David E. Kelley thought there’d been a mistake. On Sept. 12, 1999, the prolific showrunner was backstage at the Shrine Auditorium, having just accepted the best drama series Emmy for “The Practice,” when he heard his name called again.
Kelley immediately figured that the producers were summoning him out again to take the award away from his ABC legal drama and give it to “The Sopranos,” the HBO series that had skyrocketed like a pop culture comet in its first season. “Sopranos” had been the heavy favorite to win the Emmys’ top prize that year, given the intensity around the show.
But there was no mistake. Kelley was ushered back onstage because Television Academy voters decided to make history by handing him a second big win, the comedy honor for his Fox series “Ally McBeal.” Kelley is the first and to date only producer to command the Emmy Awards for best comedy and best drama series in one year.
“That was quite an accomplishment for David, and it speaks volumes about the breadth of his skills,” says Stu Bloomberg, who headed ABC Entertainment in 1999.
Twenty years later, Kelley feels the same way about his record-setting wins as he did that night in the backstage crush at the Shrine. He was shocked that the third season of “The Practice” prevailed over “The Sopranos,” especially as “Practice” had won its category the previous year.
“I think I was stunned first that we’d gone up there. While we were just getting offstage and trying to process, somebody was telling me, ‘You gotta go back out,’” Kelley recalls. “The first thing that hit me was that I was supposed to go back out and rightfully return the Emmy to ‘The Sopranos.’”
Kelley’s feat marked a career high point for the lawyer turned showrunner, who got his start in TV in the mid-1980s as an apprentice to Steven Bochco on “L.A. Law.” A decade later, he had six Emmys, including best drama series wins in 1993 and 1994 for his quirky CBS dramedy “Picket Fences.” He’d cemented his reputation as a gifted writer who composed in longhand on yellow legal pads and had a preternatural ability to juggle multiple shows. Most important, Kelley brought innovations in storytelling techniques and subject matter to his series.
“David E. Kelley shows had this embrace of eccentricity in a medium that had been very staid,” says Robert Bianco, former TV critic for USA Today. “You had a very strict line between comedies and dramas at the time, and Kelley blended those lines together in all of his shows.”
Nowhere was that style more evident than in “Ally McBeal.” The hourlong Fox dramedy about a single female lawyer was a trailblazer for its time. Who could forget the impact of seeing Ally’s fantasy life lead to a sequence in which she danced with an animated baby as she wrestled with career and relationship choices? Kelley, in accepting the comedy series win that night at the Shrine, heaped credit on the show’s star, Calista Flockhart.
“Her gifts are the reason we’re all standing up her,” Kelley said as he was handed his second win of the night by presenter Jay Leno.
Unlike “The Practice,” which was a slow build for ABC, “Ally McBeal” came out of the gate with white-hot buzz, in part because it was such a departure for network TV. The Emmy win came for the Fox dramedy’s second season.
“The combination of Calista [Flockhart]’s performance and David E. Kelley’s voice made it work,” Bianco says. “It was one of the first times that television tried to get into the mindset of a woman that age. With the famous dancing baby, people either loved it or hated it, but it was an attempt to show what was going on in a professional woman’s life. That kind of mix of fantasy and reality, which so many shows do today, was not as common then.”
“When you’re doing a show, it’s difficult to escape from it. It nags you wherever you go — in the car, in the shower. Stories haunt you.”
David E. Kelley
Kelley’s ascent in the late 1990s signaled the rise of the über-showrunners (think Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, Greg Berlanti), who become brand names unto themselves.
“Just being around David at that time was thrilling,” says producer Marty Adelstein, who represented Kelley during that period, when Adelstein was a talent agent and partner at Endeavor. “His shows were something people talked about the next day.”
Kelley’s trademark process of writing most, if not all, of the episodes for his programs was a harbinger of things to come. It’s not unusual for a short-order series to have all the scripts penned by one writer or directed by a single helmer. But in the days of full broadcast seasons of “Ally McBeal” and “Practice,” it was unheard of.
Housed at Raleigh Manhattan Beach Studios, Kelley’s production banner delivered 23 episodes apiece of “The Practice” and “Ally McBeal” for the 1998-99 season. At the time, Kelley was based at 20th Century Fox Television. His success added sizzle to the studio during a period when Fox was aggressively looking to expand its TV production activity.
“The guy wrote pretty much every script for both shows on a yellow legal pad,” says Sandy Grushow, who headed 20th Century Fox TV in that era and is now CEO of Phase 2 Media. “I knew how hard he worked and that virtually every word was his. He had really talented casts and directors and producers, but the words came out of him. And to be celebrated like that in both [Emmy] categories was pretty mind-blowing but also well deserved.”
In hindsight, Kelley says he believes the pressure of doing two shows at the same time helped him manage the workload better than if he had been obsessively focused on just one. (He put that theory to the test in 2000 when he added a third series, Fox’s “Boston Public.”)
“The two shows were a good yin and yang for me,” Kelley says. “‘The Practice’ had a strong dramatic sensibility, and ‘Ally’ was a zany, absurdist sensibility. Both had emotional truths underlying the story. Had I been doing one show at a time, probably to satisfy my own creative instincts I would have tried to put all of that stuff into one show.”
Kelley says there was something “oddly therapeutic” about the years of “Ping-Ponging” between the two series. One week he’d focus on nothing but charting the course for Bobby Donnell and his motley group of criminal defense attorneys. The following week he’d be knee-deep in the trials of Ally McBeal and her cohorts.
