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Corbin Bernsen of ‘L.A. Law’ proves that divorce lawyers are people, too

Corbin Bernsen, 'L.A. Law'

Corbin Bernsen in 'L.A. Law'

Gary Null/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Call it the ‘GQ’ factor, because more than anything, it’s those suits that separate Corbin Bernsen from his television alter ego, Arnie Becker. The suits, impeccably tailored, with just the proper rakish edge, are Arnie’s battle fatigues, combat uniform for the legal offensives he wages each week in the TV law offices of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak.

Until he made Arnie’s acquaintance, the thirty-two-year-old Bernsen spent most of his time in T-shirts and jeans, shorts and tank tops. A native Califronian, he usually found himself tagged by casting agents as the “rugged outdoors” type, and during an especially sparse patch in his struggling-actor days, he even posed as the Winston man. Still, Bernsen never doubted he could play a suit if he had to. “I’m a little bit shyer than Arnie,” he says. “I’m not as aggressive. But I knew I could do it.”

This past season, of course, Bernsen fooled just about everybody into thinking he was to the Armani born. As a star of L.A. Law, the newest hit in NBC’s continuing gentrification of network TV, he was arguably the most talked-about new face on the most talked-about new show on television. The show was an immediate critical success and an accelerating ratings juggernaut, and its knowingly sardonic tone was set from Bernsen’s very first entrance as the divorce attorney Arnie Becker. Greedily seizing upon the discovery that one of the firm’s senior partners had died at his desk, Becker unsentimentally declared, “I got dibs on his office.”

And so television’s first unapologetically yuppie antihero was born. Next to Arnie Becker, Michael J. Fox’s Alex Keaton is a cuddly yuppie puppy. Alex may aspire to the same corporate high life that Arnie enjoys, and Alex certainly keeps an eye riveted on his bank balance, but he is deep down a young man with a heart of gold. Becker would probably never admit to having a heart at all; though, in fact, the character keeps ricocheting between being the heartbreaker and the heartbroken. He is, in all things, a man on the make, right down to his Porsche 911, with its personalized license plates reading Litig8TR.

As the interwoven plot lines of L.A. Law have played themselves out this freshman season, an exceptionally vivid cast of characters has emerged: Jill Eikenberry’s Ann Kelsey, the career woman who’s just beginning to entertain thoughts of nesting; Michael Tucker’s Stuart Markowitz, the unassuming tax attorney who harbors secret sexual prowess; Susan Dey’s Grace Van Owen, the ardent assistant district attorney; and Harry Hamlin’s Michael Kuzak, the firm’s liberal conscience, the latest in TV’s long line of crusading attorneys, a descendant of The Defenders and Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law. But amid all the competition, it was Bernsen who broke out of the pack early, at first eclipsing even Hamlin, the nominal star of the series. Although Hamlin’s wounded authority eventually reasserted itself, Kuzak initially paled beside the more dazzling Becker, with his insinuating bedside manner always on automatic pilot.

Fearful of throwing a monkey wrench into the smoothly functioning ensemble machinery of the show, Bernsen is reluctant to claim any personal credit for Becker’s success. “I’ve really tried to refrain from looking at whose character is popular, whose isn’t,” he says. “For me, that really starts to dig into the teamwork.”

Still, he admits, Becker was an attention grabber from the start. “Every time Becker came on, it was a little bit offbeat. The show is very much about the law Television and very earnest about that, but whenever my character came on, it was a little bit more about what the lawyers are like as people.

“For me, a lot of the wonderful humor in the writing got to come out through the Becker character,” Bernsen continues. “The hardest thing about putting this character together was realizing that the guy is a rat, but you don’t want the audiences to not like him. Walking that fine line of loving to hate somebody is not easy. Done another way, he might have come off as a prick you don’t care about.”

Seductively manipulative — both on and off the job — Becker simply oozed his way through the surrounding plot complications, sweet-talking every woman in his path, turning a cold shoulder to only his adoring but increasingly self-assertive secretary, Roxanne. Meanwhile, Becker himself got taken for an emotional ride by one of his clients, an equally ruthless female film director, who discarded him once he’d done the dirty work for her. He found himself caught in the middle of his own parents’ impending divorce. And he became the unwitting accomplice to an attempted murder when, after forcing another client to confront the evidence of her husband’s philandering, she produced a pistol and started firing. By season’s end, Arnie is left, as Bernsen euphemistically puts it, “with some room for growth.”

Yet Bernsen already sees emerging signs of depth and self-awareness in the character he’s created. “At the beginning, he was called a womanizing rat and that was all,” says Bernsen. “The thing that might have worried me is that people would get the perception that we have these kind of commedia dell’arte characters, but they aren’t really — they are changing. I wanted to say, ‘Wait, wait!’ But I think that people now have come to know that these characters evolve…. Right now I feel Arnie’s a guy who’s realizing that his system, his modus operandi, doesn’t always work. Right now he’s in a reevaluation mode.”

