The Ups and Downey of 'Ally McBeal'

or Prisoners of Love
By Dan Snierson
EW, Nov. 3rd, 2000

- Pulling off the casting coup of the season, Ally McBeal gives Calista Flockhart a formidable playmate in the fresh-from-prison Robert Downey, Jr. Will the duo's on-screen sizzle tip the ratings scales in the show's favour? -

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot…" a rosy-cheeked caroling crew is lip-syncing "Auld Lang Syne" as bundled-up Bostonians carrying holiday gifts brave frosty winter winds for the camera. Though we're in Los Angeles on a 60-degree early October afternoon, it's decidedly December on the set of 'Ally McBeal'. Red bows dot streetlamps, a perfectly rotund Santa Claus waves a Salvation Army bell, and here comes Calista Flockhart, filming a scene in which Ally huffs her way right by the festivities - only to whip around and angrily barrel right into the choir.

A few minutes later, the camera follows as she bah-hum-bugs down the tinsel-tinged street and nearly collides with a pedestrian. She shuffles right, then left, then looks up at the human roadblock. Hey, whaddaya know! It's Robert Downey Jr., looking rather dapper as the new kid in town: sharp-suited, whip-smart attorney Larry Paul.

"Larry!" exclaims our flummoxed heroine on cue, hitting him across the arm. "I was just on my way to see you."
"I was on my way to see you," volleys back Downey.
"You were?"
"They say it's a good sign when a couple can meet halfway."
Pause. "Are we a good couple?" she asks, oozing classic Ally doe-eyed hope and curled-lip heaviness.

And cut! Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we submit to you that Ms. McBeal has just posed the most scintillating, fascinating, befuddling, eye-popping question of the new television season.

But for those of you who've been sequestered of late, let us review: Already famous for its off-kilter plot devices (a nose whistle here, a dancing baby there) and its talented press magnet of a star, Fox's provocative lawyer dramedy practically jolted the mochaccino right out of Hollywood's hands with the Aug. 10 news that Mr. Downey had signed up to play Ally's love interest for at least eight episodes. Sure, big-deal movie stars have graced the small screen before: Bruce Willis popped up on Friends last season; Sally Field is taking a six-episode turn on ER this month. But never before has someone so undeniably controversial and cool - you might know him as Perhaps the Greatest Film Actor of His Generation or Prisoner #P50522 - taken to the tube like this. Yes, the verdict is in: Christmas has indeed arrived a few months early for "Ally McBeal".

In full-on pensive mode at a quaint Brentwood restaurant, Calista Flockhart pauses a lengthy 22 seconds while contemplating season 4 of her series. (And you though Ally was an introspective gal.) "So many things about the show have changed," she finally begins, adjusting her Krispy Kreme baseball hat. "We've lost two actors, we've gotten another one that's semipermanent at the moment, and new producers. On the one hand, it's difficult to break the ecosystem when it's very delicate. And when people leave, it can be very disruptive. But on the other hand, change is inevitable… and always turns out to be a good thing."

Some might say a very good thing: Last season, formerly enamored critics began charging that the show was growing too outlandish, with stuff like the hallucination-drenched death and subsequent ghostly sightings of Billy (the now-departed Gil Bellows), or Flockhart's character edging from endearingly neurotic to - uh, how should we put this? - a bit deranged. Viewers were also a tad turned off: The series slipped out of the top 20, losing 13 percent of its audience. A repackaged, half-hour version of the show dudded out on arrival. And another telling sign: After nabbing the best-comedy Emmy in 1999, "Ally" wasn't even nominated this year. (Cue cartoonish F/X shot of a dozen arrows plunging into the cast's hearts.)

"There's always that line with Ally," concedes creator David E. Kelley. "When you cross the line, it's just a little too crazy. There were a couple of episodes where we had pygmies chasing characters down the street. It was really no different conceptually that things we'd done in previous years as part of Ally's imaginary world, but I think the audience felt that it was a little too much. And they were probably right."

What's this? Mr. All-Powerful TV Guy showing a sign of weakness? Well, here's an even bigger admission from Kelley: The profoundly prolific auteur - who also lords over The Practice and the new Boston Public - has finally hired a writing staff for Ally! At least, we think he has. "I haven't met them , I haven't seen them, so I cannot confirm that for you," deadpans the 35-year-old Flockhart. "But I've been told they exist." All right, David, is this for real? "It's true," he insists, laughing. "I'm getting help."

