THR's TV Producer of the Year has created Emmy-winning, zeitgeist-defining series for three decades — navigating TV's seismically shifting landscape (with a few bumps along the way: see Amazon's 'Goliath'). Now back in L.A., he talks why he had to be persuaded into doing more of 'Lies' and what he'd be doing if he ever left television.
David E. Kelley had every intention of making a living as a lawyer — rather than writing fictional versions of them for television.
In fact, after four years at Princeton, Kelley got his law degree from Boston University, then landed a job in the litigation department at nearby Fine & Ambrogne. But like all good Hollywood tales, Kelley's had a twist: In his spare time, the Waterville, Maine, native had written a script for a legal thriller that scored him both a film deal and an agent. And in 1986, when Steven Bochco was seeking writers with a legal background for his new NBC series, L.A. Law, that rep passed Kelley's screenplay along. Bochco liked what he saw, and a two-week assignment turned into a full-time position. Kelley was soon elevated to showrunner and, in 1989, at age 33, won his first of nine best series Emmy Awards; not a decade after that, he had three series of his own on the air. And by the turn of the century, Kelley was not only widely considered one of the medium's most successful writer-producers but also had become the first to win the best drama Emmy (The Practice) and the best comedy Emmy (Ally McBeal) on the same night.
Two decades later, THR's TV Producer of the Year found himself back on the Emmy stage, collecting a pile of hardware for his latest work, HBO's Big Little Lies, now back in production on a second season. With his two children out of the house and his résumé as packed as ever (Audience Network's Mr. Mercedes, Amazon's Goliath and a second Nicole Kidman collaboration at HBO), Kelley, 62, and his wife of 25 years, Michelle Pfeiffer, have returned to L.A. after some 15 years in Northern California. "We wanted to get out of Dodge when our kids went to middle school," he says, "but our work is here and we got tired of shuttling back and forth, and our world up there was quiet with the kids gone." (The couple reportedly listed their Woodside home for $29.5 million.) On a late April afternoon, Kelley sits surrounded by stacks of legal pads in his Santa Monica office to reflect on his prolific career, why he had to be talked into doing more Lies and the show on his résumé that could justify a reboot.
You took a leave from your law gig to write for L.A. Law. When did you know you'd never return?
Almost immediately. That very first story meeting I felt completely at home. And at the end of the two weeks, which is all I had taken off from work, Steven had invited me to join the staff. So, I went back to my law firm and said, "Well, I said it was going to be two weeks, but now they've offered me a staff job. It's not a show that's on the air, and it could come and go like many do." After about two years, one of the administrative partners called, because they were still paying my insurance, and said, "You're not coming back, are you?"
What did you learn from Bochco about fighting for what you believe in, be it in the writing or in casting an unknown like Neil Patrick Harris on your first co-creation, Doogie Howser, M.D.?
There's some expression: When the elephants fight, the smaller monkeys just stay up in the trees. Well, I was up in the tree for that one [on Doogie Howser]. ABC resisted that casting, and I let Steven wage that war. We both loved Neil for it. Going into casting, we thought, "OK, we've got to look for a kid who's believable as a doctor." And then the irony was we found in Neil a kid who was believable as a doctor. The question was, "Is he going to be relatable as a kid?"
You'd later wage plenty of network wars of your own. How'd you fare?
You're going to get notes forever, but the key, I learned, is to discern the good ones from the bad ones — don't take them just because they come from above but don't reject them just because the idea wasn't yours. On those occasions where you knew you had the right person, they were tough battles, but I didn't find myself wavering internally. On Picket Fences, CBS had some concerns about Kathy Baker, when to me she was it. There were some concerns about Mandy Patinkin, too. And when I talked about James Spader becoming the lead of [Boston Legal], I heard just huge protest from ABC that the American public would never welcome him into their living room. He was a fine actor, but he was not viewer-friendly to a mainstream audience. James isn't just a fine actor; he's an incredible actor. I just said, "No, he's it."
Once people are cast, how much interaction do you like to have with your stars?
I'd say I'm most comfortable alone in the room doing the work. That could be either the joke on me or criticism on me — it's certainly the book on me. My door is open if actors want it, but not many have taken it. James was one who really wanted to discuss every episode, and every episode was probably an hour phone call, but it was always about making the show better, and he usually had pretty good ideas about how to do it. Whereas I almost never spoke with Calista [Flockhart on Ally McBeal]. Whether she liked the script or hated the script, I never found out. All I know is that when she came to set, she was always prepared. Then there were some in between.
What would that look like?
I was doing Picket Fences and Chicago Hope at the same time, and Mandy Patinkin would come in maybe once or twice a month and berate me for never coming to the set, but he did it with love. I'd usually still be writing while he was berating me, and I would look up and say, "Mandy, I'm like the little drummer boy here; the best way I know how to give is just to keep writing," and he would get that and say, "OK, OK." But the funniest one is Pete MacNicol from Chicago Hope [and later Ally McBeal]. I remember one day he comes in and he had a look on his face, and I could tell he wasn't coming under happy circumstances. His face was almost contorting a bit — he wanted to not combust but to make his point. Finally, he said, "I am fraught with rancor." And I remember saying, "Well, Peter, if you are fraught with rancor, I want to keep you this way because your work is off-the-charts good." Which it was. He didn't answer. He paused. He stood up. And he walked out of the room. That was it.
