Mullaney and British actress Donohoe's brassy, up-front C.J. Lamb have given "L.A. Law" a shot of feisty new life. And, in the process, they have illustrated how one of television's best weekly series keeps getting better: by refusing to play it safe.
"When a show goes into its fifth year, you have to do things to make it fresh and keep it viable," says "L.A. Law" executive producer David E. Kelley.
"You need that infusion of new blood. And what we were looking for were characters who would sort of go against the grain of the existing group."
Sort of go against the grain? Mullaney and Lamb are way against the grain of the often affluence-infatuated and BMW-fixated attorneys of McKenzie, Brackman.
"If you looked at the firm's morning conference and circled the two people who were unlike anyone else, it would be Amanda and me," Spencer says.
The two actors, who met with TV critics during the current press tour in Los Angeles, are pleasantly agog at their good fortune.
"I really wanted to break into the American market," says Donohoe, 28, previously best known for her slinky, bodacious performance as a vampire in the kinky Ken Russell cult film "Lair of the White Worm." "I'm not a name here. And this is a fantastic platform."
The producers of "L.A. Law" had been planning to add new characters to the show this year, Kelley says. Susan Dey, who plays Grace Van Owen, has announced she's leaving the series at the end of this season. And with the contracts of the other original cast members also expiring, Kelley says there's the chance of additional departures.
Though "L.A. Law" was born during the yuppified 1980s, Tommy Mullaney and C.J. Lamb aren't the quick-fix antidote to Reagan-era materialism.
"It wasn't consciously done that way," Kelley says. Frankly, he and the show's other writers needed to recharge their own batteries. They wanted new, different people to write about.
"One thing that was not inside the walls of the firm was someone who was basically 'street.' And Tommy Mullaney does that," Kelley says. "He goes against the polish of the other members of the firm. His suits don't quite fit."
Spencer, 44, a down-to-earth, blue-collar-bred native of Paterson, N.J., has been acting since he was a teen-ager. But his career was mostly low-profile until he played Harrison Ford's cop buddy in the movie "Presumed Innocent" last summer.
That's where the producers of "L.A. Law" noticed him.
"John just sort of jumped out at us," Kelley says. "You can give him a scene where he's the bad guy. But the empathy comes through. You just find yourself rooting for him."
Spencer, who also appears in "Green Card," the movie starring Gerard Depardieu, says working on "L.A. Law" is genuine heaven for an actor. "It's the best writing on television. When I got the first script, it was just phenomenal. They wrote the way I talked, the way I thought."
Donohoe, who was already a big fan of "L.A. Law" in England, wasn't the natural choice for C.J. Lamb. She was, however, the shrewd and offbeat pick.
"Amanda may not have been the character I had in mind originally," says Kelley. "But I was willing to make changes when I saw how good she was."
Like Mullaney, Lamb is a trouble-shooting legal maverick who isn't afraid to subvert authority and rattle the cage of convention.
"There's an enormous amount of charm behind this woman, so she gets away with a lot," Donohoe says. "She's not a woman who sits in front of a mirror and power-dresses. She fights for the underdog. She can't stand seeing people walked over. And she always speaks her mind."
So far, Kelley says, Mullaney and Lamb are being developed with care and moderation. "We want to let the audience feel comfortable with them. And then we'll give them more scenes where they dominate."
They aren't about to reveal any plot twist surprises. But Donohoe and Spencer hint that Lamb and Mullaney will have their share of future shocks.
"Somebody's coming into my life from the past, and it should really stir things up provocatively," Spencer says of his character.
As for rebel-rouser Lamb, her "colorful history is going to become very apparent," Donohoe says.
Meanwhile, the talented rookies are just luxuriating in the blessing of being with the longtime successful series.