And the scribes' first clear-cut mission will be to transform the titular emotional Chernobyl into a more confident woman who's less prone to meltdown now that she's hit the big 3-0. Although the show will still proudly fly its freak flag (look for Florence Henderson to drop by as the instructor of the very un-Brady course How to Satisfy Your Man), "the focus of the episodes will be more on their romantic centers than it was last year," hints Kelley. "The stories might be smaller in scope, but I think they're probably ultimately more appealing to the viewers." To that end, Ling (Lucy Liu) and Fish (Greg Germann) heat up their bizarro fling, the Biscuit (Peter MacNicol) acquires a new honey in guest star Anne Heche (hello, is it raining casting coups or what?), and after getting entangled in a "Crying Game" twist, firm newcomer Mark (James LeGros) winds up dipping his pen in the company ink with Elaine (Jane Krakowski).

But pity the pairing that tries to match the white-hotness of Flockhart's fusion with Downey. "It just smelled like a real good match," says Kelley. "Robert has this comedic tone that I thought was really organic to our show. We've had a very hard time finding love interest for Ally, and one of the reasons is that when you see Ally with a guy you just sort of [say], 'Uh-oh, he's not going to make it.' I think our audience is extremely protective of Ally - as are we - so whoever she's dating, he'd better be good enough."

No problem there. "I think he's inspired people to go the extra mile," says Flockhart of her new costar. "It's hard doing a show for four years. You get into patterns, you get into ways of doing things and everybody just kind of…I don't want to imply that things weren't good before, but the energy of somebody new coming in sends a little zuuushhhh!… sweet inspiration. Maybe he raised the bar a little bit."

The network definitely thinks so. "Ally" "is back to its glory," maintains Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman. "If it was ever off, it's certainly back now."
Actually, the jury is still out on that one. Although the show's Oct. 23 season debut drew glowing reviews and a solid 13.2 million viewers, up from last year's season average of 12 million, it wasn't quite a sweeping success. (The episode was down 17.5 percent from last season's debut, and the show was bested by ABC's Monday Night Football and CBS' Everybody Loves Raymond). And with Downey's story arc not taking off until episode 4, it may take a while to stoke the coals.

But, for what it's worth, the "Ally" folks already have fire in the belly. "We're back to telling the stories that everybody loved in the beginning and we're out to show everybody that we're back in that way," says Ally executive producer Bill D'Elia, who joined the show toward the end of last season. "So yeah, we do feel like there's something to show - and we're gonna show it, dammit!" Adds Ally co-executive producer Alice West in a mock growl: "We want those nominations back!"

Holed up in an upscale beach hotel just a few miles away from the "Ally" set, Downey hovers over a table full of stuff that's not good for him. "I am treating myself," he declares, rubbing his hands together, "because I am unwell." With that warning issued, he spears a forkful of fried zucchini sticks and submerges them in a cup of ranch dressing. Though he looks rather dashing with his slicked-bad hair and clean-shaven mug, apparently he's contracted "the make-out flu" from Flockhart (who, like several other "Ally" staffers, battled a virus that would briefly halt production) while shooting repetitive takes of a romantic scene. Not that he's complaining. "I don't want to sound too caution-to-the-wind," he says, "but I was like, 'Hey, you know, if I get it, I get it. We're making out. This is great."

It sure beats his last gig: a 12-month prison lockup (his second) for violating the drug-test conditions of his probation for a drugs-and-weapon-possession conviction. With his release on Aug. 2nd, a newly pumped-up Downey, 35, was eager to jump back in front of the kind of cameras not owned by the nightly news. So, two days later, he found himself sitting in Hollywood talent agency ICM with his agents, Ed Limato and Nick Styne. (Recalls Downey: "I was like, 'I'm in Ed's office. This is massive. Boy, it's nice to be out, they're offering me sodas. Very happy to see them.'") By the end of the casual reunion, the subject had eased into the increasing stream of movie role offers (biopics, dramas, comedies) that awaited Downey. Oh, yes, there were also some feelers from a little TV show called "Ally McBeal". For several years, Pam Wisne, president of Kelley's production company, had been pursuing Downey with little luck; strictly by coincidence, she'd had a long-scheduled meeting with Downey's handlers not 24 hours before the ICM reunion. "What can I say?" chuckles Wisne about her strategy, which she sums up as We're good! He'll want to come here!. "Maybe my naivete worked for me."

As fate would have it, Downey happened to be a casual fan of the show, though forced confinement had put a crimp in his "Ally" viewing. ("You know, the way the TV schedule went [in prison], there weren't many votes going that way," he notes. "Friends was huge. As a matter of fact, you know when the show starts, 'Da na na na na' and everyone claps? I swear to God, it was just like 75 thugs going 'Da na na na na life was gonna be this way' CLAPCLAPCLAPCLAP! 'Stop the clapping, dude! I've got kitchen at 4:30!' 'Shut the f--- up!'") Nevertheless, there was something intriguing, serendipitous, even logical about the Ally scenario. For starters, the part (approaching $100,000 an episode) would start almost immediately. And compared with the nomadic job-to-job situation in feature films, a weekly TV role could provide a solid, supportive base for his recovery; Kelley's production company even sponsors 12-step meetings on his studio lot.

