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Behind the scenes of 'The Practice'

Sunday, February 07, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post- Gazette TV Editor

MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. -- Bottled water is the key to a good TV series. Or so it seems. Case in point (literally): A craft services cart on the set of ABC's "The Practice" is loaded with six cases of Arrowhead bottled water one morning in January. Before the clock strikes noon, it's down to five.

  Williams and recurring guest star Donal Logue (as A.D.A. Dick Flood) prepare to film a scene last week at the show's Manhattan Beach, Calif., Studio. (Lan Hekel photo)

With water as fuel, the cast is sustained for another day of long but rewarding hours.

Both "The Practice" and its sister series, Fox's "Ally McBeal," film at the new Raleigh Studios Manhattan Beach. The loopier, more comedic action of "Ally McBeal" takes place in one set of soundstages, with the more sober sets of "The Practice" housed across the parking lot on Stages 21 and 22.

Unlike a sitcom set that only has three walls - allowing the studio audience to peer in from the fourth side - Bobby Donnell's law firm on "The Practice" has four walls. It looks like a small building constructed on the floor of the mammoth soundstage.

While filming the episode titled "Of Human Bondage" (airing tonight at 10 on WTAE), camera operators are inside the enclosed set with the actors, but the director and 20 other production personnel watch the action on monitors just outside the door of the office's library set.

This is the last scene to be filmed for "Of Human Bondage" - each episode takes eight days - but it's the first scene in the episode and features six of the eight regular cast members.

As Ellenor (Camryn Manheim) heads off to defend a drug dealer, a woman (guest star Caroline Aaron) seeking a divorce attorney enters and approaches Lucy (Marla Sokoloff), the office receptionist.

"I'd like to hire a divorce attorney, the nastiest one you've got," the woman says.

"That would be Ellenor Frutt, who just left," Lucy replies. "This would be regarding?"

"Divorce. But I really don't want a woman. I'd like a, well, 'prick' is an offensive word, but it's the only one I can think of which truly captures ..."

"I know what you're saying, and Ellenor Frutt is definitely what you're looking for," Lucy says just before law firm chief Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott) enters the scene.

Steve harris, who stars as Eugene Young, gets his wardrobe adjusted by a men's set costumer Cindy Flowers. Makeup artist Roseanne McIlvane prepares to go to work. (Lan Hekel photo) 

Take after take, the actors repeat the scene, but with one word changed each time. In subsequent takes, Aaron says "dick" and "bastard" - presumably so the producers have different versions to float by ABC's Broadcast Standards and Practices department. Tune in tonight to see which one makes the cut.

After several takes, director Dwight Little calls out, "Checking the gate" - the cue that indicates he's happy with what he sees and is ready to move on. (In set lingo, "checking the gate" means to check the lens for lint before another setup.)

The scene isn't done yet. Additional reaction shots of the other characters in the office have to be filmed. This is called coverage.

"You want to get all the different angles so you can pick and choose your moments dramatically," says director of photography Dennis Smith. "It gives the flexibility to use part of one take with another take."

So they do the scene again, but instead of pointing the cameras at McDermott, Aaron and Sokoloff - the center of action in the scene - the two cameras get reaction shots of Kelli Williams (as Lindsay Dole) and LisaGay Hamilton (as Rebecca Washington) as they hear and see what's transpiring.

The actors perform the scene one last time with a camera pointed at Michael Badalucco (who plays Jimmy "The Grunt" Berluti) to get his reactions.

Smith, who worked on David E. Kelley's "Picket Fences," says "The Practice" has a visual look that's more reality-based with a harder edge. He says "Picket Fences" gave viewers a warmer feeling with more pastel colors.

The look may be different, but certain themes flow throughout Kelley shows. "Picket Fences" frequently focused on court cases, and Kelley excelled at writing both sides of an issue. He works the same even-handed magic on "The Practice."

"Sometimes you're in a world that's gray," says Dylan McDermott, who just won a Golden Globe for best actor in a drama series. "That's the essence of the show. You're in a moral dilemma constantly."

Co-star Lara Flynn Boyle agrees.

"Any subject matter that you have to either fight for or against, you may have an opinion on. But by the time I finish reading the script, it's so layered and the colors are so rich that it's easy to commit yourself to the position you have to take."

Robert Thompson, a professor of television studies at Syracuse University, says one of the appeals of these shows is Kelley's ability to lure viewers in on one side and then make them change their stance by simply presenting the opposing viewpoint.

"As a writer, he is an insufferable show-off," Thompson says. "It's like he's defying the viewer to think he can't get himself out of it, then he writes himself into a pyrotechnic flourish by the fourth act. I find it a pleasure to watch him show off, it's like a spectator sport."

While more and more viewers are tuning into "The Practice" on a weekly basis, the show's success was not assured until recently. It premiered in spring 1997 as a mid-season replacement, airing in the "NYPD Blue" slot for several weeks.

In the 1997-1998 season, ABC put "The Practice" on Saturday at 10 p.m., a move many feared would mean its demise. The show managed to build a small but loyal following and got promoted to Monday at 10 a year ago when "Monday Night Football" was finished. The ratings grew.