“Sometimes when you’re doing a show it’s difficult to escape from it. It nags you wherever you go — in the car, in the shower. Stories haunt you. You need something to whack the show out of your head for a bit,” Kelley says. “When I’d been working on ‘The Practice,’ I’d go back to ‘Ally’ and be more refreshed than if I’d been on vacation. Because you can tell yourself you’re going to take a break, but your head won’t always do it. But when I was in the ‘Ally’ world, it was a reprieve from ‘The Practice,’ and vice versa.”
The production teams on the two shows were friendly, even as their fortunes diverged. The first drama series Emmy win for “Practice” in 1998 helped stave off cancellation by ABC, Kelley is convinced. “That had more meaning than just being a blue ribbon — it was real nourishment of the lifeblood of the series,” he says.
But it took another year or so before “Practice” became a bona fide ratings hit. Not so for “Ally McBeal.”
“We were getting press wanting to come for set visits even before we premiered,” Kelley recalls. “I remember trying to orchestrate press tours that would have to walk through the ‘Practice’ stage just so that media might know that ‘The Practice’ existed.”
Alice West was among the producers who had a long run working on Kelley shows. She remembers him as a considerate boss who remained accessible despite the demands on his every waking hour. The pressure was always turned up after the season started, the first batch of episodes began rolling out and the freight train of production chugged along.
“I don’t know anybody who can write one set of characters in the morning and then in the afternoon go to a totally different show,” West says. “I’ve never met anyone like him.”
Today Kelley often works on a different timetable. His interest in limited series such as HBO’s “Big Little Lies” has meant that all scripts are finished before filming begins. He sees benefits to both ways of tackling episodic TV.
“I’ve always loved the ability to tailor and revise and reconstruct the show as you go along,” he says. “When you have to write [scripts] in advance, you don’t have that luxury. I’m used to seeing Episodes 2 and 3 on the air while writing Episodes 5, 6 and 7. The more prep time you can have the better, but you still want to be able to fine-tune and tweak.”
Kelley earned his most recent Emmy nominations in 2017 for his work on the first season of “Big Little Lies,” directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Indie film favorite Andrea Arnold was tapped to direct the seven episodes of the show’s second installment, which aired this summer. As viewers noted the number of editors credited as working on each episode, questions emerged about whether there were creative clashes among Arnold, Vallée and Kelley. In July, IndieWire reported that Arnold was “heartbroken” at having the show “yanked away” from her and was unaware that Vallée would oversee final edits of episodes.
Kelley disputes that characterization.
“The story that the show was ‘yanked’ from her simply wasn’t true. It was a normal television process,” he says. “Everyone was thrilled with her direction. We reconciled it with some of the rhythms of year one — that’s kind of how you do series TV.”
A representative for Arnold did not respond to a request for comment from the filmmaker.
After the big triumph on Emmy night in 1999, Kelley and his compadres made their way to the Fox party at Pagani restaurant in West Hollywood. There was no bigger story that night than his historic wins, and there was no bigger crowd around any of the VIP tables than those for “The Practice” and “Ally McBeal.”
But staying all night at a packed, noisy party wasn’t Kelley’s idea of a great time. In short order, a smaller group moved with him over to a back room at Trader Vic’s, which was a favorite of the showrunner’s.
“All we were longing to do was to raise a glass and be with each other that night,” Kelley recalls. “That’s a time when you want to look into the eyes of the people who helped you climb the hill and say, ‘Thanks.’”
The low-key approach to partying with a pile of Emmys — “Ally McBeal” took home a total of three trophies that night while “Practice” claimed four — was in keeping with Kelley’s style.
“David is so gracious and such a good guy that it was easy to root for him,” Grushow says. Adelstein remembers turning away interview requests from “60 Minutes” and other prominent outlets after the Emmy coup. “He had no interest in promoting himself,” Adelstein says. “The man has not changed. He’s still a gentleman.”
In retrospect, that night in 1999 marked the end of one era of television and the beginning of another. USA Today alum Bianco points to the broadcast TV series up for best drama honors alongside “Practice” and “Sopranos” — “Law & Order,” “NYPD Blue,” “ER” — and the fact that “The West Wing” premiered 10 days after the Emmy ceremony.
“What we’ve lost is the ambition of the broadcast networks to do that kind of serious drama rather than ceding it to cable and streaming,” Bianco says. “So many of the network shows have become rote and boring as opposed to when they really were pushing the artistic envelope in those days. That’s a loss.”
Kelley has been through career ups and downs in the 20 years since he hit his personal Peak TV best. After 1999, he would receive four more Emmy nominations (for “The Practice” and “Boston Legal”) but no wins until 2017, when “Big Little Lies” dominated the limited series categories.
Like other creators of a certain age, Kelley is exhilarated by the opportunities for TV series that abound in the current landscape. He does not like to look back — he’s never rewatched episodes of “Ally McBeal” and “The Practice” since they were produced — but he wonders if such shows would make it now.
“Today a lot of networks and streamers are looking for niches they can target bomb,” he says. “A show like ‘Ally’ or ‘Picket Fences’ or ‘The Practice’ might not fit easily into those lanes.”
While the business has changed, Kelley’s motivation for putting pen to legal pad to craft a new series has not.
“My process is to think about what stories do I want to tell, and then cross my fingers, close my eyes and hope that there’s a viewing audience consistently out there to justify its existence,” he says.
(PIctured: Calista Flockhart, David E. Kelley and Dylan McDermott in 1999)