David Kelley's Prime Time

Through 'Picket Fences,' 'Alley McBeal' and 'The Practice,' the Emmy magnet's pen has become the mightiest weapon in television.

August 02, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

LOS ANGELES -- It was one of the hottest Fox Television parties in years. Calista Flockhart and Gillian Anderson in the same room. How could it get any better?

Then in walked David E. Kelley with his wife, actress Michelle Pfeiffer.

There was a feeding frenzy of television critics instantly surrounding the couple. But all the questions were going to Pfeiffer.

After a few minutes, Kelley slipped away, almost unnoticed.

"Happens all the time," he said matter-of-factly as he surveyed the scene of two dozen reporters sticking microphones and tape recorders in his wife's face and hanging on her every word. "I'm used to it."

That was two years ago, in the summer of 1997, as Fox was about to launch a new Kelley creation called "Ally McBeal." Kelley was already a highly successful and Emmy-Award-winning TV producer who had reinvigorated Steven Bochco's "L.A. Law" in 1990 and then went on to create "Picket Fences" and "Chicago Hope."

But today, in the summer of 1999, Kelley is a superstar producer well on his way to becoming a Hollywood legend. And in the week after his signature series "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" racked up 26 Emmy nominations, Kelley was the one being mobbed at the Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena. There, the Television Critics Association presented him with the trophy for Individual Achievement in Drama, but, at the age of 43, he had also been nominated for a career achievement award along with Don Hewitt, Aaron Spelling, Norman Lear, Dick Clark and Barbara Walters.

"How do I feel about the nomination?" he said before the ceremony. "Old. Those other nominees are so old. But, really, I'm not sure I belong in that group."

Lear won the award, but Kelley definitely belongs in that group. Kelley hasn't yet had the impact of Lear, who took the sitcom out of fantasy land in 1970 and, through his creation "All in the Family," plugged it into the cultural revolution that had begun during the previous decade.

A more apt comparison for Kelley would be to Steven Bochco, the man who brought Kelley to Hollywood from Boston in 1989 to work on a sitcom pilot called "Doogie Howser, M.D.," about a boy-wonder medical doctor. Kelley has yet to reinvent any genre the way Bochco did the cop drama with "Hill Street Blues" in 1981. But it is safe to say that Kelley owns the courtroom drama the way Bochco owns the cop show.

And, while both Lear and Bochco are writers, neither has ever been nearly as prolific as Kelley, who last year wrote 40 of 46 episodes of "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice."

"He's amazing. There's nobody like him," said Jeff Sagansky, the former president of entertainment at CBS and co-president of Sony Pictures Entertainment, who put Kelley in business for himself when he signed the attorney-turned-writer to create the quirky small-town drama "Picket Fences" for CBS in 1991.

The auteur

"I call him the TV auteur, because he writes all this stuff himself. He's an incredibly prolific writer and producer," said Henry Bromell, himself a pretty prolific writer-producer on such series as "Northern Exposure" and "Homicide: Life on the Street," where he won two Peabody Awards. Bromell is now executive producer for Kelley's totally retooled "Chicago Hope" this season on CBS.

"Auteur is absolutely the right term for Kelley, in the sense of artists who create their own universe in their work and make us want to go and live there with them," said Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at the University of Syracuse and author of "The Second Golden Age of Television Drama: Hill Street Blues to ER."

"Kelley is already right up there with the biggest names of TV auteurs -- Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling, if you want to go with the pantheon of great dead guys," said Thompson. "Or Steven Bochco and Tom Fontana, if you want to talk about TV auteurs today. And, in the end, none of them -- even Serling -- were as prolific."

This year, in addition to "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice," the series for which he writes virtually every episode, Kelly will write the season opener and serve as executive producer on another of his creations, "Chicago Hope."

Furthermore, he has created "Snoops," a stylish, sexy action series about a group of unconventional private eyes that will join the ABC schedule in September. Kelley will also serve as executive producer on both a half-hour version of "Ally McBeal," called "Ally," that will air Tuesday nights on Fox -- with the same actors and some of the same scenes -- and the third season of the hourlong version, which airs Mondays.

Kelley plays down the seeming impossibility of what he's doing.

"It's really not that complicated. It's mainly one day I'm writing `The Practice,' and the next day I'm writing `Ally McBeal.' And I find time within those days to read scripts on the other shows and give my notes on those scripts," Kelley said.

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