October 01, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Michael Badalucco, an Emmy winner for his character on ”The Practice,” Jimmy Berluti, tells EW Online the cast and crew were surprised by the strong ratings for last week’s season premiere. ”We did something nearly impossible; we got 18 million viewers — the most we’ve ever had — against the ‘Saturday Night Live’ special.” That was good enough to earn Nielsen’s No. 12 spot — and better yet, the show should break into the top 10 this weekend when it faces lesser competition and ups its sex quotient.

Expect a rekindling of the love affair between Jimmy and the libidinous judge Roberta Kittleson, played by fellow Emmy winner Holland Taylor. ”Oh, you might have thought she dumped me last season, but there’s more in store for the judge and me,” says Badalucco, 44. And the Brooklyn-born actor adds that he’s not the only attorney at the firm getting some action: ”Don’t forget about Bobby [Dylan McDermott] and Lindsay [Kelli Williams], who are engaged,” and possibly Eugene (Steven Harris) and Rebecca (Lisa Gay Hamilton) will get together. ”The first five episodes are pretty wild.”

Badalucco considers himself lucky to be on ”The Practice,” since he almost wasn’t cast at all. He originally auditioned to play a flasher in the show’s pilot but didn’t get the part. A week later, he filmed a short scene as a cop opposite Michelle Pfeiffer in her romantic comedy ”One Fine Day.” Pfeiffer, who’s the wife of ”Practice” creator David E. Kelley, raved about Badalucco’s performance and showed her husband the dailies. Kelley immediately recognized Badalucco from his tryout and decided to audition him for the part of Jimmy Berluti.

When Badalucco found out that after 20 years of supporting roles in films and theater he’d won the costarring role, he called his wife (who was then his fiancée) Brenda, a nurse at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, and said, ”Take the rest of your life off!” Three seasons and one trip to the Emmy podium later, Badalucco says, ”I got a trophy for doing what God put me on this earth to do, what could be better?” How ’bout another Emmy?

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