The creation of the former executive producer of Hill Street Blues, Steven Bochco, and a Cagney & Lacey alumna, Terry Louise Fisher, L.A. Law serves notice that lawyers themselves are hardly above the law. Set in a tony downtown Los Angeles law firm, it resolutely demystifies the workings of partnership agreements, billable hours and rainmaking (the competition to bring in deep-pocketed clients). And it portrays divorce law, in particular, as psychological and financial warfare.

Inevitably, the show has put some real-life lawyers on the defensive. “It certainly has the charisma that makes you want to watch it and see it through,” testifies the Los Angeles divorce attorney Marvin Mitchelson. “It’s more true to life than most things are … but I don’t think divorce lawyers are quite that villainous. Most divorce lawyers care about helping; they are dedicated to their client’s causes. But divorce is inherently a very emotional business.”

Bernsen detects a pattern to the feedback he’s heard from professional attorneys. “Older lawyers and judges love the show,” he says. “Younger lawyers seem to be the ones who say it doesn’t happen like that. I think the younger lawyers are so busy with what they’ve learned in law school that they don’t have the life history to look back on. I think that’s why the older lawyers look back and say, ‘I know a case like that.'”

A former prosecutor herself, Terry Louise Fisher points out that Becker has been the one character viewers and critics have been quickest to pigeonhole as an unmitigated slime. Without the sparks of ego-deflating humor Bernsen brings to the role, Fisher says, Arnie would be a sorry character indeed. “Steven [Bochco] had an idea to do a series about a law firm, and he and I went off to our separate cubicles, and we both came up with a divorce lawyer,” says Fisher, reconstructing the birth of Becker. “Now, when you think divorce lawyer, the adjective that unfortunately comes up is sleazy divorce lawyer. But it was kind of apparent that the fun wouldn’t be there if that’s all he was.”

So Fisher suggested making Arnie a male rat straight out of the pages of Robin Norwood’s Women Who Love Too Much (When You Keep Wishing and Hoping He’ll Change). “Arnie, of course, doesn’t see himself as a rat.” she says. “He sees himself as armored — you have to put up this armor, or they’ll get you first. He’s probably the most vulnerable character we have. In his own way, he’s the most sensitive.

“The fantasy that fuels it is that women say, ‘He just hasn’t met the right woman yet; I can change him.’ It’s all part of a dance — a lot of women who are afraid of intimacy fall in love with the Arnie Beckers of the world. Then when they are dumped, they can say, ‘See, all men are rats.’ In my head, the Ann Kelsey character, if she’s never been involved with Arnie, she’s been involved with a lot of Arnies before Stuart Markowitz came along.”

Casting Arnie, though, proved no easy trick. “We saw a million actors,” Fisher says. “Either we’d get the Ken-doll types, leading men with no mischief and no humor, or we’d get a guy who had the mischief and the edge but didn’t have the looks.”

Bernsen, who was already tied to a development deal at NBC, read twice: first in New York, where he was living at the time. The reading fell flat. “I was in my dark theater period, real inner exploration of character,” he says. “I couldn’t capture the essence of what Becker was. I knew in my mind, but I couldn’t bring it forth in the actual reading. I was too involved, introspective. Becker has to have that free-flying, free-wheeling joie de vivre.”

Some months later, back in his home town of Los Angeles, he went up for the part again, and this time it clicked. “Being back in Los Angeles brought back a lot of the lifestyle…. I started seeing people like Becker on the street … and something just happened that I didn’t ask for or plan or motivate in any way.”

“We had Corbin reading with stunning actresses, and you couldn’t take your eyes off him,” says Fisher. “There’s a quirky quality about him; he really holds your eye.”

Having signed for the series, Bernsen found himself at the receiving end of pitches from agents, business managers and publicists — all eager to help him cash in on the promise of a hit. And rather than any particular lawyer, it was one of the business managers he encountered who became a model for Arnie’s wheedling ways. “He gave me this sell in his office one day,” Bernsen says of the unnamed operator. “He told me he’d make me millions, and then he flashed me this big smile. Really, from the one guy I realized how lawyers try to make people comfortable, assure them that they are going to do the best for them, give them a big reassuring smile and then dig in further.”

The ongoing question for Bernsen, however, has been whether or not Becker is truly conscious of his inherent manipulativeness. “I’d like to think that when he’s manipulating he’s not really sure what he’s doing,” he says. “When you talk about the law, yes, he’s the great manipulator, he knows exactly what he’s doing. But when it comes to his social life or what he’s doing to Roxanne, maybe I don’t want to know. Then I would be the villain.”

