Ally McBeal Made Waves, but It Wasn’t All About the Show

Ahh, you gotta love the sexy legal dramedies of the ‘90s/’00s, right? And if there’s a show that sits above the rest in this category, it’s gotta be Ally McBeal. It’s been two decades since the series stopped airing in 2002. But during its five-season run, people at home were hooked. It all started when David E. Kelley was asked to create a hit show that could essentially piggy-back off Melrose Place (which had high ratings among the young female demographic).

Greg Germann, Portia de Rossi, Lisa Nicole Carson, Calista Flockhart, and Jane Krakowski sitting together on a white couch / Jane Krakowski singing in a red dress with Greg Germann and Peter MacNicol performing in vests with antlers and red noses / Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs having a conversation in an episode of Ally McBeal / Calista Flockhart being arrested in an episode of Ally McBeal /
Source: / Copyright: Fox Broadcasting Company (all photographs)

Kelley was the brains behind Chicago Hope and The Practice, after all. So when he came up with Ally McBeal in 1997, he basically struck small-screen gold. It was such a pop culture phenomenon right off the bat that it landed on the cover of Time magazine in 1998. That alone sparked conversations about the then-current state of feminism.

So what are the stars of the show up to these days?

Greg Germann Aka Richard Fish

Before he ever landed his two-time Emmy-nominated breakout role as Richard Fish, the neurotic partner at Cage and Fish, Greg Germann was the real deal when it came to stage acting. The Houston native showed off his stage chops in New York City on the Great White Way. He then landed a role in the 1994 film Clear and Present Danger, for which he received rave reviews.

Greg Germann with Portia De Rossi and Calista Flockhart in a scene from Ally McBeal
Photo by 20th Century Fox / Kobal / Shutterstock

Then, he was on the sitcom Ned and Stacey, where he caught the eye of David E. Kelley. Soon enough, he landed the role of the “fishism”-spouting law firm boss. Germann played the part of Fish in all five seasons and even got the opportunity to direct some episodes.

Fun fact: he beat Stephen Colbert for the role!

Greg Germann These Days

The show ended, but Germann didn’t stop. The actor went on to get guest-starring roles on The Bernie Mac Show and Desperate Housewives. He kept the comedy intact when he played the memorable role of Larry Dennit Jr. in Will Ferrell’s Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby in 2006.

Greg Germann posing on the red carpet in 2020
Photo by MediaPunch / Shutterstock

Germann is probably best known, however, for playing Hades, Lord of the Underworld, on the hit series Once Upon A Time. The man still loves working on the stage, though. He starred in the world premiere of the one and only Steve Martin’s play titled Meteor Shower. The actor is also active with charity organizations. He co-hosts the Literacy for All Gala and has served on the board of social services organization, The People Concern.

Jane Krakowski Aka Elaine Vassal

Jane Krakowski’s talent was recognized at an early age. She was given a Broadway role in Starlight Express when she was only 18 years old. After making heads turn on the stage, she gained valuable acting experience on daytime soap operas. Then, she finally got the role that served as her jumping board to fame.

Jane Krakowski in Ally McBeal posing with her hair flowing back
Photo by Norman Jean Roy / 20th Century Fox / Kobal / Shutterstock

Krakowski played the nosy and sassy office secretary Elaine Vassal. She was the office gossip, of course, who spent her spare time inventing what could only be called a Face Bra. Krakowski revealed that when she traveled to Los Angeles from New York to audition, her real-life college peer, Calista Flockhart, was on the same flight. They were both headed to the auditions and teased each other by saying, “One of us will get this show and fly back in first class. The other won’t and will be back here in coach.” Luckily, they both got to fly home in first class!

