David E. Kelley Reveals Why James Spader Almost Didn't Star in 'Boston Legal'

The prolific producer also remembers network resistance over casting Mandy Patinkin because he was "too Jewish."
ABC/Photofest

James Spader won three Emmys for his role as Alan Shore on David E. Kelley's law drama Boston Legal, but the longtime writer-producer behind Ally McBeal and The Practice said he received pushback from the powers that be when he first tried to cast Spader in the role.

"I was told that no one would ever welcome James Spader into their living room," Kelley recalled Thursday at a TV Game Changers panel presented by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. "People will watch him in the movies, but they will never let him in their own home."

Boston Legal marked Spader's first major small screen role after decades of film work in Pretty in Pink, Sex, Lies and Videotape and Less Than Zero, among many others. Spader initially started as a series regular on the eighth and final season on The Practice before he and William Shatner moved to headline their own series, Boston Legal, which ran for five seasons on ABC. Since then, Spader has gone on to star in NBC's The Blacklist, which is currently in its fifth season.

And Spader was hardly the only one. Kelley said CBS initially didn't want Kathy Baker to star in Picket Fences because they wanted someone "younger." In the case of Mandy Patinkin, Kelley was told the theater star was "too Jewish."

While Kelley had written Spader and Baker's roles specifically for them, Kelley said he fought for Patinkin as soon as he became available "because he's brilliant. ... He can do almost anything," he said. Patinkin starred on the first seasons of the medical drama and the sixth and final season, winning an Emmy award for his performance in 1995. Baker, meanwhile, took home three Emmys, a Golden Globe award and a Screen Actors Guild award for her work in Picket Fences.

J.J. Abrams, who also appeared on the panel alongside Jill Soloway, Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy and Norman Lear, also opened up about when ABC didn't want a then-unknown Jennifer Garner to star in his spy drama Alias.

"I'd worked with her on Felicity and when I wrote Alias, I wrote it with her in mind. Katie, my wife, was always like, 'We gotta do something with Jen so I wrote this part and knew I wanted her to be Sydney Bristow and the network didn’t want to cast her," he recalled. "They were like, 'We don't think she's hot enough.' And I was like, 'I'm just telling you she is.' And so they relented and we got to do it with her."

The series, which ran five seasons, made Garner a household name and won her a Golden Globe in its first season.

"You will have to fight for actors and that still goes on today," Kelley said. "Networks, if they're going to put up 10 million dollars or 20 million dollars or more, they want a say and sometimes they're not going to see eye-to-eye with us."

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