Family & Companions
Arguably one of the most prolific writer-producers in small screen history, former attorney David E. Kelley created some of television's quirkiest and unconventional shows, particularly in the normally staid legal world. Kelley left his self-described boring job as a litigator to join the writing staff of Steven Bochco's hit "L.A. Law" (NBC, 1986-1994), where he eventually worked his way up to executive producer. He went on to co-create "Doogie Howser, M.D." (Fox, 1989-1993) with Bochco before branching out on his own to create the wildly quirky, but ratings-challenged "Picket Fences" (CBS, 1992-96), which, despite critical adulation and two Emmy Awards, struggled to find an audience. Kelley ventured out into medical drama territory with the equally lauded "Chicago Hope" (CBS, 1994-2000), while continuing his duties on "Picket Fences." But since he wrote all the scripts for both shows - much to the frustration of his writing staff - Kelley soon found himself burned out and forced to relieve himself of his responsibilities, which led to a decline in quality of both shows. After struggling to find his footing in the feature world with "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday" (1996) and "Lake Placid" (1999), Kelley reached the height of his creative and commercial powers with two divergent legal shows - "The Practice" (ABC, 1997-2004), a gritty, realistic look inside a Boston law firm, and "Ally McBeal" (Fox, 1997-2002), a wildly fanciful show that featured character fantasies, song numbers and a unisex bathroom. By the time he spun-off "The Practice" into the even more successful "Boston Legal" (ABC, 2004-08), there was no doubt that Kelley was a powerful creative force in television the likes of which had not been seen since Garry Marshall dominated the small screen in the 1970s.
Born on April 4, 1956 in Waterville, ME, the future television creator was the son of Jack Kelley, famed World Hockey Association coach of the New England Whalers, which later became the NHL's Hartford Whalers. After moving around several small towns in Massachusetts, his family eventually settled in Belmont, where he attended The Belmont Hill School. He moved on to Princeton University, where he earned his bachelor's degree in political science and was captain of the hockey team. During his junior year at Princeton, Kelley displayed his flair for the unconventional by submitting a paper for a political science class about John F. Kennedy's plot to assassinate Fidel Castro in verse. The next year, he turned the Bill of Rights into a play, turning the original 10 amendments into a distinct character. After spending a year playing professional hockey in Arosa, Switzerland, Kelley returned to the States in order to earn his law degree from Boston University, graduating with his juris doctor in 1983. For the next three years, he worked in the litigation department at the mid-size Boston firm, Fine & Ambrogne, typically handling mundane real estate and minor criminal cases.
Finding his work exceedingly boring, Kelley began writing a screenplay during his spare time, penning in longhand on a legal pad a tale about an overly ambitious legal eagle of questionable character. Though the resulting movie, "From the Hip" (1987), starring Judd Nelson as the unscrupulous young lawyer, was a disappointing comedy that nonetheless caught the attention of executive producer Steven Bochco, who was looking for writers with a legal background for his new series, "L.A. Law" (NBC, 1986-1994). Kelley was quickly hired as a staff writer and quickly graduated to story editor. Eventually he became the executive producer after Bochco left to develop other shows, including "Doogie Howser, M.D." (Fox, 1989-93), which Kelley also co-created. Forming his own production company, David E. Kelley Productions, he created the critically-acclaimed, Emmy-winning "Picket Fences" (CBS, 1992-96), a quirky small town drama set in the fictional Rome, Wisconsin. Kelley peopled the village with a collection of mildly eccentric characters and also mixed serious topics with extraneous, often silly subplots, with the resolutions of more issues often taking place inside the courtroom. Starring Tom Skerritt as the town's sheriff and Kathy Baker as his doctor wife, the show's slightly demented tone was an acquired taste for many viewers, resulting in a constant struggle for ratings. CBS's refusal to move the show from its dead-end Friday night time slot offered little assistance.