Jane Krakowski Today

Krakowski’s star has continued to rise since the show wrapped up. For those who don’t know, Krakowski is a singer too, who has released a debut solo album of cover songs. Her role as Jenna Maroney on 30 Rock earned her four Emmy nominations. You probably also saw her on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Jane Krakowski on the red carpet in 2019
Photo by Erik Pendzich / Shutterstock

The busy actress even made time to hit the stage again, racking up a Tony Award for her role in the musical Nine. She also received a Laurence Olivier Award for her role in Guys and Dolls with Ewan McGregor. Krakowski has also used her song-and-dance skills to aid humanitarian causes. She headlined the 20th Annual Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards, honoring those who have contributed to the fight against AIDS.

Peter MacNicol Aka John Cage

Another actor with both off-Broadway and Broadway credits made his way to the Ally McBeal set. Peter MacNicol was a successful Shakespearean actor before joining the cast. He was actually scouted from the stage for a role in Sophie’s Choice. He then showed up on the screen as attorney Alan Birch on Chicago Hope before winning an Emmy for being Ally’s adorable and weird boss, John “The Biscuit” Cage.

Peter MacNicol and Calista Flockhart posing together in a courtroom in the show Ally McBeal
Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

MacNicol said that the part was first offered to him as a guest-starring role. In fact, he wasn’t in the pilot; he started appearing in Episode Two. “I remember meeting the cast the day we shot my first big scene, which, if memory serves, was a formal apology to the firm for having been caught with a prostitute,” MacNicol recalled. “I was as embarrassed as my character.” But it also gave him the chance to renew an old friendship with Greg Germann.

Peter MacNicol Now

Since his days on Ally McBeal, MacNicol has gone on to score numerous TV and film credits, like his roles on 24, Grey’s Anatomy, and, as most people will remember, his guest-starring part as power broker Jeff Kane on Veep. The man is also a prolific voiceover actor who lends his voice to comic book villains.

John MacNicol on the red carpet in 2019
Photo by MediaPunch / Shutterstock

Parents of little kids may recognize him as Nigel, the advisor on Tangled: The Series. MacNicol has been married to non-profit head Martha Sue “Marsue” Cumming now for over 30 years. The longtime actor also has a longtime hobby: playing the bagpipes. Fans of Ally McBeal might remember him playing them on the show!

Portia de Rossi Aka Nelle Porter

Portia de Rossi was studying law in her home country of Australia when she discovered that acting was what she really wanted to do with her life. And so, her career began in earnest when she took the role of a young model in the erotic film Sirens. Then, she did what every hopeful acting abroad does: She moved to the United States.

Portia De Rossi posing for a promotional shot for Ally McBeal
Photo by Wayne Stambler / 20th Century Fox / Kobal / Shutterstock

Once in the US, she quickly nabbed guest-starring roles on many TV shows before finally landing the gig where she got to portray the sarcastic and ambitious character of Nelle in the second season of Ally McBeal. De Rossi earned international attention when she joined the cast in 1998, and she continued with the show until it ended in 2002.

Portia de Rossi These Days

De Rossi has kept herself busy since Ally McBeal. Most people remember her from her time as Lindsay Bluth Funke in Arrested Development. She also played Elizabeth North in Scandal – a part she later left for her art curation and publishing business. She dipped her feet in writing, with her book Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain. It was a deeply personal autobiography about her lifelong struggle with eating disorders – one of which she developed on the set of Ally McBeal (more on that soon).

Portia De Rossi on the red carpet in 2018
Photo by Stewart Cook / Shutterstock

We all know that de Rossi has been Ellen DeGeneres’ second half for a long time. But she kept her sexuality a secret from the Ally McBeal cast throughout the show’s run. She then publically tied the knot with DeGeneres at their Beverly Hills home in 2008. Recently, de Rossi created the Ellen DeGeneres Wildlife Fund to protect wild gorillas in Rwanda.

Lucy Liu Aka Ling Woo

Lucy Liu was relatively unknown when she auditioned to play the character of Nelle Porter. While the role was given to de Rossi instead, Liu nonetheless made such an impression on David E. Kelley that in the second season, he created the character of Ling Woo, especially for her.

