Tom Gliatto and Michael A. Lipton
May 13, 2002 12:00 PM

How hot was L.A. Law? Cast members got to speak at American Bar Association conventions. The show took home 15 Emmys during its eight-year run (1986-94), and law school applications soared. Still, Law was a gamble for NBC. “My big fear,” recalls co-creator Steven Bochco, “was that it would just be talking heads—blah, blah, blah.” Instead, the hotshots at McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney & Kuzak grappled with headline cases (from the L.A. riots to dwarf tossing), whiplash plot twists—when one ex-partner got the shaft, it was a fall down an elevator—and oodles of sex. (Even Dr. Ruth still must be mystified by the Venus Butterfly technique, but more about that later.) With a TV reunion on the docket for May 12, we subpoenaed 12 cast members to testify about life behind the scenes, and after.

Corbin Bernsen

Dastardly-but-lovable Divorce Lawyer Arnie Becker

From lady-killer to cyberwonk. “I want to make everything interactive,” says Bernsen, 47. Eight years after retiring as McKenzie, Brackman and crew’s bronzed Lothario, Bernsen still acts—since 1999 he has played Judge Sebring on CBS’s JAG—but his passion now is his own independent film company, Public Filmworks, and its start-up Web site, which he hopes someday will allow fans to vote online for everything from a film’s casting to its costumes: “My intent is to spread enthusiasm.” Costar Michael Tucker agrees. “Corbin has a new idea every minute—and a lot of mouths to feed.” Married for 13 years to actress Amanda Pays, 42, he has four sons—Oliver, 13, twins Henry and Angus, 10, and Finley, 3. Reminded that he’s infamous on the Law set for mooning, Bernsen smiles. “I just have a beautiful ass,” he says, “and I have to share.”

Richard Dysart

Patriarchal Partner Leland McKenzie

Since he ended his run as Law’s shrewd and kindly boss in 1994, the 73-year-old actor has been in retirement—only don’t call it that. “It’s advancement,” he says, laughing. “Leaving the work you’ve done all your life is not a retreat. There’s freedom out there. You no longer have to jump when the phone rings.” Dysart is now another sort of senior partner: He met third wife Kathryn Jacobi, 55, an artist with a grown son, not long before he was cast in Law—”We’ve been together ever since,” he says. They made it legal in ’87. Splitting his time between Santa Monica and British Columbia, he couldn’t turn down the chance to reprise his favorite role. “But at 73,” he says, “I remember the names of the characters better than the names of the actors. I knew that was going to happen. So I said, The hell with it. Call them by their characters’ names.’ ”

Michele Greene

Determined Intern Abby Perkins

Buttoned-up young Abby had one of the show’s most famous moments—a lesbian kiss with attorney C.J. Lamb (Amanda Donohoe)—but what Greene remembers most is the indignity of playing a frump. When an earthquake rocked the set in 1987, she recalls, she crouched under a table thinking, “I don’t want to die in Abby clothes.” Now 40 and living in Glendale, Calif., she’s dressing—and working—more like Sheryl Crow. In June she’ll release her first album, Ojo de Tiburón (Eye of the Shark), a collection of her own songs in English and Spanish. (Her mother, Dorita, a former singer, is Mexican.) “It took me a few years to find my sound,” she says. Her love life still hasn’t settled into a groove. “I’ve had a series of crazy boyfriends,” says Greene, who wed and quickly split from camera grip Brahms Yaich in ’98. “I can’t go out with any more crazy people.”

Susan Ruttan

Loyal and Loving Secretary Roxanne Melman

“I have one precious prince,” says Ruttan of her son Jackson, 9. And fans of the woman who played Arnie Becker’s anxious office assistant quickly learn to bow: “When people come up to me and go, ‘I love L.A. Law,’ Jackson says, ‘Well, what about me? Do you know me? Have you seen me before?’ ” Post-Law, Ruttan, 53—who left the show after its seventh season—eased up on her acting career to raise Jackson, whom she adopted after her 1992 divorce from third husband Randy McDonald, a boom operator she had met on the set in 1986. “I’ve sort of taken a long breather,” says Ruttan, whose last notable role was as the late David Strickland’s mother on Suddenly Susan. After years of being complimented by friends for her decorating style, she started her own interior design business in 2000. “It’s me, one assistant and a painter,” Ruttan says. “I’m really enjoying it. I just did a place. The children’s room came out so pretty, I just wanted to get rid of the client and move in myself.”

Susan Dey

Gritty Grace Van Owen

“I loved how much Grace believed in the system,” says Dey, 49, of the crusading former D.A., “even when she thought the system failed.” Same goes for the cause-conscious Dey, a star since she was 18 thanks to The Partridge Family. “She was a champion for the homeless,” says Harry Hamlin, who played occasional flame Michael Kuzak. Recently Dey has fought violence against women, appearing before Congress and serving on the board of the Rape Treatment Center in Santa Monica. Dey, who has a daughter, actress Sarah Hirshnan, 23, from her marriage to ex-manager Leonard Hirshnan, also waged a personal battle. A recovering alcoholic since the late ’80s, she no longer discusses it. “It is who I am,” says Dey, who wed producer Bernard Sofronski, 67, in ’88. “To a point.”

Alan Rachins

Reptilian Partner Douglas Brackman Jr.