Though the show lasted only four seasons, "Picket Fences" was a critical darling that earned a slew of award nominations, resulting in two Emmy wins for Outstanding Drama Series in 1993 and 1994. While still cranking out scripts for the show, Kelley created and executive produced the medical drama, "Chicago Hope" (CBS, 1994-2000), which went toe-to-toe with another, more popular hospital show, "ER" (NBC, 1994-2010). Over the course of that insanely busy year, Kelley wound up writing over 40 one-hour episodes for both shows, displaying both his prodigious talent and almost obsessive need for control. The enormous output understandably left him burnt out. Turning over executive producing duties on both series the following season to spend more time with his family, Kelley wound up scripting only a few of the episodes. "Chicago Hope" managed to continue despite losing singing surgeon Mandy Patinkin and hospital legal counsel Peter MacNicol; the latter of whom left because of the creator's reduced role, just like Harry Hamlin did with "L.A. Law" when Kelley departed in 1992. In the end, it was "Picket Fences" that failed to survive Kelley's lack of involvement, due in part to a large decline in the show's quality.
While on hiatus, Kelley scripted and coproduced "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday" (1996), an adaptation of Michael Brady's stage tearjerker that starred his wife, Michelle Pfeiffer, whom he had married in 1993. A sorrowful tale about a man (Peter Gallagher) unable to overcome the death of his wife (Pfeiffer), "Gillian" languished in maudlin sentimentality that failed to reach any meaningful depth. Turning back to his forte, Kelley created "The Practice" (ABC, 1997-2004), a much grittier and realistic look at a law firm - this time set in Boston - than the glitzy "L.A. Law." Initially slated in the no-man's land of 10 o'clock on Saturday night, the show struggled on life support, only to become rejuvenated after winning the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series. Also that fall, he debuted "Ally McBeal" (1997-2002), a wildly experimental legal show that became an immediate sensation because of its fun, hip, unconventional representation of a confused young lawyer (Calista Flockhart) who works in a Boston firm filled with other self-absorbed, neurotic associates. Once again, Kelley was writing practically all the episodes for both shows by himself. This time burnout was not a factor, as both expressed different sides of his creativity, each offering escape from the other. Staff writers on both shows, however, expressed their boredom and frustration with his inability to delegate writing responsibilities.
If he had been off the zeitgeist mark with "Picket Fences," Kelley was right on target for "Ally McBeal." Fantasy elements like the dancing baby, Ally's outrageously long tongue and the voice of Barry White that motivates John 'The Biscuit' Cage (Peter MacNicol) captivated audiences almost immediately. Just like he did with "Chicago Hope," Kelley made music an integral part of the show, featuring Vonda Shepard's original songs and pleasant cover versions in every episode, as well as allowing almost every ensemble member a periodic vocal showcase. While "The Practice" addressed universal problems like insecurity, failure and embarrassment, it was Ally McBeal" that became the popular heavyweight. Returning to the feature world, he scripted two more movies, "Lake Placid" (1999), a character-driven horror flick in the vein of "Jaws" (1975) meets "Fargo" (1996), and "Mystery, Alaska" (1999), a small-town drama that drew upon his love of hockey. But the real story was the continued success of "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal," both of which earned him Emmy Awards, Golden Globes and even two Peabody Awards.
For the 1999-2000 season, Kelley found himself in control of his fifth primetime series. Not only had he resumed work on "Chicago Hope," but he had introduced the detective series "Snoops" (ABC, 1999-2000), a comedic drama about an unconventional detective agency starring Gina Gershon as the private eye. Despite solid ratings its initial season, Kelley made the unusual decision to end the show after the network decided to put it up against ratings juggernaut "ER." Meanwhile, a repackaged "Ally McBeal" called "Ally" (Fox, 1999-2000) began airing alongside the original show. A 30-minute version assembled from re-edited or unused scenes, "Ally" took on a decidedly comic bent compared to its dramatic forefather. But the experiment failed to catch on with the viewing public, resulting in the show's cancellation after 10 episodes. With the axing of "Ally McBeal" after the 2001-02 season following a drastic ratings drop, Kelley returned to the fore with a new series, "girls club" (Fox, 2002) which featured three single women (Gretchen Mol, Chyler Leigh and Kathleen Robertson) working as lawyers in San Francisco. A disaster from the start, the show was hammered by critics before being put out of its misery after just two aired episodes.