How often do you get approached about reboots? Any shows you'd consider revisiting?
I don't really have an interest in going backward, myself. In fact, I've not even seen the shows after I've made them. I do think because of the gender politics that were so part and parcel of Ally McBeal, it's become very relevant and ripe. So, I'd be open to the idea of Ally McBeal being done again, but I don't think it should be done by me. If it were going to be done, it really should be done by a woman. If it's going to be new, it should be new and different. And I did it: 100 hours.
From the outside, your career seems like it could be split into three distinct periods …
There was the first part, which was very successful. Then the middle part, where I had to work a little harder with a little less success, and then this part. I accept it all as cyclical. I've consistently written what is meaningful to me. That said, the landscape has changed. The burden now is on the storyteller. You can no longer rely on cultivating an audience, you gotta get 'em quick or you're over. The danger in that, or the downside, is that it puts a burden on storytellers to think conceptually and sometimes gimmicky. If anything, now you're seeing a lot of shows that burn out after a year because they have fantastic concepts, but then what? What would fit into that middle period of my career is Boston Legal, however. And if you had to pick a show to live in a time capsule and get replayed the most 50 years from now, I'd pick that one. I love that show because it had drama and comedy and it was about issues that [meant] something but it was also about friendship. That's the show I miss most of all, the one I feel myself reaching for the pen to pick up and write an episode.
With Mr. Mercedes and Big Little Lies, you're relying on source material, which is new for you.
I'm at a point in my advanced years where I got to tell all the stories that were in my well. I've done many half pilots or three-quarter pilots because, for me, the discovering of the show is in the writing. I'll start writing and try to discover whether the characters are fertile to me. And then I do another test when I'm halfway or three-quarters through, which is: Have I done a version of this before? And if I have, I'll put it down. Now I feel like the best way to avoid sameness is to use as my starting point someone else's baby. It's not something that I ever thought would appeal to me because the intoxication comes with the idea — that's the fuel that drives you as a writer. If you're not hatching the idea, I always felt it was going to be like hard labor without the drugs.
But it hasn't been?
No. It's all about finding the right material — material that moves you and speaks to you or inspires you like Big Little Lies did. I've really enjoyed it. I think there's something I can still bring to the equation, be it years of experience or a good ear for dialogue and structure.
Your last brush with broadcast was in 2013 on CBS' The Crazy Ones. What happened?
It was terrible. Robin Williams was great, but the show itself was not very good. I went to CBS and I said, "The show is not very good. Do you care?" And the answer was no. They talked to me a little bit like you talk to your grandfather. "I know this isn't the way it was done in your day, Pop, but the way it is now, people watch TV, they've got their computers open, they're on Facebook, they're answering emails, they're texting. The idea is to have something on that screen that's compatible with everything going on in the room but that isn't going to challenge them to pay attention to plot or offend them enough to make them change the channel." I was horrified.
So you went off to the brave new world of streaming with Goliath at Amazon, which you later described as "a bit of a Gong Show."
I should say most of the people I dealt with at Amazon were great. The gentlemen with the keys to the car, however, should not have had their license. We all knew, we all looked at each other and said, "This is a well-run company and as soon as Seattle figures out what's going on here, they'll fix it." And they did. [Roy Price and his lieutenant, Joe Lewis, exited in October.] Would I go back to Amazon with an idea now? Sure. By the way, I was a fan of The Gong Show. I just never aspired to be a contestant. (Laughs.)
Billy Bob Thornton has run through a few showrunners on Goliath: First you, then Clyde Phillips. He couldn't have been your first difficult star?
No, he wasn't the first. It was many things, but I would say the combination of the star and the one running the network was particularly problematic. It didn't work for me. And it didn't work for them, either.
You're prepping a second season of Big Little Lies. Did you have any apprehension?
Yes. I didn't think it was a very good idea. We wrote it as a one-off and we ended it in a way that was very lyrical. But we ended on a lie. I get so protective of characters and series, too, that I don't want to damage them in any way, and I so loved how we ended year one and I thought, "Let's just leave it at that."
Who or what convinced you?
A multitude of forces, but mainly it came down to a creative analysis. Liane [Moriarty, author of the novel Big Little Lies] wrote a novella of [new] stories, and most of them we're using. But the genius one was introducing this character who's being played by Meryl Streep. It's a delicious character and I felt bringing her in was both liberating and daunting. Daunting because she sets a high bar and you have to measure up, but liberating in that now the show's not going to be compared to last year. There was freedom in that.
Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes have recently signed nine-figure deals at Netflix. Do you look at those deals and say, "Where's mine?"
No, because it just feels like a lot to do.
You currently have at least three shows …
But I don't have to. If I want to do a show, I can do it, but I don't have to feed a beast or fulfill a contract. For me, I like the free-agent world. That works better for me. I honestly don't know how those [Netflix] deals math out. But look, if you're going to bet on two people, who better? I'm just at a different stage. I might be doing this five years from now. I might not.
What would you do instead?
I have an aquaculture business [supplying salmon and trout], and it takes up a lot of time. It started about four or five years ago, and I'm not running it hands-on, but it's busy enough. So, five years from now, I could see just doing that. I don't see myself as feeling the need to do a show just to have something to do, though. If it speaks to me, I'll do it. And if it doesn't, I'll feed the fish.
This story first appeared in the May 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.