Retirement has agreed with actor Richard Dysart. “I’m not jumping to the phone, not having showbiz on the mind,” the Madison native said Monday from his British Columbia home. He and his wife, Kathryn Jacobi, an artist, keep a second home in Santa Monica, Calif.
Only one role would bring him back from retirement – that of Leland McKenzie, the senior partner of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak, the law firm at the center of the much-decorated NBC drama “L.A. Law.” That series, which ran from 1986 to 1994, returns in “L.A. Law – The Movie,” to air 9-11 p.m. Sunday on NBC.
Dysart already was a familiar character actor after 30 years in film and TV when “L.A. Law” came along. For eight seasons, Dysart as McKenzie was the moral compass and stabilizing force at McKenzie-Brackman. It wasn’t a flashy role, but that was OK with Dysart. He ended up being one of only three actors from the “L.A. Law” cast to win individual acting Emmy Awards.
“My ego doesn’t bend that way, I don’t have to be in every scene,” said Dysart, now 72. “I liked Leland a lot, and it’s good to feel a stability, particularly in the reunion movie. There has to be a center to everything. He was around when decisions were made and was there to enhance the drama.”
The series ended with McKenzie retiring from the firm. That nearly wasn’t the case, Dysart recalled.
“[The producers] wanted McKenzie to die as a symbolic end to the show,” he said. “I fought it, and even called [series creator] Steven Bochco on vacation in Hawaii. I told him, ‘I want to be around when they decide to do the reunion movie.’ So I’ve been waiting for this to come along since then.”
After working on “L.A. Law,” which won four Emmys as outstanding drama, Dysart had a hard time finding projects that measured up to the quality he was used to. After a particularly bad experience on a TV movie, he chose to retire from acting to do other things in life.
“I decided that I’d prefer taking care of an apple orchard, which is pretty much what I’ve been doing,” he said.
Dysart got involved with the reunion movie after calling William Finkelstein, the award-winning former executive producer of the series who was writing the script.
“Once Billy told me he was working on the script, I just said, ‘Well, treat me well,'” he said.
While Dysart has kept in touch with cast mates Alan Rachins and the husband-and-wife team of Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, he wondered how well the cast would gel again on the set in Vancouver, a short pontoon-plane flight from his B.C. home.
“We got together in Vancouver, had some laughs, went out to dinner,” he said. “It all just came back. Because Billy Finkelstein knew the show so well, it just fell into place.”
In the reunion movie, Michael Kuzak (Harry Hamlin), an attorney turned restaurateur, comes grudgingly back to the law to handle the appeal of a death-row inmate whom he originally had represented. He seeks, and eventually gains, the firm’s support with the appeal. In battle, he goes up against his former love, Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey), now district attorney.
At the same time, womanizing divorce lawyer Arnie Becker (Corbin Bernsen) is embroiled in his own bitter divorce battle with his ex-wife, represented by former McKenzie-Brackman associate Abby Perkins (Michele Greene). Married attorneys Ann Kelsey (Eikenberry) and Stuart Markowitz (Tucker) discover they’ve been cleaned out financially by the spiritual guru they’ve embraced. Office manager Roxanne Melman (Susan Ruttan) reluctantly agrees to take in her ex-husband, Dave Meyer (Dann Florek), who is dying of cancer.
Dysart, who has seen the finished film, was pleased with the results.
“I was a little worried about trying to get an audience to stay tuned after the passage of years,” he said. “But it just rolled along, and held my interest for two hours. The talent rose to the occasion.”
Dysart has heard that if the film is successful, more such occasional “L.A. Law” movies might be made in the future.
In the meantime, he remains active in community service. He has been on the board of trustees of Gallaudet University, a school for hearing-challenged students in Washington, D.C., for 13 years, serves on the national committee of the Native American Rights Fund, and is on the national executive committee of the American Judicature Society, an organization dedicated to maintaining and enhancing the justice system.
“They’re all away from California, which allows me to travel,” he said. “I enjoy it.”
Dysart doesn’t get back to Maine as often since his father, Douglas Dysart, died in 1991. He does return occasionally to visit his uncle and aunt, Larry and Mabel Dysart, in Pittsfield.
His home in British Columbia gives him much of the same natural beauty.
“It’s a bit like Maine, with not as many hardwoods,” he said, the song of birds coming through the phone line. “It’s still cold out here on the porch this morning. I like living in the solitude, and so does Kathy.”
Production of original episodes of “L.A. Law” stopped in 1994, but the series has never totally left the air. Dysart still catches his old show on cable, most recently on A&E.
“They remain timely, with cases about points of law that are still current,” he said. “It was also one of the fathers of yuppiedom. It was very much of the times, and very Los Angeles. It holds up as well as any series I know of in reruns.”