Sex, crime and the Venus Butterfly: 'L.A. Law' out on DVD

Story highlights

  • The first season of "L.A. Law" is out on DVD
  • "L.A. Law" was groundbreaking in 1980s, taking on issues other shows wouldn't touch
  • Jimmy Smits: Law school applications went up during show's run
  • Alan Rachins: All the characters were served, and we had great camaraderie
"L.A. Law" had buzz right from the moment it premiered in 1986.
Co-created by Steven Bochco, hot off his success with "Hill Street Blues," the series was set at the high-priced Los Angeles law firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak.
The cast was glossy and diverse, including Jimmy Smits, Blair Underwood, Jill Eikenberry, Michael Tucker, Susan Dey, Richard Dysart, Alan Rachins and Corbin Bernsen.
Most of all, it pushed the boundaries of the legal show the way "Hill Street" did with cop shows.
"L.A. Law's" principals argued cases involving rape, capital punishment, big business, child molestation, AIDS and medical malpractice at a time when such subjects were seldom mentioned on prime-time television, and certainly not in such detail. This was no "Perry Mason," or even "The Defenders."
Bochco being Bochco, the hard stuff was paired with moments of silly humor and steamy sex (or silly sex and steamy humor), making for a high-wire balance of drama and comedy.
One first-season episode got people talking about a fictional sex act called the "Venus Butterfly"; later, the show actually killed off a character by dropping her down an elevator shaft.
The big hair and big-shouldered suits of the '80s may be gone, but the show remains influential. David E. Kelley, a real-life lawyer who later created "Picket Fences," "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal," got his television start as a writer on "L.A. Law."
The show's first season is finally out on DVD, with the second expected to follow in a few months. CNN spoke to Smits, now a star of "Sons of Anarchy" who played idealistic Hispanic attorney Victor Sifuentes, and Alan Rachins, who played bottom-line-oriented partner Douglas Brackman Jr. and later starred on "Dharma and Greg," about the show and its impact.
The following is a condensed version of the interviews, which were done separately:
CNN: How did you get the part?
Jimmy Smits: I was actually working in Boston at the time doing a "Spenser: For Hire," and a manager sent me the (description) and said it was the guys from "Hill Street Blues," and would I like to go and meet on this? I went to New York to meet some executives, and they threw a bunch of legalese at (me to perform). I'm a slow, kind of methodical study, so I didn't really do very well. I was so depressed.
One of my friends in California said, "You didn't meet this Bochco guy. You met some lady who was weeding people out! Get on a People Express flight and stay with me and try to get in and set up another appointment."
I borrowed money, came out here -- and eventually got an audition with Steven Bochco and (director) Gregory Hoblit. I met with Steven and he has all this sports memorabilia and he was swinging a baseball bat, and I said, if it doesn't go well, do I get one of those over my head? But it went well.
Alan Rachins: I'm married to Bochco's sister (Joanna Frank, who later played Brackman's wife, Sheila, on "L.A. Law"), which is how we were able to invite him to the L.A. film festival to see Henry Jaglom's film "Always." It was right at the time when (Bochco) was developing "L.A. Law." What I did in that particular Jaglom film was the spark that brought Brackman to me.
CNN: I understand the portrait of Brackman's father was of your actual dad?
Rachins: That was my dad. Considering they made a point in the pilot that Douglas was the son of one of the co-founders and that Douglas didn't quite measure up to the great man his father was, my father's picture had a certain amount of charisma to it and I thought it was really apt.
My relatives were thrilled and delighted that he was there. When there was an episode where my father's picture did not get on screen, I'd get a call from one of my relatives saying, "Alan! No picture! What happened?"
CNN: When did you know you were a hit?
Smits: At the end of the second or third season, I was on a plane going back to New York a lot, and there was a person I was sitting next to who worked in admissions in colleges. And they were going to some convention and they were talking about how the number of law school applications had skyrocketed since the show had aired. That's when I knew we were making an impact.
Rachins: Lawyers liked the show. They often wrote the writers to ask for a particular summation on a case they were working for that they saw on the show, so they could incorporate it into their own summation. And every once in awhile, a guy would come up to me and say, "I'm the Brackman" -- he's the business guy in his law firm.
CNN: Tell us about the camaraderie.
Smits: The conference room scenes took a long time to shoot because it was a circular table and you had to shoot it a particular way. But it was such a great time we had during those conference room scenes because we were all together and we were always talking about the work. It felt like we were part of a theater ensemble.
Rachins: One of the things that made it such a happy set was how everyone's character was served through the years, so that no one ran away from the show. It was an ensemble that had everyone making terrific contributions.
CNN: What were some of your favorite moments?
Smits: I remember James Earl Jones working on a case, and he's kind of an idol of mine, and it was Susan (Dey)'s case with him, but I do remember coming in one or two days just to see how he'd handle closing arguments.
Rachins: My character had some interesting adventures with women, including my wife, so when I had some battles with my wife (on the show), that was fun. And the affairs I had -- one with my father's former mistress, and another with a sex therapist, were particularly adventurous and fun.
CNN: What are you up to now?
Rachins: I'm looking for that third TV series. I loved my first two -- I got to work with Steve Bochco, one of the best ever, and Chuck Lorre, one of the best ever. I have an independent film and guest spots here and there. Fingers crossed, I'm looking for that third series.
Smits: I think the ("Sons of Anarchy") writers room gets together in late March, beginning of April. We start (shooting) in May. (So) I'm trying to look for jobs, man. You're always doing "Death of a Salesman." It's always Willy Loman, knocking on doors.