The fifth series he was involved with at the beginning of the new century was "Boston Public" (Fox, 2000-04), a typically Kelley-esque drama set in a fictional public school in Boston that is populated by quirky characters. Told from the point of view of a dedicated, but overwhelmed principal (Chi McBride), "Boston Public" used its irreverent style to tackle various social issues faced by teenagers, including sexuality, drug use and violence. Though hailed by critics and the recipient of several award nominations, the show struggled in the ratings and found itself canceled after four seasons without the opportunity to wrap out several continuing storylines. While the cracks were starting to show, Kelley remained one of the most prolific and successful show creators on television. In 2003, "The Practice" was suffering from declining ratings and an over-bloated budget, which forced a drastic reduction in costs. Six members of the original cast were fired, including the show's star, Dylan McDermott. Populated with a new cast that included James Spader as Alan Shore, a lawyer who skirts ethical rules typically for ethical reasons, "The Practice" returned for an eighth and final season. Meanwhile, the series was spun-off into the even more popular and successful "Boston Legal" (ABC, 2004-08), which also included William Shatner as the eccentric, womanizing and sheep-loving Denny Crane. Though the series itself never won awards for Best Drama, both Spader and Shatner earned Emmys for their performances.
While relishing success in the fictional world, Kelley tried his hand at reality television with "The Law Firm" (NBC/Bravo, 2005), which pitted 12 young lawyers against each other for a $250,000 grand prize and a partnership at a law firm. Canceled by NBC after just two weeks on the air, the show wrapped out its remaining episodes on sister network Bravo. Turning back to scripted series, Kelley created and executive produced "The Wedding Bells" (Fox, 2007), a comedic drama about three sisters (KaDee Strickland, Teri Polo and Sarah Jones) who inherit their parents' wedding planning business after their divorce. Poor reviews and low ratings sank Kelley's effort in less than two months on the air. Following a failed attempt to bring the father-daughter legal dramedy, "Legally Mad," to small screens, Kelley created "Harry's Law" (NBC, 2011- ), which starred Kathy Bates as a recently fired patent lawyer who gathers together a group of misfit lawyers and runs an unconventional practice out of a rundown shoe store.
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Worked for three years in the litigation department of the mid-size Boston law firm Fine & Ambrogne, specializing in real estate and minor criminal cases
On the strength of his then unproduced "From the Hip" screenplay, recruited by executive producer Steven Bochco to work as writer and consultant on NBC's "L.A. Law"; quickly became show's head writer; assumed co-producer status as of the 1987-1988 season, supervising producer the following season, and when Bochco left in 1989 to develop ABC's "NYPD Blue", assumed role of executive producer
Feature screenwriting debut, "From the Hip"
Served as writer, co-creator (with Bochco) and executive consultant on "Doogie Howser, M.D."; wrote premiere episode but involvement lessened with each passing season
Formed own production company (David E Kelley Productions) and created, wrote and executive produced "Picket Fences" for CBS; relinquished executive producer reins for final season
Created, wrote pilot (and most of first season's episodes) and executive produced the CBS medical drama "Chicago Hope"; dropped executive producer duties after one season, retaining title of 'executive consultant'; returned in spring 1999 to pen the season finale and agreed to take more active role in show during the 1999-2000 season
Co-produced and scripted "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday", adapting it from a play by Michael Brady; wife Michelle Pfeiffer co-starred as Gillian
Wrote, created and executive produced the ABC legal drama "The Practice"; fired most of the original cast in the 2003 season to keep the cost down, but added James Spader as a lead character
Wrote, created and executive produced the Fox series "Ally McBeal"; in fall 1999, Fox aired "Ally", a half-hour version of the series culled from previously aired material edited with unaired segments to create stand alone episodes; that half-hour version was cancelled in December 1999
Wrote the black comedy-thriller "Lake Placid", starring Bridget Fonda as a paleontologist who teams with an eccentric billionaire to solve a mysterious death
Scripted the hockey-themed feature "Mystery, Alaska"
Created and executive produced the FOX drama "Girl's Club"
Developed an unscripted series for NBC, a legal drama pitting contestants with law degrees against each other in a race for a partner position at a law firm