Although he and Arnie might share the same nearly congenital tan, the same well-honed good looks, Bernsen and Becker live in separate worlds. Becker leases a $1 million bachelor pad in Malibu, while Bernsen has not yet succumbed to the blandishments of success L.A. style, even though the prospect of spending the next five or six years in Arnie’s alligator shoes means that he is virtually guaranteed a lifetime annuity of his own. Having supported himself as a carpenter between previous acting gigs, he has yet to go house hunting, choosing instead to live in a garage that he’s renovated high in the Hollywood Hills. By design, it’s more of a high-tech New York studio, although it does open out onto a surrounding brick patio with a panoramic view of the L.A. basin. The downtown skyline, which figures in the opening credits of L.A. Law, beckons in the distance.

Instead of real estate, Bernsen talks of putting his money into a theater space on Santa Monica Boulevard. “I want kids who go to see Judas Priest or Iron Maiden to be introduced to the theater,” he says. “I’m not out to do South Pacific — unless it’s with lasers and synthesizers. I have a dream. I’d like to put on Sting in Hamlet, and I’m not talking about a rock & roll Hamlet, but a real theatrical production.”

Lounging on a futon, Bernsen talks about his showbusiness roots. His father, Harry Bernsen, is a producer, while his mother, Jeanne Cooper, is a regular on The Young and the Restless. She’s visited L.A. Law as Arnie’s domineering mom as well. As kids, Bernsen and his brother, Collin, staged their own productions — including a version of Oliver! — in the back yard of their Beverly Hills home. But growing up in a theatrical family, he also came to know the vagaries of the business firsthand. And so, when he first went off to San Diego State University, he majored in philosophy, intending to go prelaw, until his father seduced him back into the fold with a bit part in a 1974 blacksploitation epic, Three the Hard Way. Bernsen immediately switched into the theater-arts program at UCLA, staying on to earn an M.A. in playwrighting before finally heading off to New York to play the role of struggling actor.

Along the way, he played a pesky photographer in the remake of King Kong — one of the guys who provided the big gorilla with the motivation to go on a rampage with Jessica Lange. His were also four of the limbs tangled up in an orgy scene in Blake Edwards’s S.O.B. And for two years, he valiantly served as a self-described “soap-opera spear carrier” — he was Ken Graham, the cop next-door on Ryan’s Hope. But now, even though his lean days are clearly over, Bernsen is still somewhat wary, determined to stick to the slow lane.

In contrast with Becker’s nonstop womanizing, Bernsen, thanks to the relentless demands of filming twenty-three episodes of L.A. Law, has had little time for a private life beyond attending the requisite social functions that surround any hit series. He professes bewilderment that a chance encounter with Vanna White at a New Year’s Eve party was inflated to a full-blown tabloid romance. In fact, he remains unattached, describing himself for the moment as “romping through life single.”

His own three-year marriage to New York actress Brenda Cooper ended just as he was beginning to practice divorce law on TV. “It was ironic,” Bernsen says. “Here I was playing a divorce lawyer and going through a divorce. Friends warned me I’d better be careful since I was in a hit show, but it wasn’t like that. Brenda has been invaluable to me — she helped get me ready for all this.” As for women in general, Bernsen says, “I don’t have the stable that Arnie does.”

Bernsen appears equally cautious in his approach to his career. “I want a slow rise,” he says. “I’m certainly not to the point where people are going to be offering me movies like they would to Bruce Willis or Don Johnson. I don’t think I’ve gotten to a point where they’re saying, ‘We got to get Corbin Bernsen for this movie.’ In fact, people don’t know my name yet, and that’skind of good. They just call me ‘the guy in L.A. Law.’ In a couple of years, if my name gets associated with the work I’m doing, that’s great.”

But Bernsen’s own timetable has already begun to accelerate. Even before he finished shooting the season’s final episode, he received a call from film director Frank Perry to audition for Hello Again, a supernatural comedy currently shooting in New York and starring Shelley Long as a woman who comes back from the dead to find that her husband has remarried. “I’ve been crazy about Corbin for some time,” says Perry. “He’s got a charm and sweetness and believability. If his villain side is side A and his nice-guy side is side X, I’m casting him much more toward side X. The part calls for someone who is much warmer, much more human, much more of a leading man than a villain.”

But then, maybe it’s time to stop maligning poor Arnie as simply villainous. “He’s on a little bit of a low right now,” says Bernsen. “I’d like to see him get back up to a high again. There are all sorts of possibilities. I’d like to see him married and have it not work — I’d like to see that happen somewhere along the line. If he were a close friend of mine, sure, I’d like to see him meet the right woman, fall in love and be happy. The only thing I don’t want him to do is stay the same.”

In This Article: Coverwall, television

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