Will the venerable Los Angeles law firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney, Kuzak, and Becker go just a little while without chaos threatening the works? Will peace and harmony ever replace damage control? Of course not. Without constant turmoil, it wouldn’t be L.A. Law, and right now the grandest turbulence is being supplied by two stars who are soon to make their dramatic — and probably steamy — exits from the show. This is the last season Susan Dey will appear as coolly pragmatic Grace Van Owen, and probably the last Jimmy Smits will play ambitious, idealistic Victor Sifuentes every week. But Grace and Victor definitely aren’t just fading away: They’re having the hottest, most-talked-about romance of recent TV seasons.
”It’s happening,” says Dey, eyes shining. ”It’s lovely. There’s fun with him. All I do on the set is laugh. I laugh with him.”
So why is Dey leaving L.A. Law?
”My contract is up,” the 38-year-old actress says simply, looking demure in a black, wispy, full-length cotton dress and jacket, over croissants and cappuccino in a Beverly Hills canyon coffee shop. ”I’m just not re-signing. It was a five-year gig and the five years are up. When I negotiated before the season, I said clearly this was my last year.”
Dey’s TV romance with Smits has had a number of memorably torrid moments, notably one lovemaking session on Grace’s dining-room table after Victor unexpectedly showed up to apologize for talking about her with her ex-lover Michael Kuzak (Harry Hamlin, who also reportedly may leave after this season). But all of their encounters have been charged with the special magnetism that comes when opposites attract. She is almost prim. He’s street. She smolders. He explodes. The first glimmer of their passion-to-be came last season with an impulsive kiss in a parked car in an underground garage, and Smits remembers it well. ”When that scene happened,” he says, ”we looked at the script and said, ‘Hmmm. What does this mean?’ The writers told us it had nothing to do with anything down the line.”
So much for the prognostications of writers: The romance was virtually guaranteed by that clinch. ”Some stories get told because they need to be told,” says Rick Wallace, Law‘s executive producer. ”We played a couple of scenes with Susan and Jimmy last year where something started to happen. It felt like there was an inevitability to it.”
For nearly five years now, viewers of the popular, critically acclaimed NBC show (12 Emmys in its first four seasons) have watched Dey’s Grace Van Owen evolve into one of television’s more complex and interesting characters, and they have become intrigued by her trials in both the courtroom and personal life. After a 13-year-old gang member tried to prove himself by shooting her, she turned gun control into a mission. She also managed to keep her dignity while arguing a case about bull semen. And those connected with the show say that Grace’s appeal springs as much from Dey herself as from the conception of the character. ”Susan has an honesty and straightforwardness as a person that just makes her acting flourish all the more,” says Smits. ”One element she really brought to the work was conscience.”
”With Susan, we are losing one of the center poles of our show,” Wallace says. ”She has been woven very intimately into our storytelling.”
Dey has become a major name with Law, but she brought considerable experience to the role of Grace. She first achieved television stardom at age 17 in The Partridge Family, the ’70s hit about a family that stayed together by playing together (in a pop band). A number of TV movies followed, along with feature films, including 1977’s First Love (about a college romance) and the 1986 cult favorite Echo Park (in which she played a marginal L.A. actress dreaming of bigger things). Since Law began, she has won approving notices for her role as a young woman dying of cervical cancer in the 1989 TV film I Love You Perfect.
Dey’s life has also had its share of drama. She became an anorexic during the Partridge years and later struggled with alcoholism. Her 1976 marriage to agent Lenny Hirshan ended in divorce after almost five years; their daughter, Sarah, is now 12 and lives with Dey and her second husband, TV producer Bernard Sofronski.
Even after she and Grace leave Law, Dey will keep a full portfolio. Her production company, Susan Dey Productions, is developing a TV movie (the premise of which she won’t reveal); she’s reading film scripts; and if another good series, particularly a comedy, comes her way in a year or two, well…
”It’s just an open door,” Dey says. ”It’s also a scary place to be. Everything I know is over at Fox Stage 8. That’s where I’ve been the last five years. It’s been a fabulous run. My leaving was decided out of spending almost five years playing the same character, five years of a play that even if the words change, the intent of the character remains the same. I was not being challenged — that’s the bottom line. There were no new surprises.”
Actually, there may be a few left in Dey’s last seven episodes, but nobody on Law is saying much about them. ”We have an inkling” is all that producer Wallace will say about how Dey’s departure will be handled, except that the sparks from her pairing with Smits ”may make it a little complicated to resolve the story line.”
”Part of me is scared,” Dey herself says about what the show’s creators have in mind for her character. ”The other part trusts. I know I don’t want Grace to die, and I don’t want her to leave the show to get married.” How, then, does she want to see Grace depart? Dey smiles enigmatically, then bursts into laughter.
”Gracefully,” she says.