Guests (stars) always welcome

Temporary thesps need credibility, weight as a series regular

When people recognize Michael Emerson for his work on “The Practice,” they’re not always sociable.

“A woman on an escalator in a store at Christmas time looked at me, screamed and dropped her packages,” says Emerson, who, as serial killer William Hinks, stalked Kelli Williams’ Lindsay Dole for four episodes before winding up with his head in a freezer.

Until then, Emerson had been known mainly for treading the boards as the lead in “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.” But the diabolical Hinks, who was in two additional “Practice” episodes as a posthumous recorded voice, cast a wider net for the actor.

“People talked about Michael at the water cooler. He personified the character. He gave them the creeps,” says Janet Gilmore, who, with colleague Megan McConnell, form the casting team for “The Practice.”

Emerson credits the “subtlety and complexity” of the role, penned by “Practice” creator and chief writer David E. Kelley. Many who have worked as guest actors on the show know what Emerson means. As does the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences when it comes time to hand out Emmys.

A guest role on “The Practice” has been the path to an Emmy Award over the past three years for John Larroquette, Edward Hermann, James Whitmore and the late Beah Richards. And a total of four other “Practice” guest actors and actresses were nominated in the categories in 1999 and 2000.

In fact, in order to land Whitmore last year for the role of a legendary defense attorney who kills his wife and then gets himself acquitted by arguing temporary insanity, the actor’s agent was “guaranteed” an Emmy by former “Practice” exec producer Jeffrey Kramer, according to McConnell.

The awards are a strong selling point for Gilmore and McConnell — themselves nominated for casting Emmys in both of the past two years .

“We don’t pay the same kind of money for a guest acting role that a show like “ER” does,” says McConnell, explaining that “The Practice” earmarks about $25,000 for a star “you can make a commercial about” — roughly a third of the rate the same star could command on “ER.”

In truth, McConnell says, most guest roles on “The Practice” pay the SAG minimum — less than $5,000 a pop. “But most actors are more than willing to take that in order to read David Kelley’s words,” she adds.

Sometimes a guest spot will lead to a recurring role, like Ernie Sabella as error-prone attorney Harlan Bassett, Holland Taylor as Jimmy Berluti’s one-time main squeeze Judge Roberta Kittleson, and the already well-established Linda Hunt as judge Zoey Hiller.

After four years and 100 episodes, Gilmore and McConnell have a pretty good idea what Kelley and exec producer Robert Breech are looking for when it comes to casting a guest actor.

“A guest star needs to have a strong presence,” Gilmore says. “They need to carry as much credibility and weight — and magnetism — as a series regular.”

Indeed, unlike a comedy such as “Frasier,” where each episode is about the wacky regulars, many “Practice” episodes put the guest star in a central role — as a defendant with multi-layered problems or an attorney with emotional baggage.

The lion’s share of those roles tend to be written for actors over 40, and with Hollywood’s premium on young talent, Gilmore and McConnell find that their hardest challenge, with the show coming up on 100 episodes, is finding actors who fit the age.

“We get excited when people from regional theater come to L.A.,” says Gilmore, listing the Seattle Rep., the Guthrie in Minneapolis and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland as prime proving grounds for talent. The casting directors found Emerson starring at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum in “Gross Indecency.”

“We wanted to cast him as a child molester who was an assistant to a priest, but he couldn’t get time off to do the show,” Gilmore says.

Ultimately, all of the casting comes down to availability, and usually without much warning.

“David doesn’t plan out episodes ahead of time, so an actor has to be available on three or four days’ notice,” McConnell says. “That’s what happened with Gary Cole and Henry Winkler. Ed Begley Jr., too. We called him on Friday to work on Monday.”

For Emerson, his eventual availability for the role of Hinks won him the job over a sea of stars that briefly included Dustin Hoffman. Still, it isn’t the kind of career-changing stroke that has carried Anthony Heald, who turned his guest shot as a Massa-CHU-setts-hating judge into a role as a regular on the Kelley-produced “Boston Public” (as stern vice principal Scott Guber).

“I remember thinking while I was working on ‘The Practice’ that this would be a lovely thing to have as a regular job,” says Heald, who admits to having almost turned down the role. “I looked at the script, at the character, and said, ‘This guy’s just weird.’ But my wife is a huge fan of the show. When I got home, she said, ‘You can’t turn down “The Practice.’ “