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Tuned In: 'Ally McBeal' actor comes back from the dead...sort of

Thursday, November 12, 1998

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

He's alive!

No, he's dead.

Rob Owen 


Monday's "Ally McBeal" was a bit confusing for those aware character actor Phil Leeds died of pneumonia this summer. There he was playing Judge Happy Boyle in an episode filmed after his death in August. Then Happy died in the midst of a court case.

"Ally McBeal" co-executive producer Jonathan Pontell, who directed Monday's episode, said the case of the woman with orange skin (you had to see it) was intended to be part of September's second season premiere. Leeds filmed his courtroom scenes for that episode just before his death.

But the season premiere (dedicated to Leeds' memory) ran six minutes long, and series creator David E. Kelley felt other stories needed more attention. So the orange woman case was cut. For Monday's episode, scenes of Happy Boyle presiding over that case were edited together with an unused shot from last season where he falls asleep on the bench (but instead of sleeping, he died). The shot where he asks to see the orange woman's teeth was reused from a first season episode where he asked to see Ally's teeth.

"We put it all together to make a real kind of patchwork scene where he actually dies," Pontell said in an interview late Tuesday from the set in Manhattan Beach, Calif. "It was a real tribute to Phil. We really liked him quite a bit, and I think David felt he wanted to give him a proper send-off."

Monday's episode also marked the return of multiple special effect scenes representing Ally's imagination. Pontell said the effects come and go depending on the nature of the episode.

"They're very time-consuming," he said. "You can wind up with two or three seconds of screen time and spend two or three hours shooting it. But I know people generally like those fantasies."

Pontell said newcomers Portia de Rossi (lawyer Nelle Porter) and Lucy Liu (Richard's new girlfriend, Ling Woo) will soon be added to the opening credits. But never fear, the show's original cast won't be ignored.

"We have a Georgia A-story coming up shortly," Pontell said. "The additions give David more places to go to. Calista worked very hard last season and I think this will give her a little relief, too."

Pontell said speculation that the thin Flockhart suffers from an eating disorder has taken its toll.

"It's not true that any publicity is good publicity," he said. "The prurient interest is getting a little old and we sort of hope that goes away. It's been hard on her."

Then there's Kelley's fixation with frogs. In recent episodes, John "The Biscuit" Cage (Peter MacNicol) has seen his beloved pet frog Stefan straddle the line between life and death before finally winding up on Cage's plate at a Chinese restaurant. Now Stefan is definitely dead.

One episode had Cage singing "Be a Frog," first heard in an episode of Kelley's "Picket Fences" with guest star Michael Jeter as "The Frog Man."

"This goes back a long way," Pontell said. "David did a wonderful episode of 'L.A. Law' called 'On the Toad Again' about a certain toad that excretes some kind of substance that people lick and get very high from. I don't know where it comes from, but this is the third permutation of frogs."

Cage still has a replacement frog, Millie, but viewers may not see her for a while.

"There are no immediate plans for Millie," Pontell said. "I think everybody's a little frogged out."

TV 101: What I learned watching local TV news during the past week:

Do not set the sofa on fire. It will burn. (WPXI)

Buying generic products and using coupons saves money. (WPXI)

Kids are watching less TV, but one small child in Westmoreland County still loves Channel 2. (KDKA)

Nothing is private. (KDKA)

The price of butter is up. (KDKA)

Some high school students aren't having sex. They formed a "virgin club." (WPGH, WPXI, KDKA)

That last one was most interesting to me, simply because of the way it spread from one station to another. I saw it Friday on WPGH and Monday WPXI and KDKA chimed in with reports. TV stations and newspapers grab ideas from one another all the time (and this was a particularly good story for teens to see); it's just less likely to happen on TV with a feature story. But I guess sex - or lack thereof - sells.

Among the time-filling blather, WTAE and KDKA both had intriguing investigative pieces.

WTAE reporter Jim Parsons looked at "Dangerous Dams" and found that some in the area pose a threat according to government reports. My one quibble: Parsons told viewers "there could be one in your neighborhood" in an unnecessarily ominous voice.

KDKA's Paul Martino did a "fleecing of Pennsylvania" report on an airport built near a congressman's home that serves only six private planes each day.

KDKA's Andy Sheehan followed sanitation crews and found they were working fewer hours than they're paid to work.

I had a mixed reaction to two other sweeps features.

On WTAE, Mike Clark reported on how easy it is for teens to order alcohol over the Internet. The report was done responsibly, but you could question whether it simply taught kids a new way to get booze they may not have previously considered.

The report aired Friday at 11 p.m., so maybe the thinking was kids would be out at high school football games. Since kids are savvy Net users, chances are some have already figured out they can order alcohol online. But some is not all. That's a tough one: Should a news organization inform parents at the risk of teaching kids bad behavior or keep quiet and leave parents uninformed?

WPXI's David Johnson reported on children targeted by marketers online. It's useful to let parents know their kids may be asked to fill out a survey at some Web sites, but the report tried to link the collection of marketing data with pedophiles, which may have been a stretch. If a pedophile really was trolling through marketing data, he'd already know the particulars of a family from information collected on the parents.

Rob Owen can be reached at (412) 263-2582 or

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