Lucy Liu posing in a promotional shot for the show Ally McBeal
Photo by Aaron Rapoport / 20th Century Fox / Kobal / Shutterstock

“I was told that David had really liked my audition and that when he likes you, he writes something for you,” Liu recalled. “So, the next thing I knew, I get a call saying they wanted me to be Ling Woo for eight episodes.” Those eight episodes eventually became every episode. One of her most memorable moments on the show was when she kissed Calista Flockhart. “I’d been told it was the first big female-to-female kiss on primetime television when we did it, although I wasn’t sure if they were just saying that,” Liu stated.

Lucy Liu Today

Since the show, Liu has become a real star. Not only did she become one of Charlie’s Angels, next to Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz, but she was the unforgettable femme fatale in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1. Many people aren’t aware that she is also a successful voiceover actor. She’s done voice work as Master Viper in the Kung Fu Panda films and TV series.

Lucy Liu on the red carpet in 2019
Photo by Erik Pendzich / Shutterstock

She can also be seen on the Sherlock Holmes series Elementary. Sure, her alter-ego Ling Woo may have perfected the “death stare,” but Liu has been nothing but kind and caring, devoting herself to humanitarian causes, like UNICEF. She is also a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign and an accomplished artist, who works under her Chinese name, Yu Ling.

Gil Bellows Aka Billy Thomas

Gil Bellows met Calista Flockhart (we’ll get to her soon) years before playing her ex, Billy. They were doing play reads together in New York. Bellows made a big Hollywood splash with his breakout performance in The Shawshank Redemption, where he played inmate Tommy Williams – a role turned down by Brad Pitt. Three years later, he showed up on Ally McBeal. Even though his character was killed off in Season Three, he appeared later in dream sequences.

Courtney Thorne-Smith, Gil Bellows, and Calista Flockhart posing on the set of Ally McBeal
Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

His wife, Rya Kihlstedt, was working in Chicago at the time of the Ally McBeal casting and was asked to tape an audition for the lead role. He said that he read the Billy parts for her Ally scenes, and he told her that he didn’t know if she was right for the role. “I remember her getting a little pissed because, well, what do I know? We both appreciated the irony of the situation later when I got the Billy role.”

Gil Bellows Now

The Canadian actor, screenwriter, and director decided to leave the show when he was offered to star in the American action drama series, The Agency. Billy was then killed off in the episode called Boy Next Door. After leaving the show, Bellows’ role in The Agency proved to be the right choice, in that it was a successful one.

Gil Bellows on the red carpet in 2019
Photo by Massimo Insabato / Shutterstock

He might not be a household name, but Bellows has had a long, solid career as an actor. He’s snagged parts in more than 70 films and TV shows, including Patriot and Eyewitness. He’s one of those actors that you’ve seen so often that you refer to him as “that guy.” Bellows and Kihlstedt have two children, Ava and Giovanni.

Courtney Thorne-Smith Aka Georgia Thomas

In the ‘80s, Courtney Thorne-Smith was a sort of the “It girl.” She was in Lucas, Summer School, and Welcome to 18 before becoming a ‘90s star as Allison Parker on Melrose Place. Though she originally auditioned for the role of Ally, she ended up getting the part of her “relatively sane” frenemy Georgia Thomas.

Courtney Thorne-Smith on the red carpet at the Emmy Awards in 1999
Photo by Dave Lewis / Shutterstock

She said that she left Melrose Place after five years in a state of complete exhaustion. “I needed a break, so I had rented a beach house in Malibu for a while,” she recalled. Her agent called her, saying, “There’s this show, Ally McBeal starting up, and they want you for a part. I know you’re tired, but you can’t say no.” When Thorne-Smith left the show, it caused a stir because she publicly revealed that she left because of the pressure to be thin.

Courtney Thorne-Smith These Days

Thorne-Smith has made an amazing acting career for herself ever since she left the show. She went on to star opposite Jim Belushi on the sitcom According to Jim, between 2001 and 2009. After that, she went right into playing Jon Cryer’s girlfriend on Two and a Half Men. The actress even wrote a book in 2007 called Outside In.

