David E. Kelly: Words That Launched a Legacy

NATPE 2010: Complete Coverage from B&C

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 differently.

In 1989, L.A. Law creator Steven Bochco decided to depart from the program. Kelley, who had joined the show in 1986 after moving from Boston, 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, ‘Go and do it.'"

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 University.

"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 commitment.

"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 shows."

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 without compunction."

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 to that."

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."