TV Hall of Fame: David E. Kelley on Which Series He'd Like to Bring Back and Transitioning to Half-Hour TV (Q&A)
This story first appeared in the March 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
You famously quit your career as a young lawyer in Boston to write for L.A. Law during the mid-1980s. How did you get your writing in front of series creator Steven Bochco?
I had an idea that I thought would make for a good movie but didn't know anybody in L.A., so I went about writing the film -- which would become From the Hip -- on my own. At some point I thought, "OK, I'm going to have to show it to somebody." It ended up getting optioned by a client of the law firm where I worked, but I was quickly educated that having a script optioned doesn't mean it will get made! I was encouraged not to give up the day job, and I didn't. (Laughs.) The script made its way to Steven Bochco's office when they were hatching L.A. Law. He invited me out to do an episode in summer 1986. From the very first story meeting, I felt, "This is where I'm meant to be."
It's hard to imagine that happening today.
Yeah, and in year three of L.A. Law, I took over the reins. When I look back, I think, "How did this happen?" Well, it happened because Steven Bochco said, "This is the person I've designated to take over the show." He had that kind of credibility. It also happened because [then-NBC Entertainment president] Brandon Tartikoff wasn't worried about his colleagues' perception. He really ruled from his gut.
From Ally McBeal to Picket Fences to Boston Legal, your tone has had strong comedic tendencies. Is that a natural extension of the stories you tell?
It's hard to dissect your own process, but I know with Picket Fences, I'd lived in a number of small towns and I thought, "The people here are very funny." I would say I'm more comfortable mining a dramatic show with comedic overtones than I am starting with comedy and then looking for dramatic underpinnings. The center, for me, are the characters and the humanity.
Is there a moment or episode in one of your series of which you are particularly proud?
This is the downside of being old: It's hard to remember! On Ally, I do remember we did an episode where a young boy dying of cancer wanted to sue God. Those kinds of episodes had funny moments and also cut to the heart in the end. That's not an easy trick to pull off.
The Crazy Ones is your first half-hour series and a huge hit for CBS this season. What has been the biggest adjustment to overseeing a 30-minute series?
It's certainly been exciting. It's a new world, but thankfully I have many gifted people working on the show who come from the half-hour world. They know the pacing and rhythm, so I mostly give broad, character-based notes. It's also incredible working with Robin Williams. I was in college when someone said, "You have to check out this show Mork & Mindy." My reaction was, "Wow." And the idea that 35 years later I would be working with that guy? He is a genius; it's a cliche, but the more you interact with him, the more true it is. I've never seen a mind work like his.
Is there a series you wish you could resurrect from cancellation or bring back?
We were disappointed when [NBC's] Harry's Law was canceled. We were just getting into our creative groove. Kathy Bates was such a treasure -- you don't get a crack at actors of that caliber every day. We were getting 8 or 9 million viewers, so we're still scratching our heads about that one. I also miss Boston Legal, but that ended by our own design. We always felt it was a five-year show, but I do miss Alan Shore (James Spader) and Denny Crane (William Shatner) -- they were very dear to me. That's the hard thing: Some think characters are pieces of fiction, but they are people I've spent the majority of my life with.
What does entering the TV Academy Hall of Fame mean at this stage of your career?
Well, I'm hoping it doesn't mean, "OK, time to go away." (Laughs.) No, it's quite thrilling. The fact that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will see my name listed with so many people I admire? That's kind of cool.
TV Academy Hall of Fame Induction: March 11, 6 p.m., at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel