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Criticism doesn't bother 'Ally' producer, stars

Wednesday, January 19, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. -- I've been in Ally McBeal's bed. Then again, this season who hasn't?

A visit to the sets of David E. Kelley's "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" reveals Ally does keep food in her refrigerator, although the scale in her bathroom forgets the decimal point, saying a 145.2-pound person weighs 1,452 pounds. That may explain a few things.

But it doesn't explain the show's sexual turn with the season premiere's sex in a car wash and later a kiss between Ally and Ling.

"I thought they were quite fun," said "Ally" star Calista Flockhart at a Fox party last week. Seated in a small booth in the VIP lounge of a Los Angeles club, Flockhart was warm and friendly. "I like the idea of Ally being adventuresome and taking risks."

And the car wash? "It was really cold. It was awful. That's all I have to say."

Kelley defended the show, saying "Ally McBeal" hasn't been more sexual than in previous seasons.

"We certainly knew the car wash scene would be provocative," Kelley said. "We thought it would send a wakeup call to viewers that the show would continue to change and grow."

Kelley took heat for those episodes from critics, and he said his father, former Pittsburgh Penguins president Jack Kelley, expressed reservations as well.

"He had the same questions some of you did about the sex scenes," Kelley said. Watching his father's career helped prepare him for this year's achievements (Emmy awards for "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice") and failures ("Snoops" and the half-hour "Ally" rerun).

"With my father being a hockey coach who won some and lost some, I probably picked up on his determination and his commitment to the work being as important as the win or the loss," Kelley said. Much has been written about the meaning of "Ally McBeal" (most notably a Time cover story) and whether or not its star has an eating disorder. Flockhart said she's gotten over the chatter but admitted the show's second season and all the speculation about her health took its toll.

"When the nonsense started, it wasn't particularly hard," she said. "I just thought, oh this happens to everybody, it doesn't really affect me if I don't read the papers. But it did get really difficult, and it didn't seem to stop."

After being plucked out of the obscurity of a working New York actress, Flockhart found she wasn't struggling anymore and had to set new goals. Now she's happier, although she said she has little perspective on the series in which she stars.

"It walks a very precarious line," she said. "Some people seem to laugh at it and some people take it quite seriously, and it's certainly not correct and I think it raises issues that are touchy."

Foremost among those issues this season was the turn taken by Ally's former beau, Billy (Gil Bellows), who now sports bleached hair and flaunts his rampant male chauvinism. He and his wife, Georgia (Courtney Thorne Smith), appear headed for divorce.

The reactions Bellows gets from viewers he meets are more extreme.

"My character seemed to be well-liked before, but [critics] trashed my character," Bellows said. "He was boring, and he was just a dull character. Now they trash him differently but in an aggressive vitriolic way because he's espousing sentiments that are not politically correct or warranted for the sensitive age we're in. That's terrific because that means David and I are doing something right."

Bellows said he's happy to be getting more screen time and acknowledgment for his contribution to the show.

"It would be nice if we all got our due," Bellows said. "David's affording me the opportunity to possibly get some of that. I'm not a kid anymore; I'd like people to go, 'You're doing a great job.' "

Portia de Rossi, who plays Nelle on "Ally McBeal," said the series generates more interest from men than it did in the past. She had her own shocking scene early this season when John Cage (Peter MacNicol) spanked Nelle after he overheard her describe a fantasy. Filming the scene was a story in itself.

"Peter was so frightened to hurt me because he's a very gentle man," de Rossi said. "He would spank me in this pathetic little [slap]. And I was like, I can't feel anything, I can't react to it."

Eventually they decided MacNicol would hit her harder, but padding was in order.

"We put a prosthetic butt piece on my butt so it was like a hard shell," de Rossi said. "So I was like, 'Give it a good hit, Peter.' On the final take he hit me, and it shattered. Literally one piece was on the bed and the other one had bounced off the back wall on the floor. He broke my butt. It was actually very funny."

Jane Krakowski, who is much smaller in person than when she's gussied up as Elaine, said she never gets feedback on her performance from Kelley. A half-hour later he came by to give her a hug and to compliment her performance in an upcoming episode.

"That's never happened before, ever," she said. "It's because I called him about a scene we re-shot in an episode where Elaine re-evaluates her sluttishness."

Then Krakowski began gushing.

"This is going to sound wrong, but David to me is like that father you love and admire and want him to do the same to you," Krakowski said. "So when you get any sort of acknowledgment or appraisal you just feel like that little kid who gets excited that daddy thought you did it well. It's weird I'm admitting it to you, but it's true."

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