Courtney Thorne-Smith on the red carpet in 2019
Photo by AFF-USA / Shutterstock

Her book was described as “a comedic novel about the flipside of fame.” She’s chosen to keep a rather lower acting profile since her sitcom days and lent her star power to a cause by being a spokesperson for the Atkins diet. She is married to Roger Fishman, a marketing company executive, and they have a son Jacob.

Lisa Nicole Carson Aka Renee Raddick

Before becoming the criminal prosecutor, best friend, and roomie on Ally McBeal, the Brooklyn-born actress worked hard on After School Specials. She was Eriq La Salle’s girlfriend on ER from 1996 and stayed on the hospital drama after having been cast in Ally McBeal. That is until she was let go from both TV shows, reportedly due to her erratic behavior.

Lisa Nicole Carson with Calista Flockhart sculpting a man posing in front of them in a scene from Ally McBeal
Photo by Larry Watson / 20th Century Fox / Kobal / Shutterstock

Carson suffers from bipolar disorder and, after a breakdown in a Manhattan hotel in 2000, she spent several weeks in a psychiatric ward. “That was definitely a stressful and difficult period in my life… I was very mortified about what happened with me and pretty embarrassed, but the kindness I received meant a lot,” Carson revealed.

Lisa Nicole Carson These Days

It was only after she left the show that Carson revealed that she was, in fact, struggling with bipolar disorder. In 2015, she opened up about her mental illness to both Essence and People magazine. The illness, unfortunately, took its toll, costing her acting jobs, landing her in the hospital, and even leading to an arrest after an incident of disorderly conduct.

Lisa Nicole Carson posing on the red carpet in 2017
Photo by Mediapunch / Shutterstock

Carson finally made her way back to the acting world in 2012, returning to her role as Renee Raddick in the final episode of David E. Kelley’s legal drama, Harry’s Law. Recently, she made a critically acclaimed performance in the 2017 mini-series called The New Edition Story, which was co-produced by all six members of the boy band.

Vonda Shepard Aka Vonda Shepard

She might not have been the show’s biggest star, but Vonda Shepard’s appearances as herself, a musician, at the gang’s post-work bar, were always a hit with viewers. Shepard’s music for the show was pretty much the typical ‘90s soundtrack of our lives. Not only was she the co-writer of the theme song, Searchin’ My Soul, but she also served as the series’ music producer.

Calista Flockhart and Vonda Shepard at an event for the Ally McBeal show in 2002
Photo by Bei / Shutterstock

She brought over 500 songs sung with some of the biggest artists in the biz, including Gladys Knight, Sting, Chubby Checker, and Jon Bon Jovi, to name a few. Shepard clearly helped put Ally McBeal onto the pop culture platform. The show even earned a Billboard award for having sold the most TV soundtrack records in history.

Vonda Shepard Today

Shepard is still on the music-making path but has dipped her feet into the acting world again. She was thrilled to get her stage actress debut in Randy Newman’s Faust at New York City Center. Critics called her “the find of the evening.” She has mostly left acting behind to fully embrace her music.

Vonda Shepard at an event in 2014
Photo by Carolyn Contino / BEI / Shutterstock

The singer/songwriter, pianist, bassist, and guitarist has not only recorded several popular Ally McBeal soundtracks but has made other albums as well. Shepard is often on the road, most recently on a world tour. She married Mitchell Froom, a fellow musician and record producer, in 2004. Their son Jack was born in 2006.

And last but not least…

Calista Flockhart Aka Ally McBeal

As it turns out, show creator Kelley originally wanted Bridget Fonda for the role of Ally. At the time, Calista Flockhart impressed critics with her stage performances in New York. She was then called on to audition for Kelley’s show against hundreds of other actresses. When she walked into his casting office, she was instantly recognized as the epitome of Ally.

Calista Flockhart as Ally McBeal posing on an office desk
Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

Sandy Grushow, the president of 20th Century Fox Television, recalled: “I remember the first casting session in Los Angeles with Calista Flockhart very well. She was an unknown quantity at the time, but it became very clear that for David, once he saw her, he had landed his Ally.”

