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One thing television producers can never fully prepare themselves for is the availability of the actors starring in their series. As I’ve detailed in a number of TV legends over the years, shows have lost lead characters through a variety of circumstances, and their responses have been all over the map, from the the 1970s Western that didn’t even take a break in filming when one of its two leads killed himself to the 1960s science fiction sitcom in which the lead actor quit 20 episodes into the first season, resulting in the wacky neighbor suddenly taking over as the guardian of a sexy android. That was the challenge posed to David E. Kelley in 2001 when he suddenly didn’t have access to actor Robert Downey Jr. for Ally McBeal‘s Season 4 finale — an episode in which his character was to marry Ally McBeal! How did Kelley get out of it?
Few shows have run quite as hot and as cold as Ally McBeal. The comedy-drama, about a neurotic lawyer working in a wacky law firm, made stars of Calista Flockhart, Jane Krakowski, Portia de Rossi and Lucy Liu and revitalized the career of Peter MacNicol. The show was a massive hit upon its premiere in the 1997-98 season and won the Emmy Award for Best Comedy Series after just its second season. (Kelley had quite a 1998-99 TV season, writing every episode of Ally McBeal‘s second season and every episode of the third season of The Practice. Ally McBeal won the Emmy for Best Comedy and The Practice won the Emmy for Best Drama. I doubt you will ever see that achievement duplicated again). It was so popular that in its third season, Fox even debuted a half-hour version of the show called just Ally, a combination of unaired scenes from the first two seasons mixed with edited episodes that cut out the courtroom scenes so that the show was just a workplace sitcom. It was a major flop and canceled after 10 episodes, but just the fact the network thought it could pull that off demonstrates just how popular the show was coming into Season 3.
Coupled with the failure of Ally, the buzz around the series cooled off rather dramatically in the third season (it received just three Emmy nominations for Season 3 after 13 for Season 2 and 10 for Season 1), although the ratings were still solid. Luckily for Kelley, while the show needed help regaining its buzz, there also happened to be a name actor who could use a hand.
Talented movie star Robert Downey Jr. spent pretty much all of the late 1990s fighting drug addiction, eventually serving almost a year in prison beginning in 1999. Within a week of his release on probation, Downey signed on to Ally McBeal, presumably in an attempt to rehabilitate his image (as well as to keep the show’s ratings from dropping). He joined the cast for the fourth season, playing Ally’s new boyfriend Larry.
The move was a critical and commercial success, and the show was once more buzz-worthy, garnering headlines just like it did in the first two seasons.
While everything was going well on the show, the same couldn’t be said for Downey’s personal life. He was miserable being “stuck” doing television (he didn’t have a problem with the show or his co-stars, he just hated the 9 to 5 work atmosphere after the much more flexible schedule of film) and his drug use continued. He got caught with drugs again in November 2000, but while awaiting the hearing, he continued acting on Ally McBeal. However, in April 2001, with the filming finished on all but one episode of the season, Downey was arrested once again for drug use, although he wasn’t charged (he was on cocaine at the time, though).
That was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, and Downey was fired from Ally McBeal, either by Kelley or by higher-ups at Fox forcing Kelley to let him go. The public statement was that it was Kelley’s decision, but certain aspects of the situation seemed to suggest otherwise, including the fact that in the last episode Downey filmed, the penultimate episode of the season, his character got engaged to Ally McBeal. Yes, the relationship between Larry and Ally had proved so successful that Kelley planned to have the two marry in the Season 4 finale.
Now with Downey out of the picture, the penultimate episode, “Home Again,” had to be severely rewritten by a peeved Kelley to go from an episode in which Larry proposes to Ally to one in which Larry INTENDS to propose to her but instead ends their relationship. In a nod to the original plot (and perhaps another sign that Kelley didn’t agree with the decision to can Downey), the finale kept its original title, and was called “The Wedding,” even though, of course, there was no wedding in it. (Interestingly enough, the new plot for the episode involved a young man suing a girl for not fulfilling her promise to go to the prom. Ally ends up attending with the young man, who sings at the prom. That young man? Josh Groban, in a role he credits for helping to launch his music career.)
The departure of Downey (and a few other notable cast members, like Lucy Liu and Peter MacNicol) was the end of Ally McBeal’s days of being a talked-about show (it received seven Emmy nominations for Season 4, with MacNicol beating out Downey for Best Supporting Actor, but none for Season 5), and it limped to the finish line with its fifth and final season being its lowest-rated.
Downey, meanwhile, after being sentenced to drug rehabilitation and three years of parole (luckily for him, the laws in California heavily decreased in severity following his original drug arrests, or else he would have been sent back to prison) eventually resurrected his career, most notably with his performances as Tony Stark in the blockbuster Iron Man films and The Avengers and as Sherlock Holmes in the hit Sherlock Holmes films (plus he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 2008 for the comedy Tropic Thunder).
So while Downey is likely not thinking much about “What If…?”s, I’m sure many Ally McBeal fans are!
The legend is …
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