When Dylan McDermott, FCLC ’83, was offered the part of criminal defense attorney Bobby Donnell in David E. Kelly’s TV series The Practice, he knew it was a special role and a fantastic opportunity.
There was only one problem. No one wanted him to take it.
“My agent at the time, my manager at the time, my publicist at the time, my lawyer at the time, they all said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t do this show.’ But I just had a huge instinct on this,” McDermott recalled.
His instincts paid off. The Practice became a commercial and critical success, as it picked up a loyal and passionate audience and numerous awards, including back-to-back Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series in 1998 and 1999.
On April 6, McDermott discussed The Practice, his career, his personal life and his thoughts on law and society during “A Conversation with Dylan McDermott,” sponsored by the Fordham Forum on Law, Culture and Society.
While introducing McDermott, Thane Rosenbaum, the John Whelan Distinguished Lecturer in Law at the Fordham School of Law and director of the Fordham forum, added Donnell to the pantheon of great fictional lawyers.
“Most fictional lawyers are either heroes or jerks,” Rosenbaum said. “But they are never self-aware of who they are or what they should be. Bobby Donnell will forever be the poster boy for the tormented attorney. No one has ever played anguished in a TV drama better than Dylan McDermott. He made inner turmoil an Olympic sport.”
To prepare for the role, McDermott turned to several New York attorneys—including a longtime friend and fellow Fordham alumnus.
“I tried to get to the most earnest people,” he said, “the people who were not doing it just for the money. I think that Bobby lived in that world.”
He said his research made all the difference in bringing Bobby to life.
“Mostly I was interested in their internal world, because I knew that would make or break my character, and I knew it would make or break the show.”
Throughout the 90-minute event, Rosenbaum played clips from The Practice to underline the show’s interest in the tension between what is right and what is technically right under the law—a tension played out most notably between Donnell and Zoey Hiller, a senior judge known for siding with precedent over personal opinion.
“That general theme was always prevalent in every episode,” said McDermott, who earned a Golden Globe Award for the role in 1998, “that, and our [characters’] moral crises.
“One of the most interesting things about being a public defender is the question, when do you become corrupted? I think for Bobby there was always that element of, when is that going to happen to me?”
Rosenbaum also touched upon the actor’s charitable work.
McDermott recently returned from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where his adoptive mother, playwright Eve Ensler, established City of Joy, a facility for survivors of sexual abuse in Bukavu, Congo.
In addition to praising Ensler for her work as an activist and artist, McDermott credited her for helping him straighten out his life and build his career, from dropping him off at his first acting class to influencing how he selects his roles, Bobby Donnell in particular.
“She always instilled in me this love of the writer,” he said. “I felt like in some of my [early]film work, the writing was never there. I felt like if I wanted to get better as an actor, I needed someone to write for me. That was the thinking. When I read [David Kelly’s] script [for the pilot episode of The Practice], I just responded to the writing.”
Since leaving The Practice in 2003, McDermott has appeared on stage and in a number of films and TV roles, including The Grid, a four-part mini-series with Julianna Margulies, and Jerry Bruckheimer’s Dark Blue. Both shows aired on TNT.
This past November, McDermott performed in a stage reading of Rosenbaum’s novel Second Hand Smoke (St. Martin’s Press, 1999) at the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. McDermott played a traumatized son of Holocaust survivors.
“I like complicated characters,” he said, “probably because I’m always trying to figure something out on a fundamental level. As an actor, you have to borrow from yourself to really get in there.”
During a question-and-answer session, an audience member asked McDermott what he learned most from Bobby Donnell.
“The idea of corruption,” he said. “We all have to wrestle with this notion. Sometimes we fall, sometimes we rise, but we all have to wrestle with it.”
More than 200 people attended the event, which was held at the Time Warner Center.