And for a guy who's tackled more than his share of dark dudes (recently in US Marshals and In Dreams), Downey liked the idea of assuming an effervescent, nice-guy character as his first role back. True, there may have been a little PR-image rehab going on here, but he says it was primarily for a very select demographic: his 6-year-old son. "Indio was like, 'Dad, are you gonna play a good guy next time?'" coos Downey, imitating the tyke. "And I was like, 'You bet!'" He pauses in the unexpected sweetness of the moment, then adds: "But it wasn't like I went to him and said, 'Indio, you can really relax now - Daddy's playing a lawyer!'"

Just in case you're wondering, no, the rich ironies of playing a servant of the court weren't lost on him. In fact, Downey says that when he walked into Ally's courtroom set for the first time, "it was like a triple Ionesco thing of playinga lawyer on a TV show. It was so nice to go into this fake courtroom. I immediately went up into the judge's chair. Nice view. A preferable perspective."

While Downey was having an out-of-body experience, imagine how the rest of the cast reacted after hearing that a certain Academy Award nominee/ex-con would be joining their squad. "I though they were kidding," insists Germann. "I thought, 'That's the thing he's gonna chose? To be with us???' I really did. I couldn't believe that he would want to be with us - not to put us down. When it was confirmed, I was thrilled. It's like, 'She wants to go out with me??? Are you sure??? Wait, have a look at my picture again. Now, does she still want to go out with me? She does??? Okay, great! I'll go! I'll go!'"

Not everyone in town took the news with such elation, though. "It would be fair to say that I heard from many, many different producers and network executives on many shows," says ICM's Styne. "They were somewhat angry - why hadn't we thought of them, aren't we friends, et cetera. And I responded with 'Do you think we sat in a room and really said, 'Which television show should Robert go on?' This was a lot [about] David Kelley, and something that Robert felt right with."

Jealous execs be damned, Downey seems quite happy in Allyland. When the cameras are off, he and Flockhart can be seen playfully poking each other, applying makeup to the other's cheeks and just generally goofing off. And when the cameras are running - watch out. "Whenever he comes into the room and we begin the scene, you just know that something is going to happen," says Flockhart. "He's not an actor that's going to be bullied into conformity. There's just something so uninhibited and so free and so uncensored about him. And he's unequivocally bright and smart, so that combination is deadly."

Not one to be outdone, Downey calls Flockhart "the crème de la crème of actresses. There's an everunfolding - I don't want to say repartee - but kind of subliminal commentary going on. She's so fast and she's so freakin' smart that I can go somewhere with her and then she'll read that and take it down some Stuttgart side alley, somewhere weird, you know what I mean? I just feel like it's great to be able to be paid to play with her."

Hold on, there's more love to go around here. "I was fortunate enough to direct the first scenes with those two," raves D'Elia, "and it felt like I was back in the '40s, making an old romantic comedy." All right, anyone else? "Calista is the best light comedienne there is right now," offers Germann. "And the two of them together - there's a little Cary Grant-Carole Lombard thing going on. It's sweet, it's funny, it's fast, it's smart, and it pulls at your heartstrings all at one time."

Still, as we must ask skeptically with all of Ally's romances, just how long will this one last? Considering that Downey's eight-episode contract expires in a few weeks (and he wants to squeeze in a movie before the looming strike occurs), we wouldn't start scouring the Williams-Sonoma registries just yet. The folks at Ally say they'll employ any reasonable tactic to keep him around ("I thought about skywriting," says D'Elia), though they're perfectly prepared to continue without him. "We're very aware of what the show is," notes D'Elia. "We didn't just say, 'Okay, we now have Robert Downey Jr., [let's] change the complexion of the show.' It's a pretty deep, talented, rich cast and there's plenty of stories to tell."

With or without Ally, meanwhile, Downey must continue his journey on the steep, S-curved road to recovery. (Even in this jaded town, though, a healthy majority seem to want him to succeed: "When we have lunch or something," notes Wisne, "all kinds of people come up to him, saying, 'Now you do it this time! And good luck to you!'") He speaks, wide-eyed, about spending more time with his son (Downey is estranged from Indio's mom, Deborah Falconer), and beams while discussing efforts to clean up his life in all respects. "I'm very much into organizing," he reports proudly. "I find such great peace in getting my little clothes out the night before work. I mean, to watch me, you would think I probably have OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder], but it's not really like that. It's meditation."

Chilling on the hotel patio as a perfectly pleasant October days wanes, Downey remains cautiously optimistic about the future. "For whatever reason, I felt I had to have something more. And I chose to believe that I found that something in drugs," he stays, staring through his shades at the serene California seascape. "But this is the buzz. We're sitting out here, the sun is hot, and I've created zero wreckage today - and I intend to create no more." ---

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