ABC wrapped up its two-day gig at the Television Critics Assoc. press tour in Hollywood on Tuesday with one of the most hotly-anticipated sessions of the event: The Practice panel, during which David E. Kelley would address for the first time his decision to jettison half of the cast in one of the most dramatic overhauls of a drama series to date. Sadly, the press conference was scheduled for 4 pm/PT, and the day's only other exciting offering was a special lunch celebrating One Life to Live's 35th anniversary. Of course, this being press tour, some of the most thrilling moments come when you least expect it. Here's my minute-by-minute guide to all the day's highlights:
9:50 am We're 20 minutes into the session for It's All Relative, a sitcom about a gay couple who discover their daughter is marrying into a family of right-wingers, and someone compares this half-baked comedy to All in the Family and The Honeymooners. This makes me very angry.
9:55 am Comic-actor Lenny Clarke (The Job) gives us the first clue as to why producers cast him as Mace O'Neil, the show's conservative patriarch. "I was a Democrat all my life — until I made money. I'm not giving it away any more."
10:05 am Co-star Chris Sieber (he plays one of the gay dads) whispers something into the ear of executive producer Craig Zadan (Chicago), and they both laugh knowingly. Sieber then turns to his right and whispers the same thing to castmate John Benjamin Hickey (the other gay dad), and he too smiles knowingly. (Note to self: Wait until they all get drunk at ABC's all-star party tonight, and try and find out what the big secret is.)
10:09 am Lenny Clarke gives us the second clue as to why producers cast him as Mace O'Neil, the show's conservative patriarch. Reacting to the Supreme Court's recent decision to overturn the ban on gay sex, he groans, "You can [expletive] a man in the [expletive], but I can't smoke a cigar!"
10:38 am The session for the new Elmore Leonard-inspired spy drama Karen Sisco begins and... wow, Carla Gugino has great legs.
11:10 am Executive producer Danny DeVito reveals that he may make an appearance on the show at some point.
11:15 am Carla Gugino has really great legs.
11:20 am The Sisco session ends, and I approach producer Bob Brush, who wrote and produced one of my favorite shows of all time — The Wonder Years. I thank him for bringing Winnie and Kevin into my life.
11:38 am The panel for L.A. Dragnet commences and... ohmygawd, that's Al Bundy!!!!
12:07 pm Executive producer Dick Wolf loses some credibility points when he suggests that during the show's brief first season, Ed O'Neil (aka Joe Friday) established himself as "one of the iconic cops on TV."
12:20 pm I head off to the One Life to Live luncheon to mingle with the likes of Blair, Nora, Kevin and Jessica.
12:45 pm Kassie DePaiva (Blair) walks over to my table and introduces herself to me and my colleague, Daniel "Party Boy" Coleridge. That was nice of her, we agree. She must like mouthy journalists, since she plays one on TV.
3:25 pm At the session for Married to the Kellys, a harmless fish-out-of-water sitcom set in Kansas and starring Breckin Meyer, yet another reporter inexplicably accuses exec producer Tom Hertz of reinforcing Middle-American stereotypes in the pilot. Geez, lighten up, people.
3:31 pm Breckin Meyer jokingly gives the finger to a journalist who accuses him of intentionally omitting from his ABC bio any mention of his late, much-maligned NBC comedy Inside Schwartz.
3:35 pm Why is Breckin smiling at me from the stage? Should I smile back? This is weird.
3:37 pm I realize Breckin is actually smiling at his posse of publicists, who are sitting directly behind me. Thank God I didn't wave at him.
4:04 pm The Practice session begins, and for the first time since ABC's portion of the press tour kicked off, the house is packed. Returning cast members Michael Badalucco, Steve Harris, Camryn Manheim and Jessica Capshaw are joined by new recruit James Spader and exec producer David E. Kelley. The anticipation level is high to say the least.
4:05 pm Kelley makes his first comments about the cast exodus, explaining that the "economic realities" — ABC dramatically slashed the show's license fee — "dictated that we would have to make cuts, so we did." (The pink-slipped regulars were Dylan McDermott, Lara Flynn Boyle, Kelli Williams, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Marla Sokoloff and Chyler Leigh.)
4:07 pm Kelley concedes that the cast shake-up, in addition to being a money-saver, has another upside. "Creatively, I knew that the show had to be re-energized."
4:10 pm Yours truly asks Kelley the following question: "How did you go about deciding which actors to keep and which actors to let go? And what's the latest on Sharon Stone coming on board?" He answers: "It was very, very difficult. I sat down and thought about the future of the series... All of the decisions were creatively driven, with the exception of Dylan. [He] had such a deal in place that it was pretty much prohibitive to bring him back under our current fee structure. And as far as Sharon Stone is concerned, we're still in final negotiations with her. We expect that she will come on board for three episodes, probably toward the beginning of the season."
4:13 pm Kelley is asked what it was like calling Dylan, Lara and Co., informing them that although the show was coming back, they weren't. "That was probably the toughest day [for me], career-wise," he says, "and that includes getting calls that your show was cancelled. It was very tough."
4:27 pm Kelley reveals that not all of the fired actors took the news in stride. "I think Dylan was probably the most upset," he says, "because he had just been brought to New York and put on stage [for ABC's fall presentation to advertisers], only to hear three days later his character wasn't coming back. So, he expressed his disappointment with that, and I certainly didn't take issue with it."
4:41 pm Kelley says that the popularity of Fox's Joe Millionaire — which butchered the legal drama on Mondays last season — only fueled his hatred of reality TV. Still, he admits he decided to check out the competition one night, a move he would live to regret. "My wife [Michelle Pfeiffer] was reading a book and I put it on, and she looked up about 10 minutes into it and says, 'What are you watching?' And I said, 'You know, it's our competition against The Practice. I would at least like to know what it is.' About 10 minutes after that, I picked up the remote to change the channel and she said, 'Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. I want to see if that bitch comes back.'" Turns out there is a cooler celeb on the planet than Kelly Ripa — and her name is Michelle Pfeiffer.Coming up Thursday: Day One of Fox. For Day One of ABC's press tour, click here. For a recap of the WB's big day, click here.