David E. Kelly: Words That Launched a LegacyTartikoff told the Boston Legal creator to "go and do it"--and the rest is TV history 1/25/2010 12:16:00 AM Eastern
From The Practice to Ally McBeal, and Chicago
Hope to Boston Legal, with many shows in between, David E. Kelley
has created some of the most memorable television characters the medium has
ever seen. But if it wasn't for Brandon Tartikoff taking a risk on a
then-unproven talent, Kelley's professional story might have played out quite
In 1989, L.A. Law creator Steven Bochco decided to
depart from the program. Kelley, who had joined the show in 1986 after moving
was Bochco's choice to replace him as executive producer. Tartikoff wanted to
meet the young writer and see what he planned to do with the series.
"I certainly had to pass muster with him; he was very
involved with L.A. Law," the 53-year-old Kelley now recalls. "I remember
walking out of the meeting really struck by the sense of security he had in his
own judgments. Brandon
was very secure in that way. He obviously felt that I was up for the job, so whether
my resume was lacking or not he thought I could do it, so he said, â€˜Go and do
Despite so quick an ascension, Kelley admits that becoming a
writer for a living was never on his radar growing up, in college at Princeton
or in law school at Boston
"I always liked writing as a hobby, but I never really harbored
any ambition to be a writer or pursue a writing career professionally; it was
just something I liked to do," Kelley says. "I would like to say that it was somewhat
more romantic, that I pursued my passion and did all these things we tell
college graduates to do in commencement exercises, but I didn't even have to
take that chance."
His law firm in Boston
granted Kelley leave, allowing him to move to Los Angeles
and follow the opportunity at L.A.
Law. Even then, Kelley was not convinced it would be a long-term
"I got an apartment, but I kept rented furniture. I don't
even think I bought a six-pack of soda," he says.
Kelley grabbed the reins at L.A. Law after meeting with
Tartikoff, and with it his career took off. The acclaimed show won two Emmys
for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series, as well as the Outstanding Drama
Series Emmys both years Kelley served as showrunner. His success there led to a
deal with CBS that presented him with a new opportunity.
"I had met David after he had already won his first Emmy for
L.A. Law, but he hadn't created a show yet," recalls Jeff Sagansky,
chairman of both Winchester Film Capital and RHI, who was president of
entertainment for CBS at the time. "We made a deal with him to create three
His first concept was about the small town of Rome, Wisc., and its
sheriff, Jimmy Brock. It was called Picket Fences.
"When you are sitting in a network chair, it doesn't excite
you a lot," Sagansky says, adding that he wanted to see what Kelley would come
up with in the script. "When I say there were no notes, I mean there were no
notes, and when you saw it, it was fantastic."
Kelley deflects such praise and credits Sagansky with being
closely involved in the shows he created for CBS, whether it was Picket
Fences or Chicago Hope, his first foray into the medical drama
genre. It was the same kind of support Tartikoff used to provide to his writers
and producers, support Kelley says has been waning in recent years. It is, in
his mind, one of the biggest problems facing the broadcast networks today:
placing the focus on profits and away from creative concepts.
"With Picket Fences, the executives were closely involved
in the content and invested in the show itself," Kelley says. "I remember
[Tartikoff] had a mantra that still sticks with me today; he said that every
television show should be someone's favorite. I think today networks don't
really do that; they are content to have a show that everybody likes, and they
don't necessarily need a show that a few people love. If they could fill their
schedule with 20 Joe Millionaires and turn a profit, they would do so
Support for Creatives
But there is still support to be found for creatives. Kelley
signed a deal with Warner Bros. Television in May 2008, and says that studio
chief Peter Roth, whom he worked with at Fox, is always willing to give his
honest input into whatever project he is working on.
"I would say that in my 35 years of working in television, David
is among the most talented writers I have ever worked with," Roth says. He adds
that Kelley is old-fashioned in many ways, still writing drafts on yellow legal
pads. "A very old-fashioned but very much appreciated quality of his that shows
great character is his enormous loyalty. Loyalty with performance is an
extraordinary combination; God doesn't often give with both hands when it comes
Kelley's latest Warner Bros. project is Kindreds, a
pilot for NBC about a "curmudgeonly ex-patent lawyer and his group of misfit
associates," according to a description. "I think it is the next chapter in his
great legacy of remarkable characters and conceits," Roth says.
It is also another show in the genre Kelley has perfected, the
legal drama with heart and humor. "Brandon Tartikoff had a wicked sense of
humor; a lot of that dark humor is evident in David's work," Sagansky says.
Kelley explains that while all of his shows, even those not
set in the legal world, draw upon legal principles and issues, the heart of his
programs is the characters he creates and the stories they experience. Even if
television as we know it changes in this new-media world, Kelley doesn't expect
that focus to change.
"I try to find a franchise, and populate it with characters
I love and stories I really want to tell, and then hope there is a constituency
out there for it," Kelley says. "Good stories will always have currency. If you
can tell good stories, there will be a place to tell them."