Laying Down the 'Law'


It happens every few years. A show comes along that looks, feels and sounds like nothing else. This season is blessed with such a sense-rattler in L.A. Law, NBC’s hyper-realistic, erotically charged cross-examination of a law firm where prestige and pressure come in equal measure. Populated by emphatically three-dimensional attorneys whose passions extend down to their briefs, L.A. Law bears as much resemblance to Perry Mason as the original Miami Vice did to Highway Patrol. If it feels as if ground is being broken here, it is. No TV show has attacked as large a sacred cow as the legal profession with as much dead-on acuity. And no show has questioned the basic assumptions of its audience—in this case, the Y-people—with as much dark comedy. Literate and dazzling, L.A. Law holds a mirror up to those same upscale achievers who have made it a must-see hit. “This show is about having it all,” says Alan Rachins, who plays the firm’s anal-retentive, cost-conscious partner, Douglas Brackman. “But it goes further and deals with a more important issue: What is it like when you get there?”

For the show’s creators, that was the idea from the beginning. L.A. Law’s supervising producer, Terry Louise Fisher, a former deputy D.A. in Los Angeles, describes her opinion of the legal profession as “very jaundiced,” and it’s from her that the show inherits its wryly cynical viewpoint. (The ensemble cast and overlapping plot lines come from its other creator, Hill Street Blues’ Steve Bochco.) “It’s an interesting profession because it breeds so many malcontents,” says Fisher. “So many lawyers hate their jobs. They get on a career track, then one day say, like I did, ‘What am I doing?’ ”

Since L.A. Law premiered in September, the show has demonstrated that it knows exactly what it wants and how to get it. The production values, aided by a $1 million-per-episode budget, are appealingly high gloss. The knowing, adult scripts are just as lustrous. “We have no car chases or scenes where people hit each other,” explains Fisher, “so our talk better be damned good.” But the words and visuals are all anchored on the actors, and that is where the show really shines. By creating sympathy for inherently unsympathetic characters (how many people really like lawyers?) the L.A. Law cast has provoked more word of mouth than any other in recent memory.

Any discussion of repellent attorneys must start with Arnold Becker, the divorce lawyer who—as played by Corbin Bernsen—seems destined for the J.R. Ewing Hall of Shame. An unsavory womanizer who’s earnestly unaware of his sleaze quotient, Arnie feels little compunction about bedding the wife of his client. According to Bernsen, 32, women recognize Becker as the kind of hurtful guy they hate themselves for loving. “A lot of them get involved in relationships where they get hurt,” he says. “Some women like to get swept off their feet, and Becker is a sweeper-off-the-feeter.”

Becker was also the most difficult role to cast. Searching for a combination of good looks and mischief, Fisher couldn’t find the right mix until Bernsen—a Ryan’s Hope veteran—auditioned. “Most of the guys faded into the woodwork,” says Fisher, “but you just couldn’t keep your eyes off him.” That characteristic hasn’t been lost on his co-stars. “You want to take him home and make him hot chocolate,” says Michele Greene, who plays lawyer Abby Perkins. “Because he plays such a rat and is so handsome, people think he’s a slime.”

Bernsen won’t dispute such testimony. “I’m not as promiscuous as my character,” he says. “My idea of a great date is swinging in a hammock, sipping a margarita, with the sunset coming over the aqua-blue sea.” Separated from actress Brenda Cooper after three years, and a onetime boyfriend of Heather Thomas, Bernsen is unattached these days. (His alleged affair with Vanna White, alas, consisted merely of a few dances at a New Year’s Eve party.)

Becker’s polar opposite on the show is Michael Kuzak, portrayed by Harry Hamlin as a soul-searching attorney torn between his ethics and his ambitions. Unlike the effervescent Bernsen, Hamlin, 35, doesn’t reveal himself easily. “Harry’s not the kind of guy who comes on before he’s ready,” says Richard Dysart, who plays the firm’s senior partner. “We all got to know Harry on Harry’s own terms.” But once Hamlin’s loner mien is breached, a sense of humor is discovered. “A lot of people don’t know that Harry is terribly funny,” says Susan Dey, who plays deputy D.A. Grace Van Owen.

Best known for his roles in 1981’s Clash of the Titans and 1982’s Making Love, Hamlin likes his L.A. Law character but doesn’t share Kuzak’s need for constantly testing himself. Says Hamlin: “Win-lose situations don’t hold any attraction for me.” While Kuzak is about to start living with Van Owen on the show, Hamlin has already settled down. After a four-year relationship with actress Ursula Andress (the mother of his 6-year-old son Dimitri), Hamlin has been married for nearly two years to former Falcon Crest actress Laura Johnson. “She’s the greatest lady that ever graced this planet,” says Hamlin.

The women on L.A. Law, unlike those on many TV series, are as complex and strong-willed as the men. Van Owen, as played by Dey (see the following story), is an idealist who’s in danger of being jaded by her own smarts. Jill Eikenberry’s Ann Kelsey, says the actress, is a lawyer who is “ballsy, brave and determined to succeed in what is still very much a man’s world.”

Lest anyone question the likelihood that gorgeous Kelsey can lose her heart to the firm’s nebbishy partner, Stuart Markowitz, consider this: The actors who play the couple have been married for 13 years. Close friends of executive producer Bochco, Eikenberry, 39, and Michael Tucker, 41, had their parts written for them, and they’re relishing the verisimilitude. “We’ve had some romantic segments and we’ve taken the romance home with us,” says Eikenberry. “It did wonders for us.” Thus far, their most memorable escapade has been the Venus Butterfly scene, in which Markowitz turns Kelsey on to a secret sexual technique he’d learned from a homely bigamist with 11 very satisfied wives. A sure sign that people are really paying attention to L.A. Law: The Venus Butterfly segment drew voluminous mail, most of it asking for the secret (there isn’t any), some of it expressing outrage.

If criticism ever intrudes too much, the actors can always fall back on each other. The affection that cast members express for each other is a genuine rarity for TV. “I’ve been with ensembles before,” says co-executive producer Gregory Hoblit. “On Hill Street Blues we had a cauldron of eccentrics and it turned into violence, let me tell you. But this is the most mature, selfless group I can imagine.” During the holidays the actors went caroling around the lot en masse, and the Christmas lights strung by Bernsen and Hamlin still illuminate the trailers at night. “It’s not very Hollywoodish here,” says Jimmy Smits, who plays lawyer Victor Sifuentes. “Jokes are everywhere. We go to see dailies together during lunch. There’s a lot of goofing around with the crew.” Michele Greene recently threw a hen party for female cast and crew members—where all agreed that Smits, not Bernsen or Hamlin, was the handsomest guy. Coed cast parties are also common. So are nicknames. Bernsen is Corbinski. Tucker is Cuddles.

For all the camaraderie, there is a certain wistfulness on the L.A. Law set, a realization that TV burnout comes fast. This year’s Moonlighting is next year’s Miami Vice. “I love the fact that everybody’s head is screwed on straight, that no one is fighting over whose trailer is best,” says Smits. “But I know that accolades and all the press attention might change things later.” Maybe, but it almost doesn’t matter. Right now L.A. Law has the medium’s corner on intelligence, daring and wit. Maybe it’s only for the moment, but L.A. Law—with its finger on the pulse—is the show of the moment.

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