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Harry’s Law – How Producer David E Kelley got Kathy Bates to be a curmudgeonly lawyer

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Harry's Law, Season 1 - Aml Ameen, Brittany Snow, Kathy Bates and Nate Corddry
Season 1 - Malcolm Davies (Aml Ameen), Jenna Backstrom (Brittany Snow), Harrriet Korn (Kathy Bates) and Adam Branch (Nate Corddry) © 2011 NBC

Emmy Award-winning writer/producer David E Kelley (Boston Legal, The Practice, Ally McBeal) has teamed up with Academy Award-winning actress, Kathy Bates (Misery, Titanic) for his new series, Harry’s Law.

Set in Cincinnati, Harriet ‘Harry’ Korn, is a curmudgeonly ex-patent lawyer who is abruptly fired and must find a new start. She soon discovers a new office in an abandoned shoe store and sets up ‘shop’ to help the people in her neighborhood.

Originally Harry was supposed to be a guy, from what I understand. Was it changed because you decided to look for a woman or because Kathy came in and you decided, ‘We should change it to Harriet?’

Harry's Law, Season 1 - Kathy Bates
Season 1 - Harrriet Korn (Kathy Bates) © 2011 NBC

David E Kelley: The character was this curmudgeonly, cantankerous old grump who was a man. We tried to cast him but didn’t quite find the right actor that inhabited all the traits that we were looking for. So we opened it up to a woman.

As soon as we did that, it was [co-producer Bill] D’Elia’s wife who said, ‘What about Kathy Bates?’ We all jumped at that. We didn’t know if Kathy would jump, but we got her the script, and fortunately for us she said yes.

Kathy Bates: Well, I loved it because she had her feet up on the desk, she was smoking pot and watching Bugs Bunny. After that, I was in.

Is it hard to sustain the necessary level of grumpiness for all of the weeks of shooting?

Kathy: I can be a naturally grumpy person. And adjusting to the long hours on the set helped that right along.

I’m not being flip about this, but if somebody asked me to play somebody who was really bright and optimistic, I think I’d freak out. I just never wanted to play that kind of bubbly, up, happy person. And I think if you look back through my career on IMDb, there’s a lot of dark characters in there. I guess I’m just more comfortable on the dark side.

How did you choose Cincinnati as the place for the show to be set?

Harry's Law, 1.02 - Christopher McDonald, Kathy Bates and Nate Corddry
Episode 1.02 "Heat of Passion" - Thomas Jefferson (Christopher McDonald), Harriet Korn (Kathy Bates) and Adam Branch (Nate Corddry) © 2011 NBC

David: We wanted a city that wasn’t sexy. We wanted an urban city that had gang neighborhoods and urban strife, because much of that will play out in the series.

This series of law stories is very much about class war and the disparity of wealth in this country, which goes a little bit to the selection of the shoe store. It wasn’t totally arbitrary.

First, I wanted them to have two jobs. I’ve been reading stories about even how lawyers and some doctors these days have to do other things than their actual practice to make a go of it. That appealed to me. The shoe, to me, is symbolic of the most indulgent, arbitrary spending.

Why did you want to do TV series?

Kathy: I’m really an actor driven by wanting to play a great character, and. this terrific character just jumped off the page. I really didn’t care whether it was for the little screen or the big screen. I just wanted to play this character.

I just identify where she is in her life. And that’s one of the big reasons why I wanted to come and play her. She’s a bit disillusioned. She’s a bit crabby. She’s had it with people, and I can identify with some of that.

David: Certainly, in a series you want your character to be liked. To the extent that Harry comes off loveable is a testament to Kathy. She just exudes sympathy that works for her and works for the show.

You obviously still have confidence in the networks, so you must believe that they can produce smart dramas.

Harry's Law, 1.06 - Kathy Bates and Steve Harris
Episode 1.06 "The Innocent Man" - Harriet "Harry" Korn (Kathy Bates) and Jeffery Rollins (Steve Harris) © 2011 NBC

David: I think there are a lot of smart dramas on the networks. I do remain frustrated at the lack of time we get to tell our story. Where once we were [allowed] 48 minutes, I think we’re down to 41 now.  We’re now broken into six acts. As a result, it has become a little more difficult to tell the slower, emotional building stories. It’s more incumbent upon us to be noisy, because the commercials that we compete with are noisy.

As far as this particular show, we’re not kidding ourselves. We know it will be tough sledding because it’s a difficult time slot and it’s not conventional. And we have a 60-year-old lead. Not many shows do. And not many networks have come to me recently and said, ‘Can you give me a series with a 60-year-old lead?’ But I have to believe that, given the universe of 500-plus channels, there has to be room on the landscape for one.

Well, David has made the point of you being a 60-year-old – with your wealth of talent and credits, how do you feel about doing this show at this time in your career?

Harry's Law, 1.07 - Christopher McDonald and Kathy Bates
Episode 1.07 "Wheels of Justice" - Thomas Jefferson (Christopher McDonald) and Harriet "Harry" Korn (Kathy Bates) © 2011 NBC

Kathy: I’m really thrilled to have this opportunity. When we first started, there was talk about what color my hair should be. And I remember a conversation I had with Bill D’Elia. I was in a costume fitting and I had actually tried on a red wig, because I just assumed that she would dye her hair like all women do. And I said, ‘This just doesn’t look like Harry. Harry wouldn’t give a rat’s ass what color her hair was.’

Bill called and talked to whoever he needed to talk to. And they got back to me and they said it was okay. And I just remember being really relieved about that, because I want her to be who she is and I don’t think there should be a mark on the wall about how old somebody gets to be to reflect our society.