By Stephen M. Silverman
July 17, 2003 01:00 AM

“The Practice” creator David E. Kelley faced down reporters this week at the Television Critics Association press tour, as he defended the decision to shake up the cast of his ABC legal drama while confirming that Sharon Stone has now joined the show, the Associated Press reports.

Kelley declined to give details on who or what the “Basic Instinct” star, 45, would play, explaining: “That will be a part of our plot development that we’ll want to keep for a surprise for the audience.”

So far, Stone has reportedly signed for three appearances, but Kelley said that could be extended.

“The Practice” is scheduled to return to its regular Sunday night slot for its eighth season this fall — minus several stars. Dylan McDermott, Kelli Williams, Lara Flynn Boyle and Lisa Gay Hamilton have all left the show because of new budget restrictions the network placed on it by reducing its licensing fee, to a reported $3.5 million per episode, or half what it was.

Kelley hoped to continue with the show and find a way to re-energize it with new cast members. Supporting players Steve Harris, Camryn Manheim, Michael Badalucco and Jessica Capshaw will return, joined by newcomers James Spader and Rhona Mitra.

Last week, Kelley, 47, received a Humanitas Prize for an episode of “The Practice” in which the lawyers tried to prevent the execution of a mentally ill woman.

Meanwhile, Stone also was in the news after she and her husband, San Francisco Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein, officially called it quits after five years of marriage. They have a 3-year-old adopted son, Roan.