She Was Drawn to the Character

Flockhart admitted that she was drawn to the love story between Billy and Ally. “I had a great appreciation for Ally’s character and the uniqueness of the writing,” she said. She explained how the hallucinations and the voiceover were stuff she had never seen before. She also admitted to never being able to keep a straight face.

Gil Bellows and Calista Flockhart standing together in an office in a scene from Ally McBeal
Source: / Copyright: Fox Broadcasting Company

“Gil was the worst,” she described. “He would have tears streaming down his face! And Greg made me laugh and never broke character.” Her time on set was clearly fun, but she took the role very seriously. She remembered getting up early and working hard. The hard work paid off. “We were very aware after a while of all the attention we were getting.”

Calista Flockhart Today

After the show ended, Flockhart was a hot commodity. In fact, she was offered Teri Hatcher’s role in Desperate Housewives, but she turned it down. Instead, she chose to play Kitty Walker on the show Brothers and Sisters. She also turned her attention to feminist causes, serving for 10 years as the national spokesperson for Peace Over Violence.

Calista Flockhart on the red carpet at the Golden Globe Awards 2015
Photo by BEI / Shutterstock

Krakowski explained how there was a turning point during their time on Ally McBeal when the fame of Flockhart became bigger than that of the show. Eventually, more and more articles were written about the length of Ally’s skirts, her weight, and her effect on feminism. It started to seem as though people were more interested in those kinds of stories than the show itself. But Krakowski said she and the cast were always protective of her.

The Ally McBeal Effect

HuffPost writer Erica Berman wrote about what she calls “the Ally McBeal effect,” which focuses on women’s appearances and the unrealistic standards of beauty to which they are held. According to Berman, it pretty much started around the time Ally McBeal aired in 1997, after which we took a “major step backward when it comes to the Beauty Myth.”

Calista Flockhart and Florence Henderson standing by a desk in an episode of Ally McBeal
Photo by Randy Holmes / 20th Century Fox / Kobal / Shutterstock

Between the first and second seasons, Flockhart transformed from extremely skinny to ridiculously thin. And her weight-loss was absolutely noticed and making headlines. Flockhart was even accused of being anorexic, but she publicly denied that. The other actresses on the show also started shrinking, too. De Rossi herself spoke about the eating disorder she developed while working on the set.

Her Shocking Appearance at the Emmys

Flockhart shocked fans at the 1998 Emmy Awards with her gaunt appearance. There were even fears for her health when the actress collapsed on the set. After the show was canceled, Flockhart finally admitted that she was exercising a bit too much and not eating enough at the time. But during the period of public scrutiny regarding her weight, Flockhart insisted that she had a “healthy appetite” and ultimately blamed her skeletal frame on her “tiny bones.”

Calista Flockhart posing with her back turned at the 1998 Emmy Awards
Photo by Bei / Shutterstock

The now 55-year-old (who’s married to Harrison Ford) admitted in the mid-‘00s that during her time on the show, she was “seriously stressed.” She described how she was working 15-hour days and then was “dealing with the end of the show, which was basically my life.” She started under-eating and over-exercising, “pushing myself too hard and brutalizing my immune system.”

Remember the Dancing Baby?

Remember the ever-so-popular meme of the Dancing Baby? Bellows said that he was “glad it brought attention to the show,” but of all the things they explored on the show, the dancing baby was one of his least favorites. Sandy Grushow said she remembers seeing a rough cut with the Dancing Baby when she was at home one night and “nearly fell out of bed.” In her opinion, it was both creepy and charming.

Calista Flockhart dancing with the animated baby in Ally McBeal
Source: Shutterstock

According to David E. Kelley, the Dancing Baby, “scared and inspired us all!” Flockhart recalls going into Kelley’s office one day and he showed the dancing baby to her on the computer screen. “I had to mimic the baby’s dancing and thought it was really brilliant,” she said.

Fans of Ally McBeal might have also appreciated another super series that started when McBeal stopped airing. Are you in the mood for some Grey’s Anatomy memories?