David E. Kelley: The genius behind ''Ally McBeal''
Most TV producers get a fruit basket when their show is a hit. If it really takes off in the ratings, they might be rewarded with, oh, say, new office furniture. David E. Kelley? He got his own studio.
A sprawling, still-under-construction 22-acre film complex just south of Los Angeles, its official name is Raleigh Manhattan Beach Studios. But since Kelley and crew moved into this gift from Twentieth Century Fox a few months ago (his production company is its only permanent occupant), the place has become Kelley Land, a sometimes somber, sometimes silly, always steamy TV world where gorgeous lawyers battle for truth, justice, and the shortest hemlines in the judiciary system.
Right now, on one of its state-of-the-art soundstages, the fetchingly flustered Calista Flockhart is taping an episode of Ally McBeal, Kelley’s one-hour comedy that was the highest-rated new show on the Fox network last season — and one of the most talked-about new shows on any network. On another stage a few dozen yards away, where cameras are rolling on Kelley’s lesser-watched ABC legal series, The Practice (that would be the show that won the best drama trophy at last week’s Emmys), Dylan McDermott is about to twist this season’s plotline by doing something with a female costar we’ve promised not to reveal in this article (hint: It looks a lot like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation).
Above it all, in a dinky third-floor office cluttered with stacks of scribbled-on yellow legal pads (upon which Kelley writes all his shows, in that ancient lost art known as longhand), the producer swivels in his chair and surveys his domain. ”They haven’t finished my real office yet,” he says, ”but this place is great. On the [Fox] lot where we used to be, space was so tight people would park wherever they could. I’d have to push golf carts out of my space with my Land Cruiser.”
Of course, now that Kelley is an 800-pound Hollywood gorilla, he parks anywhere he wants to. Like Stephen J. Cannell (The Rockford Files) in the 1970s or Steven Bochco in the 1980s (the guy who gave Kelley his first TV-writing gig on L.A. Law), he’s become the video virtuoso of his day. His five-year, four-series contract with Twentieth Century Fox — reportedly worth $30 million — is one of the most enviable development deals in television, giving Kelley a level of creative control all but unheard of in the industry. And although his shows may not be universally adored (Ally, for one, hasn’t won many endorsements from the National Organization for Women), there’s no denying they’ve struck a deep cultural chord in these sexually baffled, ethically perplexed times. All of which makes this shaggy-haired, boyishly handsome 42-year-old former Boston attorney possibly the most successful, probably the most powerful, and definitely the most prolific writer-producer in TV today.
And if that isn’t enough, he’s married to Michelle Pfeiffer.
Do me one favor,” Kelley pleads. ”Don’t say that I write all of the episodes. I write most of them. There’s a big difference between most and all.”