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Courtney Thorne-Smith's new role

The actress is moving out of ”Melrose Place” for a part on ”Ally McBeal”

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Courtney Thorne-Smith may have moved out of Melrose Place last May, but she didn’t go far. Her new job, playing a sharp and sexy attorney on the law dramedy Ally McBeal, keeps Thorne-Smith on the same network (Fox) and the same night (Monday, following Melrose), married to a character named, of all things, Billy.

”I don’t even have to learn any new names!” jokes Thorne-Smith. ”It’s like the universe said, ‘She’s a little tired. Let’s not confuse her.”’

Not that making it to McBeal was as easy as changing dressing rooms. After spending five years as alcoholic adwoman Alison Parker, 29-year-old California native Thorne-Smith left the MP apartment complex only to find that producers still saw the mark of Melrose on her forehead.

”I got beaten to death trying to find a new job. It was like, ‘Oh, now I remember. This is what rejection feels like,”’ she says. ”Literally, the morning I surrendered — I called a friend and said, ‘Yeah, I’m taking a year off’ — the phone rings. It’s my agent telling me David Kelley had called. And you just don’t ignore that.”

Certainly not, especially since the creator-executive producer of Chicago Hope and The Practice was calling to offer her the pivotal role of Georgia, the lawyer married to Ally’s ex-boyfriend/one-and-only true love. Kelley decided to expand and recast the part (Thorne-Smith replaces Anna Gunn, who Kelley says will have a recurring role on The Practice this fall) after shooting the pilot. ”We needed to find someone who wouldn’t be overshadowed in scenes [with Ally‘s Calista Flockhart],” says Kelley, who first worked with Thorne-Smith in 1989, when she played a Los Angeles Laker Girl on another lawyer drama, L.A. Law. ”Aside from her sexuality, which is obvious, Courtney exudes a certain strength as a woman.” This time, the ghost of Alison Parker actually helped Thorne-Smith land the gig. Explains Kelley: ”To have a Melrose face might help the show get sampled.”

There’s no doubt that Thorne-Smith owes her renown to Aaron Spelling’s soap. But five seasons of Alison’s catastrophes — molestation, blindness, drinking, carjacking, more drinking — would drain any actress. And with the show’s ratings declining and her contract expiring, Thorne-Smith (along with four colleagues) hit the road. ”I think part of the reason the show was losing steam was because we were,” she says.

Never mind that this latest career move downsized the actress from star to supporting player. Thorne-Smith says she’s grateful for a lighter workload after Melrose‘s grueling 34-episodes-per-year schedule. ”I had this ongoing debate with my agent,” she says. ”He’d say, ‘They have to put you in more!’ I’d say, ‘I need more time off!’ Now I’m reading the scripts going, ‘I want more stuff!’ because it’s so good. But I don’t want to be working 12 to 14 hours a day this year.”

Fortunately for Thorne-Smith, the Georgia-Ally dynamic should prove considerably less taxing. Rather than backbiting, the pair forge a tentative bond — something Thorne-Smith applauds. ”We rarely see women choose each other over men [on TV]. It’s always women stabbing each other in the back,” she says. ”Especially on Melrose.”