The Actor Who Played Doctor by Playing Lawyer

One thing that has always been true about television is that once a show is dead, it's dead. Forget the CPR,
the paddles,the emergency surgery. There is no hope of reviving it.

Unless, apparently, you bring in the offbeat, idiosyncratic James Spader, give him an outlandish new character and set him loose for the first time on a television audience.

Then, it seems, you can pump so much new life into a seven-year-old, Emmy Award-winning drama like "The Practice" that its network, ABC, will enter active discussions about bringing the show back for yet another season next fall.

"The Practice" has provided ABC with a solid entry at 10 p.m. on Sundays this season, reversing the ratings collapse of last spring, when it was injudiciously moved to Monday nights. And Mr. Spader is being widely acknowledged as the principal reason viewers have given the show another chance.

"James Spader is performing a tour de force on 'The Practice' this season," said Lloyd Braun, the chairman of ABC Entertainment. "If he doesn't get nominated for an Emmy it would be a shame."

ABC may have a vested interest in touting Mr. Spader's performance, but many critics have been saying the same thing. Mr. Spader, 43, a well-regarded actor from unusual but memorable independent films like "Secretary," "Bad Influence" and "Crash," has taken control of "The Practice," playing a lawyer who works far outside the mainstream of legal etiquette and sometimes rational human behavior.

As in the time he vigorously urged a client accused of murder to "act a little nuts" in the courtroom to bolster his insanity defense. Or the time he posed as an airline executive and paid out of his own pocket a settlement that the airline didn't even knew about. Or the time he got into a a nose-to-nose argument with a stern gnome of a male judge only to utter at the moment of highest tension: "Judge, are you attracted to me?"

"I really like this guy," Mr. Spader said, sitting in a hotel room during a recent visit to New York, his words following the slightly off-meter rhythm he has employed to great effect in his characterizations.

Indeed, much of what Mr. Spader has shown on the screen is apparent in person: unexpected movements and gestures; a languidness that changes without warning to passion, marked by sudden rises in the volume of his voice. Though his hair has thinned and he has lost some of the dangerous handsomeness of his youth, he remains an actor who always seems to be trying to tweak convention.

That's certainly true of Alan Shore, a man who ignores virtually every stricture of the legal profession, but almost always in a noble cause - at least one he sees as noble. His misrepresentation in the airline case, for example, saved a colleague from being disbarred.

"I think he's endearing and appalling at the same time, at the same moment, really," Mr. Spader said. "I like him best when he's inappropriate with his appropriateness. He's the best friend you could have in the world, but he'll make your life hell at times." He has clearly helped make continued life possible for "The Practice." Last spring ABC had no reason to pay a high fee to retain the series.

As it happened, the show's creator, the prolific and prodigiously talented David E. Kelley, was so eager to have the show back that he found himself agreeing to much reduced financial terms from ABC.

"The show did so poorly on Monday nights it seemed like it was going out in a little bit of disgrace," Mr. Kelley said in a telephone interview. That seemed so wrong for a show that had once been so honored - it won the Emmy for outstanding drama series in 1998 and 1999 - that Mr. Kelley decided he wanted to fight to keep it alive.

The question was how. Mr. Kelley opted for radical surgery: writing a season finale that included an explosive conflict among the law partners, which created an opportunity to send several members of the firm - especially the actors making the most money - packing. They included Dylan McDermott and Lara Flynn Boyle, who did not learn they had been fired until after they flew to New York to take part in ABC's announcement of its new fall lineup. "That was really unfortunate," Mr. Kelley said. Mr. Kelley, who is known for inventing some of the quirkiest characters in television, was forming a plan for saving the show. "I knew I wanted a character that would bring more humor, as well as someone who could sort of puncture the righteousness of the characters still in the law firm," he said.

In another decision ABC considered crucial, Mr. Kelley committed to writing virtually all the episodes of the series this season - something he had not done for years. (This became far easier when his new CBS series, "The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire," was quickly canceled.)

The advantage of creating an Alan Shore so late in a series's run, Mr. Kelley said, was that he didn't have to worry about straining credulity as long as he only had to write him for a season or two. "At some point, if he kept doing these things, I'd have to have him get disbarred," Mr. Kelley said.

Mr. Kelley's requirements for the character - strange, weird, a little kinky yet compelling - were all but a synopsis of Mr. Spader's acting résumé. But Mr. Spader had never acted on television. He had never even seen "The Practice." Still, at their first meeting he liked what Mr. Kelley told him.

"He said he wanted humor and he said he wanted something provocative and something that was ever changing and something that was surprising," Mr. Spader said. "Something that was at odds with all precedent that had been set for seven years. And it all sounded fine to me."

As he spoke, Mr. Spader raised his voice in a slow crescendo, as though playing to the cheap seats. "I knew I was committing to the lion's share of a season, so I wanted to make sure we had no misunderstanding," he said. "I wanted to be clear about the fact that I wasn't going to shift from the eccentric to the norm because of this thing. And he reassured me that that was exactly why the heck he was calling me."

As Mr. Spader paints it, he more or less fell into acting: "I liked acting in the first place because it's a job you do after hours. In school it was fun. You're hanging out, you're meeting girls."

Mr. Spader dropped out of Philips Exeter Academy at 17 and went to New York seeking acting jobs, which he found. Early in his career, perhaps thanks to the Exeter pedigree, he mainly played smarmy preppies in films like "Pretty in Pink" and "Wall Street." Later his characters got deeper and kinkier, in films like "Crash" and, perhaps most memorably, "sex, lies and videotape."

But Mr. Spader said he had never had what he considered a breakthrough role. Instead he has had his roster of odd characters. "That's just the way it is with me," he said. "There's no question that when you have me and then you have another actor, you're going to get two different interpretations always, O.K.? You cast me in something Tom Hanks plays, I'm going to be a very different version."

© By BILL CARTER, New York Times/Sunday, 1/18/04 (Thank you, Susan!)


Published: January 25, 2004

In article last Sunday about the actor James Spader misstated his experience with television. While his current role in "The Practice" is his first as a series regular, he has indeed acted on television before, in movies and as ag uest star on other series. The article also misidentified the prep school Mr. Spader attended. It was Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., not Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.