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Kelli Williams Courts Success on "The Practice"

By David Martindale

Kelli Williams literally was born to be an actress.

At least that's what attorney Lindsay Dole, the character Williams plays so compellingly on "The Practice," could argue if the matter went before a judge.

"Isn't it true," Ms. Dole might ask her real-life counterpart, given the opportunity to cross-examine, "that you were born and raised in Los Angeles, entertainment capital of the world?"

"Isn't it true that your mother, Shannon Wilcox, has long been a successful working actress and that Dad had connections as a Hollywood plastic surgeon?"

"Isn't it true that you earned your Screen Actors Guild card before your first birthday by appearing in a diapers commercial?"

"And isn't it true, Ms. Williams, that you got your first agent as a teen on the strength of a school play performance at Beverly Hills High?"

Yes, yes, yes and yes, Williams would have to concede.

As a result, it would be easy to point to genetics, upbringing, environment, even Pavlovian conditioning for Williams' success, for her ascent in a still-young career to prominence in a drama series that Emmy has crowned the best on television.

But to do so wouldn't be entirely fair, because it wouldn't credit Williams for any of her own accomplishments. Fate might have nudged her in the right direction, but Williams completes the package with a rare combination of compassion, intelligence, instinct and old-fashioned work ethic.

"I always knew I wanted to be an actress, from the time I was probably five," says Williams, now 28. "I grew up around it. My mom is an actress. So I would go to sets with her and, when she'd have an audition, I would memorize the other parts and rehearse them with her."

"But I decided to wait until I was 18 to start working because I wanted to do it on my own. I wanted to see if I could get a job on my own. So I waited to finish school and then I just started auditioning. It was really as simple as that."

"I had a plan. I told myself I would try to get work for a year. And if after a year I didn't get enough work or any work, I would go to college, then come back to acting. But then I started working pretty steadily. Never made it to college."

"The Practice" is Williams' third-prime series. She previously costarred in "Elvis," a short-lived 1990 show detailing the early years of Elvis Presley, and "New York News" (1995-96). Each had strengths and weaknesses.

But "The Practice," about a scrappy Boston law firm that always gets the client off, no matter what it takes, has no flaws. The ensemble cast is first-rate. And the writing, the domain of prolific David E. Kelley, who also created "Picket Fences" and "Ally McBeal," never fails to entertain, intrigue and challenge.

Lindsay was an important character from the start, but this season, the show's third, has been shaping up as a particularly big year for Williams, much the way that '97-98 was a showcase season for Emmy-winner Camryn Manheim.

Williams was especially proud of a series of episodes earlier this season in which Lindsay fought tooth and nail to get a murder acquittal for her former law school professor (Edward Herrmann). Then she became embroiled in an oft-heated power struggle at the firm of Donnell, Young, Dole & Frutt and romantically involved with senior partner Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott).

"David's been writing for me a lot lately," Williams says. "So much so that there never seems to be enough time to sleep. But what a problem to have. Gosh, working for David Kelley. I don't know what more I could ask for. In the TV world, he's the man."

Williams first worked for Kelley in an episode of "Picket Fences."

"In fact, when I auditioned for the part of Lindsay, I was doing 'Picket Fences' at that very moment," she says. "I was playing an Amish girl, so I was in my Amish outfit, my hair curled very tight to my head, and I had a black eye, because the character had been beaten up and raped. And I had to go in for my audition that way during a break from 'Picket Fences.'"

"I put on my jeans, so I would not look so out of character as a single lawyer, and went in and said, 'Please disregard the black eye and let me do a scene to you.' And I was so pressed for time, because I had to be back on the set in 10 minutes, that I didn't even have time to be nervous. And I got the job."

To this day, Kelley still amazes and surprises her.

"The man is unstoppable," she says. "He writes most of 'Ally McBeal' and most of 'The Practice.' I think last year maybe he DIDN'T write only two of our episodes. He just writes every day, nonstop, one brilliant script after another, and then he goes home at a reasonable hour and has dinner with his family."

"Another thing with David is never tell him your fears because, if you do, they'll be in the next script. If he sees any of your insecurities or your little quirks, be careful. You don't always think he's catching everything, because there's so much for him to keep track of, but he does. He catches EVERYTHING."

Williams is particularly appreciative of good writing because her husband of two years, Ajay Sahgal, is a writer. His first book, a satirical Hollywood novel called "Pool," was published in 1993.

"I've been known to go into the bookstore, find his book and move it on the shelf where people can see it," she admits. "You know how some of the books they have sideways and some you can see the cover? I move his books so you can see the cover. "

The couple has a son named Kiran Ram. But it would have taken eagle eyes for viewers to have noticed Williams' pregnancy at the end of last season.

"I gave birth a week after we wrapped last season," she says. "So by the end, when my character was remodeling the office and I had those paintings and computers in front of me, that was all very deliberate to hide the fact that I had gained 35 pounds."

At the same time, the simple act of remodeling provided a lot of conflict between characters, with Lindsay aspiring to improve the firm's somewhat shabby image even though Bobby preferred his junkyard-dog, fight-dirty-for-the-little-guy reputation.

"It's possible that we would have gotten nicer offices even if I hadn't been pregnant," Williams says. "But I wonder if my didn't pregnancy somehow change the course of the show. Wouldn't that be something if that were true?"

THE END

Transcript courtesy of Ultimate TV1999 All Rights Reserved

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