In September, the network scrapped its Sunday night movie and moved "The Practice" to Sunday at 10 p.m. More viewers began to tune in, and the show was finally back to a night that lent itself to water-cooler talk the next morning.

"That's the kind of show it is," says actor Michael Badalucco. "You come into work on Monday morning and say, 'Hey, did you watch 'The Practice' last night?' "

Actually, that's the reaction viewers have to every Kelley show. If CBS had given "Picket Fences" a better time slot, chances are it would have been a ratings success, too.

"The Practice" continues to gain popularity, but it already has prestige, winning an Emmy for best drama series and best supporting actress, Camryn Manheim, in September.

"To win [the Emmy] was such a morale booster," McDermott says. "We all work so hard, and we never gave up on ourselves, and we always thought we were one of the best shows on television. It was just such validation for all of us, because of the obstacles we had in the beginning of the show."

Manheim cemented her celebrity with the exclamation, "This is for all the fat girls!" at the Emmys. She almost didn't say it but gauged the audience's reaction to the win and decided the crowd was on her side.

"I could feel those people were really happy to see the underdog win," she said two weeks before picking up a Golden Globe. "It was the highlight of my life."

Before the Emmy win, Manheim said strangers would approach her as "that girl on that show." After a TV Guide cover story, she was called "that girl on 'The Prosecutors.' They'd always get the name wrong." After the Emmy win, people know who she is.

"I think it really penetrated the consciousness of popular culture," she says. Manheim's first book, "Wake Up, I'm Fat," will be released in May with a picture on the back cover of her hoisting the Emmy.

On many TV shows the stars have to retreat to trailers parked outside the soundstage where they film. At Manhattan Beach studios, the actors have their own comfortable dressing rooms inside the building, complete with sofa, TV, desk and bathroom.

LisaGay Hamilton returns to her dressing room between takes to chat with a reporter and say hello to her miniature schnauzer, Max.

When "The Practice" began, Hamilton was Donnell's receptionist, but at the beginning of this season it was revealed Rebecca had secretly gone to law school at night and passed the Bar exam.

"It was a challenge for [Kelley] to find ways to include the character of the receptionist, because she wasn't a lawyer, and it was a law show," Hamilton says. "I had concerns for what little I did on the show and he was responsive to that. He had to find an appropriate and unique way to include me in the fold, and I'm grateful he did."

As Rebecca, Hamilton plays the show's conscience, but she's far from perfect.

"It's great to have a character who has weaknesses and who has flaws," Hamilton says. "She's trying to find her way, and that's much more interesting than someone who knows their way."

The complexities of the characters are at the core of "The Practice." It's a law show, but it's not always about the law. Kelley says his goal is to get viewers invested in the well-being of the characters without asking the audience to commit to the cases.

"Most of the cases we delve into are more about the ethical or moral experiences of the characters and not about the intricacies of the law," he says. "Sometimes we do put the law on trial. The law is a very imperfect system and in finding those cracks we love to tell our stories."

Some critics complain the lawyers on "The Practice" bemoan their profession too often. Kelley says an upcoming episode should change that perception.

"We reveal the characters love it a lot more than they profess to," Kelley says. "It's nice for them to cleanse their consciences with words every once in a while, and then they keep going back and doing the same thing. So there must be something about the job they like."

The show's newest character, Lucy Hatcher (Mara Sokoloff), is a receptionist, not a lawyer. But Kelley says viewers have had strong reactions to her. That was the goal.

"We were looking for someone who could come in and, with one line, make an impression, either good or bad," Kelley explains. "Someone who could provoke or antagonize a little bit."

Lucy's certainly done that. She's been attacked by Ellenor and yelled at by just about everyone. Sokoloff, who is 18, said she realized early on that Lucy wouldn't be a character universally loved by viewers.

"It's not in her nature that she'll be a likable character," Sokoloff says. "I thought it was a good thing for a very serious show."

On the street, Sokoloff says she gets recognized more often for her role on "Party of Five," where she got Claudia Salinger to try cigarettes. She may get more recognition for "The Practice" as time goes on, especially as it becomes clear Lucy has a necessary place in the law firm.

"In addition to knowing everybody's business, she's actually a very efficient administrator," Kelley says. As the youngest member of the Donnell staff, Lucy would seem like the one who needs to be taken care of. But, ever so slowly, Kelley has revealed that she's pretty good at taking care of everyone else.

A tour of "The Practice" sets on Stage 21 with ABC publicist Annie Fort, a 1984 graduate of Shady Side Academy, reveals amazing attention to detail. All the windows in Donnell's office have frost etched around the edges. The back patio of Lindsay and Helen's apartment, which Fort says has never been seen up close, has leaves on it just as a real patio would.

The Suffolk County Courthouse set stands ready for filming on Stage 22. Bookshelves lined with law tomes await placement, but the books don't have pages. The innards are made of foam so they're lightweight and easier to move, Fort says.

As morning turns to noon, the craft services table back on Stage 22 gets a makeover. The 12 brands of cereal are replaced by deli meats and a big tray of soybeans - quite popular among "The Practice" cast and crew.

The bottled water supply continues to dwindle as production crew members begin work on scenes for the next episode.

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