James Spader makes ‘Practice’ perfect

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/ Source: The Associated Press

Only an attorney like Alan Shore could have saved “The Practice” from death row. Shore is smooth but disruptive; true blue yet unprincipled; steadfast and a ticking bomb.

And, as played by James Spader, this new guy has won a quick reprieve for ABC’s once proud, sassy legal drama, which by the end of last season, its dreary seventh, seemed guilty of running out of steam.

All in all, not bad for a lawyer, especially one who makes a practice of courting disaster.

“At the same time that I find him sort of endearing and compelling, he’s appalling,” says Spader, flashing Alan Shore’s enigmatic smile — “at the exact same moment!

“He has so many qualities that are at such cross purposes with his profession,” Spader chuckles. “The legal profession is based on authority; he hates authority and questions it at every turn. It’s based on protocol and diplomacy; he hates rules, and you don’t know what he’s going to say next — but it’ll probably be inappropriate.”

In the process, Shore has helped create new case law, at least where TV is concerned.

Failing legal drama cheats deathConsider: Where is the precedent for a long-running show to cheat death from audience erosion and creative fatigue by dumping half of its ensemble (including series star Dylan McDermott), redeploying its holdovers (Camryn Manheim, Steve Harris and Michael Badalucco) for support duty, then pointing the spotlight at its fast-and-loose newcomer — effectively restoring the series’ original brash vision, not to mention healthy ratings! (It quickly crushed its fall NBC rival, the highly anticipated Rob Lowe drama, “The Lyon’s Den.”)

But even as Shore saves the day for his adoptive Boston law firm, Spader generously shares the credit for saving “The Practice.”

“If this show is working right now, it’s because somewhere between 150 and 200 people have made it work, weekly,” he insists. “They were so hospitable (to me), and so excited to be back.”

For evidence of the show’s revival, don’t miss the upcoming story arc that finds Shore defending his childhood friend (played by guest star Patrick Dempsey), a dentist accused of murdering his mistress. Just to add a little spice, the legal bills are being paid by the client’s wealthy, domineering mother (Jill Clayburgh), with whom Alan shares a sordid secret. The tale begins this Sunday at 10 p.m., continuing Feb. 22 and March 7.

“It took me by surprise, and I like things that take me by surprise,” says Spader, explaining his reaction when David E. Kelley, creator of “The Practice,” invited him aboard. “David had really thrown the show right up into the air as high as he could throw it, and really didn’t know how it was gonna land. I liked that.”

Clearly, Spader has a taste for surprise in the roles he takes and the way he performs them.

He burst on the scene as the camcorder-wielding interrogator of “sex, lies and videotape,” for which he won as best actor at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. Among dozens of subsequent films: “Wall Street,” “White Palace,” “Wolf,” “Stargate” “Crash” and “Secretary.”

Spader keeps audience guessingTurning 44 last week, Spader still has the looks of a choirboy who knows more than he should or is willing to tell. He has heavy-lidded, dreamy eyes that register on film as alternately soulful, and lifeless as a mannequin’s.

In short, Spader is an actor who keeps you guessing (and maybe himself too) even as he tries to explain why he does it.

“When I was starting out,” he says, “acting was just something you did after school, or as a way to meet girls.”

Designating himself a high school dropout, he stresses that he left school not to be an actor but “to leave school.” In his native Boston, then New York, he bused tables, ran messages and shoveled manure, “while acting was something I just continued to do, after hours.”

Even now, he’s a family man with two young sons who views acting as a sort of sideline.

No wonder his amazement to be tackling a regular job on a TV series — and, furthermore, a job he has to get up really early for.

“When I worked all those odd jobs,” he fondly recalls, “nine times out of 10 I worked the graveyard shift. I loved that. Then I was drawn to films that had a lot of night shoots.”

Sure, there were exceptions. “I unloaded meat trucks for a while,” he shudders. “God almighty, those Monday mornings at the packing plant!

“And now here I am, Monday morning, pitch-black, driving down to the studio, and it’s much the same thing: How to lift all that meat that early in the morning, especially since now I have to be shaved and presentable.

“Still, getting there this past Monday morning, I was excited! Delivering a closing statement at 7 a.m. — I liked being there. I like working there,” says Spader softly, then says it again. “It’s a nice job.”