Exclusive Interview: 'Boston Legal' Executive Producer Bill D'Elia
Exclusive Interview: 'Boston Legal' Executive Producer Bill D'Elia
John Kubicek
John Kubicek
Senior Writer, BuddyTV
Boston Legal began its fourth season last week with a two-part episode that concludes this evening. A while back, BuddyTV spoke with executive producer Bill D'Elia about the show. It was the week before the Emmy awards, and though Boston Legal didn't win for Outstanding Drama Series, nor did D'Elia win for Outstanding Direction, the show did take home another win for James Spader.

We spoke to Bill D'Elia about whether the show is a comedy or a drama, how “Son of the Defender,” the episode he was nominated for directing, came about, and what changes the new cast will bring to the show. Below you will find a transcript of the interview as well as the mp3 audio file.

Hi, this is John from Buddy TV, and we're talking to Bill D'Elia, one of the executive producers of Boston Legal. How you doing, Bill?

I'm doing very well. Thank you, John.

A lot of people were surprised by the show's nomination. And at least from my standpoint, I think a lot of it has to do with category placement. There's this debate as to whether or not Boston Legal is a drama or comedy. How do you address those issues of 'Oh, it should be nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series'?

Well the truth is, we debated ourselves. I don't think there's a season that's gone by yet, where we have not discussed what category we should be in. And it's not an easy thing for us to even pick, because we do feel we are competitive in either category, although every season we seem to come down on the side of drama. Because as silly as the show might get, as funny as the show certainly is, we feel we're still rooted in the dramatic structure of telling stories.

I think what you call the controversy of the show being nominated in Drama, just sort of stems from the fact that if you are a casual viewer of this show and you would tune in on any particular Tuesday evening, I think you might see an episode that's quite ridiculous or quite funny. And you might tune in to an episode that's quite dramatic and quite serious. So there's the question, I think, to some people, and I think it's the people that don't really watch every episode, there's this question of tone. What are we? That seems silly, that seemed very serious, and how do you mesh those two?

But I think if you were to watch us every week, you'd see a consistent through-line that probably skews more to the dramatic than the comedic.

I'd have to agree with that, especially like Christian Clemenson's character, Jerry Espenson. It's a very colorful and over-the-top character, but there's a real dramatic, true emotional heart that resonates if you get the whole character arc.

Well yeah, that's a pretty good example. I mean, there's a character that on the surface of it, looks so over-the-top and silly. But the truth is, we're dealing with a very serious issue, in what that character is dealing with, which is Asperger's syndrome. And we don't make light of it, we don't make fun of it. It just is, and it's something that we'll examine. We'll examine Denny Crane suffering from Alzheimer's, or he's just being ridiculous.

We examine these things, but we're always aware of trying to entertain as well. I think what makes the show frankly Emmy-worthy, is that we don't follow any particular formula. We do deal with real issues, be they political, moral, ethical, personal that reflect what's going on in society today.

Agreed. And for you in particular, speaking of the more dramatic turns, you're nominated for directing an episode of Boston Legal as well, “Son of the Defender.” I was a huge fan of that episode. You integrated old clips of William Shatner, and a young William Shatner's performance in a show called The Defenders, correct?

Yeah, it was a two-hour live broadcast called The Defenders, yeah. No, I'm not certain actually, it may have been called The Defender. Because the TV series that it eventually became was called The Defenders, yeah, I think that's correct. Bill and Ralph Bellamy played the two roles. Ralph Bellamy played Bill's dad in that live broadcast, which eventually became the TV series The Defenders with Robert Reed and E.G. Marshall.

One of our writers, Phoef Sutton found this DVD of a really cleaned-up kinescope of the live broadcast. He wove this story around Shatner's character Denny Crane and his dad, and used some of that footage. It was quite a unique idea for us to build an episode around. I'm very proud of the nomination on another level in that the entire episode took place basically in two rooms.

One room where Denny was hold hostage with six or eight other people, and the other a jail cell where James was held with a client and a state senator. The drama unfolded in these two very confined rooms, where very little movement could take place with regard to the people walking around. And then to be nominated for something that was, you know, that could've been so still, and for it to be recognized, it truly worked.

Definitely. And moving away from the Emmys for a moment, the other big news I think this summer for your show is obviously with casting. Several cast members are departing, and several new cast members are coming in.

Right. Well you know, one of the tough calls really between seasons 3 and 4 is what we're talking about, is that there were some character arcs, some character development that we felt we had sort of played out and boxed ourselves into a corner about what to do next. It's the life of a series where these things kind of happen, and you have to kind of keep the show as fresh as possible while maintaining its original quality.

You never want people to be able to tune in and say, “Oh, I saw that before.” When it came to Brad Chase and Denise's character, you know, Julie Bowen and Mark Valley's characters, having gone through their marriage and then the birth of a baby. There were storylines that would have the necessity, had to been dealt with that we didn't feel we could travel down certain roads and then with Rene Auberjonois, it was fairly similar, that we were kept hoping, although we had some really terrific stories along the way with him and Julie and Mark.

We just felt that we had kind of run the course of telling stories with those people on a regular basis. We're hoping to keep them alive in our world. So we just sort of made a little bit of a shift that brought in Tara Summers, who's playing a very young associate, a character we've not quite had before, this is her first job in a law firm. Saffron Burrows is a former love interest to Alan Shore's.

And also Taraji Henson, who comes in in the fourth episode as a tough litigator who worked with the fourth new member, John Larroquette, who comes in and who reorganized Crane, Poole and Schmidt. He was formerly in the New York office, and he has a very strong and not a positive background with Denny Crane.

With the fourth season, I'm wondering what kind of stories are you tackling? Are there any kind of, 'cause this summer's been full of hot button political issues. Are some of the real life things bleeding into some of the stories?

Yeah, we'll always do things like that. One of the things that David has mentioned in the past, is that our series started, took on this life of being the gadfly that stings the state, if you will, because there seems to be a lack of dissent in this country over the last several years. We feel almost like there's been a lot more dissent since the last election. Maybe that affords us an ability to be not be as noisy as we have been in the past. So we'll always kind of take the temperature of what's going on out there, and try to reflect it in some way.

OK. And I'm just wondering, what kinds of guest stars can we expect? Especially some of the recurring ones that you've had on for a while, especially the judges like Shelley Berman and Henry Gibson.

Shelley and Henry are permanent members of this universe, and again it gives us, these characters, so good. We're also bringing in Chuck McCann this year, and they're so good that they allow us to again tell very serious stories. But through creating very specific human beings occupying that bench, we can make these stories very entertaining as well, that's what we try to do.


-Interview conducted by John Kubicek
(Image courtesy of ABC)

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