For everything that can be said about Ally McBeal, its uniqueness can’t be argued. David E. Kelley’s legal dramedy was the talk of the country in the final few years of the 20th century with its dancing babies and (controversially) willowy stars. Here are some things you might not have known about the series that launched the careers of Calista Flockhart, Portia de Rossi, Lucy Liu, and Jane Krakowski.
1. IT WAS CREATED TO BE ON AFTER MELROSE PLACE.
With the promise of full creative control, Fox asked David E. Kelley—whose legal drama The Practice debuted six months before Ally McBeal—to create a show that would keep females in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic from changing the channel after Melrose Place on Monday nights. Their general directive was to create a show about “young, ambitious, and sexually supercharged business executives.” The former lawyer decided to make his characters attorneys.
2. BRIDGET FONDA WAS OFFERED THE ROLE OF ALLY.
In 1999 Fonda said she "refused to read the script for fear I might really like it. I’ve never wanted to do TV. I love feature films too much.”
3. FLOCKHART WAS TIRED AT HER AUDITION.
The stage actress was one of “hundreds” of actresses who tried out for the part (including Lara Flynn Boyle). "I was jet-lagged and tired, so I just went in there and thought, 'Well, whatever happens, happens,'" Flockhart told People Magazine in 1998. "When she walked in on a cold reading, she just was Ally," Kelley added.
4. FLOCKHART AND GIL BELLOWS ALREADY KNEW EACH OTHER.
Before the role of Billy—Ally's ex-turned-boss—was cast, the producers wanted Gil Bellows and Flockhart (who had already been cast as Ally) to read together. "I knew Calista from New York and knew she was a great actress," Bellows told MovieWeb. "They said they'd like to see us in a room together, so we met up ... and we had a scene together and then just sat side by side and talked a little bit." The next day Bellows was told to "hop on a plane and come shoot the pilot." Even though Bellows initially only signed a one-year contract, his character stayed for three.
5. "TELL HIM" WAS ORIGINALLY GOING TO BE THE THEME SONG.
Kelley wanted Vonda Shepard’s cover of the 1962 Bert Berns song "Tell Him" to kick off the episodes; Shepard and her manager were hoping that Kelley would choose her original song, “Searching My Soul,” instead. After speeding the song up and cutting it down to one minute, Kelley changed his mind and did just that.
"Searching My Soul" had been released by Shepard in 1991 who, after recording two albums for Warner Bros., was dropped by the label. Fortunately for her, Kelley was a fan.
6. THE DANCING BABY WAS ON THE WEB BEFORE IT WAS ON THE SHOW.
The dancing baby was born in 1996, when Michael Girard wanted to display the capabilities of his animation software product, Kinetix Character Studio. When an Ally McBeal executive producer saw it, he knew it would work for the show as a way to acknowledge Ally’s biological clock.
7. ALLY WAS ON A COVER OF TIME MAGAZINE THAT ASKED IF FEMINISM WAS DEAD.
A few months after Newsweek called her "the quintessential postfeminist,” TIME’s June 29, 1998 cover—which featured the faces of Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Ally McBeal—posed the question: Is feminism dead? In a season two episode, Ally told John Cage (Peter MacNicol) that she had a dream she was on the cover of TIME as "the face of feminism."
8. PORTIA DE ROSSI WAS AN ACCIDENTAL METHOD ACTOR.
De Rossi had studied law at the University of Melbourne. Her interest in law disappeared once her acting career got going and she subsequently moved from Australia to Los Angeles. In 1998, she joined the show and got her big break in Hollywood as attorney Nelle Porter.
9. LUCY LIU’S MANAGER MADE HER PLAY LING WOO.
Liu initially auditioned to play Nelle. Even though Kelley liked her enough that he created the character of Ling Woo for her, Liu was set on taking a role in a play over what was initially going to just be a one-time appearance. Her manager thought otherwise: "She told me I was going to pass on the play that time and I was going to do this show, and that was that," Liu told Metro in 2014. "Then, of course, it became such a part of the zeitgeist and changed my career."
10. FOR A SHORT TIME THERE WAS A HALF-HOUR SITCOM VERSION OF THE SHOW.
In 1999, Fox ran Ally—a show that re-edited previous episodes into 30-minute installments, cutting out the courtroom stuff and adding in some unused scenes in the process. (The hope was that a 30-minute version had a better chance at syndication.) Less than half of its regular one-hour audience tuned in, so it was canceled after 10 episodes.
11. COURTNEY THORNE-SMITH QUIT THE SHOW BECAUSE SHE WASN’T EATING ENOUGH.
The actress who played Georgia Thomas admitted she pushed herself too hard to look thin for the show. "I started undereating, overexercising, pushing myself too hard, and brutalizing my immune system," she told US Weekly. "The amount of time I spent thinking about food and being upset about my body was insane."
12. LISA NICOLE CARSON BATTLED WITH BIPOLAR DISORDER.
After Carson had a breakdown in a hotel room, the McBeal and ER actress was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Given medication, she returned to work on the show and told Essence that "Everybody on the show was wonderful to me, but my contract wasn’t renewed for the final season. Nobody gave me an explanation, but I assumed it had to do with what had happened. I was devastated."
13. ALLY WAS SUPPOSED TO MARRY ROBERT DOWNEY JR.
In season four, Robert Downey Jr. joined the series as lawyer Larry Paul, who was supposed to marry Ally in the season finale. The title of the episode in question—"The Wedding"—remained, even after Downey was arrested on a drug-related charge and Kelley was forced to re-write “The Wedding” entirely, without Downey's presence.
14. DOWNEY JR.’S LOSS WAS JOSH GROBAN’S GAIN.
The rewritten version of "The Wedding" centered around a high school student (played by Josh Groban) suing a girl for dumping him as a prom date. Groban’s singing performance at the end of the episode led to three interview requests the following morning; they were his first three interviews ever.
15. KELLEY WROTE OR CO-WROTE ALL BUT ONE EPISODE.
The season five episode “Blowin’ in the Wind” was the lone episode out of the series' 112 installments where Kelley didn’t receive a writing credit. He tended to write each episode on yellow legal pads, in four days.