Okay, so his brother-in-law (producer Steven Bochco) got him the job. Nevertheless, Rachins excelled as the sublimely slimy Brackman. “I always think of Doug feeding his fish in his office—his man-eating fish,” says Jill Eikenberry, though Rachins, she says, “is a doll.” Bochco agrees. Still, he says, “Alan was able to inform this guy with a pomposity and self-centeredness that made him hilarious but real.” After Law ended, Rachins’s wife (and Bochco’s sister), Joanna Frank, 61, who played Doug’s squabbling spouse, Sheila, retired from acting. Rachins, 59, with whom she has a son, Robert, 20, soldiers on, playing Jenna Elfman’s dad on Dharma & Greg. He calls his old series “groundbreaking in treating the audience like intelligent adults.”

Jimmy Smits

Victor Sifuentes

Smits, who played the firm’s first minority associate, “took his work very seriously, and of course we kidded him. mercilessly,” says Michael Tucker. But even Smits, 46, had to laugh at one of his favorite scenes: Victor’s anguish at seeing his prized BMW stolen—”an ode,” says the actor; “to ’80s materialism.” Involved since 1985 with actress Wanda De Jesus, 43, he departed Law in ’91 and ended a four-year run on NYPD Blue in 1998. “It made me weep,” says Susan Ruttan, when Smits had to bow out of the reunion to costar in the latest Star Wars film. But he did send each of his old castmates a handwritten note. “It was heartfelt,” says Richard Dysart. “It was none of that ‘Sorry I can’t be with you’ stuff. Just ‘Do a good job.’ That’s jimmy.”

Blair Underwood

Jonathan Rollins

“He was a kid then, just a baby,” says Steven Bochco. In fact Underwood, now 38, was a, 23-year-old drama major at Carnegie Mellon University, Bochco’s alma mater, when he was tapped in 1987 to play the brash Rollins, the firm’s first black attorney, on the show’s second season. Fellow Carnegie alum Michael Tucker became his mentor. Seven years later when the show ended, “I realized what a mature actor he had become,” says Tucker. Indeed, Underwood, who has two daughters and an infant son with wife Desiree, 36, went on to play a doctor on CBS’s City of Angels in 2000 and a soldier that same year in the film Rules of Engagement. In August he’ll costar with Julia Roberts in Full Frontal. Says Bochco: “I think he’s a star waiting to happen.”

Larry Drake

Benevolent Guy Friday Benny Stulwicz

“My favorite scene in the seven years I was on the show,” says Drake, 53, who played the mentally handicapped Benny, “was the one with Jimmy Smits taking me to the drug store to buy a condom. I pull out one of those little squeeze coin purses and I count out all the change, and it takes an excruciatingly long time.” But worth every second. Drake’s sensitive portrayal of Benny, whose late mother had entrusted his care to her lawyers, earned the actor two Emmys. On the street “most people, after they met me, didn’t believe I was Benny,” he says. Extending his range, he went on to play villains in 1990’s Darkman and ’92’s Dr. Giggles. Unattached—he doesn’t want to talk about a brief marriage—”I’m not looking but, yes,” he says, “love is a wonderful thing that one misses.” One thing he doesn’t miss is the sprawling Victorian house he bought with his Law earnings. He sold it in 2001, put his antiques into storage and moved into a modest L.A. penthouse. “I needed to simplify,” says Drake, who does stage work and still pops up in minor film roles. “I didn’t need all that space.”

Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker

Lovers Ann Kelsey and Stuart Markowitz

Married in real life since 1973, Tucker and Eikenberry saw their characters—Stuart, a gentle tax attorney, and Ann, a hard-charging litigator—kindle an office romance that led to matrimony in the show’s first season. “We are almost reverse personalities in real life,” says Eikenberry, 55. Perhaps, but fans loved their odd-couple chemistry. “One of the biggest surprises was having construction workers shout out our names,” says the actress, who was diagnosed with breast cancer just as the show was taking off in 1986. Successfully treated with a lumpectomy and radiation therapy, she got an additional boost reporting to the set daily to play “a take-no-prisoners gal.” After Law, the couple left Hollywood for Northern California. “We wanted our son [Max, now 20 and a college student] to have a different environment,” his mom explains. In recent years, as she and Tucker, 58, have done theater and TV movies, Law buffs continue to ask: What was the Venus Butterfly maneuver that Stuart performed on Ann in bed? “If I do know,” says Eikenberry, “I’m not telling!”

Harry Hamlin

Legal Boy Scout Michael Kuzak

“In many ways,” says costar Michael Tucker, “Harry has blossomed the most.” The actor named PEOPLE’S 1987 Sexiest Man Alive just needed to put down some roots. Even before Law, Hamlin was a Hollywood hunk, baring his chest in 1981’s Clash of the Titans and carrying on a highly public affair with ’60s bombshell Ursula Andress (with whom he had a son, Dimitri, now 21). In the course of Law, he divorced actress Laura Johnson and wed Nicollette Sheridan (that marriage also broke up).

“The experiences in my life have been a rather steep learning curve,” the 50-year-old Hamlin says gingerly of those days. “They were what I needed to have the foundation to handle a long-term relationship.” The lessons paid off in 1992 when he met Melrose Place star Lisa Rinna, 38. Wed in 1997, they have two girls, Delilah Belle, 3, and Amelia Gray, almost 1. Dimitri wasn’t much older than that when he would visit Dad on the Law set. He’s currently attending college on the East Coast. “I told him about the reunion,” Hamlin says, “and he said, ‘Cool, Dad. I got to get back to my paper.’ ”

Tom Gliatto and Michael A. Lipton

Cynthia Wang and Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles

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