Spader's 'Legal' Challenge to 'Sopranos' Star

Laurie May Win 'Make-Up' Vote, But Spader Looks Like a Strong Contender

You could say they rounded up the usual suspects for the lead actor in a drama series nominations. There was "24's" Kiefer Sutherland, who took home the statuette in 2006; "The Sopranos'" James Gandolfini, who won in 2000, '01 and '03; last year's first-time nominee Denis Leary from "Rescue Me"; and two-time winner in this category James Spader, from "Boston Legal." The one fresh face, ironically, is the actor who was egregiously overlooked last year for a nomination, Hugh Laurie of "House."

Conventional wisdom suggests that since this is "The Sopranos'" final season, Mr. Gandolfini has the inside track to claim the Emmy. However, there also are experts betting Mr. Laurie will win, in part to make up for last year's omission. However, don't be surprised if Mr. Spader collects a third Emmy for playing Alan Shore, a TV lawyer who has redefined the type.

"He's a rascal. He's a troublemaker. He has appetites," Mr. Spader told Playboy in 2005 when asked about his character. "I haven't yet found what he's scared of, except maybe complacency. That would probably scare the hell out of him. He cares for people, but he feels that respect must be earned. Until that point there's fair play. He values truth, even in its most embarrassing, destructive form."

Mr. Spader has thrived playing the wily, unpredictable Alan Shore. In fact, he stands alone as the only actor to win the lead actor Emmy for playing the same character on different dramas, "The Practice" and "Boston Legal."

"I know that he tremendously enjoys playing this character, and this is a guy that up until playing Alan Shore on 'The Practice' had pretty much done just a movie or two a year and played different characters," said Bill D'Elia, an Emmy-nominated director for "Boston Legal." "He enjoyed that, but he really likes playing this guy on 'Boston Legal' because he has such tremendous latitude in where he can go with him."

For his Emmy submission, Mr. Spader chose a very dramatic episode that dealt with a real-life tragedy, Hurricane Katrina. "It was called 'Angel of Death' and it was really based on what occurred when Hurricane Katrina hit," said Mr. D'Elia. "This was a fictionalized account of a doctor who euthanized five patients who were not going to live or were not getting help soon enough and were in great pain. In our case, our guys got brought into defending the doctor. It was very controversial at the time that we did it, and we were very careful to fictionalize the account because some of the same things were really going on down there."

To many experts, this year's Emmy nominations for "Boston Legal" were a surprise. Even Mr. D'Elia was taken aback. "I was pleasantly stunned. Stunned is the right word. I woke up very early that morning with a terrible headache and had gone downstairs to get my medication. It was around 5:30, the nominations were being announced, and I thought, 'I already have a headache, I might as well watch this and get depressed as well.' 'Boston Legal' was the first name that came up, then I saw that James got nominated. Then I went online and saw that I got nominated for directing an episode and my sound guy got nominated as well. It was quite a morning.

"It's hard to guess exactly what that reason is, but I do think we had a particularly good year," Mr. D'Elia continued. "And I do think that because the show is so different, it had been hard to categorize as a drama or a comedy, and I think it took a while for people to understand what it is in and of itself. It's not strictly a lawyer show in that traditional mold. It took a couple of years for people to catch on to that.

"During the third season something was fairly obvious to me. It seemed that the show itself crossed over into the cultural conversation. When comedians started to make jokes about 'Boston Legal,' Denny Crane, Alan Shore, there seemed to be something happening. Even if you don't watch a particular show, like 'ER,' everyone knows the references to it," he said.

For a show like "Boston Legal," the line between comedy and drama is often blurred. There's dark humor in even the most serious episodes. How do the creators keep things balanced? "All of us approach the characters and stories to make them as believable as possible. We don't necessarily try to go for jokes or try to be funny. If we make that character believable, it's all going to work," said Mr. D'Elia.

Believability is key to Mr. Spader's performance. "James' approach is exactly that. He really thinks about the believability of what Alan Shore does and says," Mr. D'Elia says. "Within the context of that, then he's abundantly aware of what might be funnier than some other thing, or in some cases, perhaps, to not go for the funny thing. That's the tricky part of doing the show and playing a character like Alan Shore. He is very dramatic and emotional at times, as well as quite funny. I find that James' approach is to bring real honesty and integrity to the core of the character, and everything comes from that center."

As much as believability is essential to the success of Mr. Spader's performance, there's another key to his playing Alan Shore. When asked by Playboy how he keeps the character fresh after the audience has gotten used to him, Mr. Spader said, "I'll tell you exactly how: You put him in a set of circumstances, you think about what he might do, and you do the opposite."

On Emmy night, the "Boston Legal" contingent will be out in full force. In addition to Mr. Spader's and Mr. D'Elia's nominations, the show was nominated for drama series and William Shatner is again nominated as supporting actor in a drama series.

"We still aren't over the euphoria of being nominated," said Mr. D'Elia. "We've learned to enjoy it all, every moment between now and September, because on Emmy night, who knows what's going to happen? But, yes, we're all planning to go."

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