Gil Bellows had one of his biggest acting breakthroughs on the silver screen, but he had just as important a role on the small screen a few years later. The actor portrayed the young felon Tommy in the powerful classic The Shawshank Redemption in 1994 but became a fixture on television with his role as Billy Thomas on Ally McBeal, which will be released in a huge 31-disc The Complete Series set and the Ally McBeal: Season 1 six-disc set on October 6. I recently had the chance to speak with Bellows over the phone and here's what he had to say about his experiences on the series.
Can you start by talking about how you first discovered this series and how you met David E. Kelley and how this whole process worked for you?
Gil Bellows: Sure. Well, how I first came to know about it is my wife is also an actor. She was sent the script while she was doing a movie in Chicago, to put herself on tape for the role of Ally McBeal. So I got a video camera and read the lines with her while she put her tape together. At the end, after we finished, I said, 'You know what, this is really good... but you're not Ally McBeal.' She wasn't very pleased with me when I told her that (Laughs), so my first experience was from a personal standpoint. Then a few weeks later, I got a call from Jeffrey Kramer, who was one of the executive producers on the show and he asked if I had heard about the show. I said I had and he said they'd like me to play Billy. I read it and I really liked it and they said that they had just cast this girl named Calista Flockhart and I knew Calista from New York and knew she was a great actress. They said they'd like to see us in a room together, so we met up in some room, I think on 53rd Street, and we had a scene together and then just sat side by side and talked a little bit. They sent this tape to L.A. and I got a call the next day saying to hop on a plane and come shoot the pilot. So yeah. That was it.
I had read that you knew Calista in New York before when you were doing theater so what was it like working with her every day on the set like that? This was really her breakout role so what was it like working with her every day?
Gil Bellows: It was great working with everybody on the set every day. I think, in a way, it was a show where a lot of people got to be discovered by a mainstream audience. Yeah, Calista was fantastically talented but what was great about the show was that everybody else was too. You got to watch everybody else get their moments and kick ass and laugh a lot. It was really cool.
So can you talk about working with David E. Kelley? This was really a revolutionary show when it came on the air so can you talk about working with him, and what a unique experience that was?
Gil Bellows: Sure. Well David has a very unique style, in that, he hires really efficient, capable people to run the difficult production side of his work, so that he can, in essence, just concentrate on the writing. That's what he does and the way you kind of work with David Kelley is he writes the script... and you go and do it. That's sort of the way it goes. It's unique, but it's incredibly effective and it ends up working real well for everyone because there's not a whole lot of confusion. I mean, if you have any, you can, of course, sit down with him and talk to him, but that's pretty rare. It never got to a point where anything was so confusing that it had to interrupt the flow of what was going on.
Nice. That must be really refreshing for a TV show.
Gil Bellows: Yeah. He just happened to be incredibly prolific and incredibly talented, simultaneously.
I talked to Vonda Shepard about the music of the series, and when the show premiered, there was really nothing like it, especially with the music and that kind of stuff. So what was your reaction when you first actually show the series and all these different elements that came into play?
Gil Bellows: I always thought the show was really good and unique, but I thought that meant that nobody was going to like it and watch it. So, you're doing the show, you're working for about three or four months before anybody gets to see it, so you're kind of working in a vacuum at first. Then, a few months later it's Christmas time and everyone goes away for the holidays and by that point, it had permeated into the general consciousness and while you're away on vacation, because it's on all the time, people come up to you so much and say they love the show, that it's working. People really seemed to like it.
So do you still get that, on the street, people noticing you from Ally McBeal these days?
Gil Bellows: Sure, absolutely. It still seems to be something that people are excited about and just want to share the fact that they enjoyed it so much.
So you worked in a lot of TV before and after this, so I was just wondering where this series stands out for your, in your career?
Gil Bellows: Boy, in television, it's definitely the best thing that I've ever been a part of, for sure. I think it's one of those things that, 30 or 40 years from now, will still have some sort of anecdotal connection to the storytelling.
So I was curious if there was any favorite memory from either Calista or anyone else that stands out while you were making this series?
Gil Bellows: Well, the thing that I really enjoyed about working with Calista was I loved laughing with her. Sometimes we'd just laugh and we'd end up laughing for two or three minues, uncontrollably, non-stop. I loved that. People didn't really get to see that, so it's kind of a special thing that happened on the set.
There has been some talk of some of these other popular series doing reunions, so has there been any talk of an Ally McBeal reunion at all?
Gil Bellows: I've been asked that, but I haven't been involved. I have no idea.
Would that be something you'd be interested in, getting together with all the old cast-matest again?
Gil Bellows: I think it'd just be good to get together and break bread and find out what's going on in people's lives, more than anything else.
So you have a film called Unthinkable that is in the works for next year, so is there anything you can say about your role in that?
Gil Bellows: Sure. That's a film directed by Gregor Jordan starring Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Sheen and Carrie-Anne Moss. It's a sort of a reflection on... it's an argument on torture. It's a really clever, really well-executed film. I also produced a film called Temple Grandin as well. It will come out in February as well and it's about the real-life person, Temple Grandin, and it stars Claire Danes, David Strathairn, Julia Ormond and Catherine O'Hara for HBO.
Oh, wow. Will that debut on the network then and did you act in that at all or was it strictly a producing role?
Gil Bellows: It will debut on the network and it was strictly a producing role.
So is that something that you're getting more into these days, the producing side?
Gil Bellows: Yeah. I'm in a little bit of all of it. I've just co-written a script that we're trying to put together called All Along the Watchtower with the writer-director Ali Selim, who wrote and directed Sweet Land, which I developed and executive produced. Anyway, All Along the Watchtower is the story of Gene Roberts, who was Malcolm X's bodyguard and when Malcolm was assassinated, there was this photograph that went out the next day in the newspapers of this young man giving Malcom CPR. That was Gene and after that, after Malcolm's death, Gene joined the Harlem chapter of the Black Panthers and when the Panther 21 were arrested in 1970 for conspiracy to bomb department stores and traffick weapons and kill police officers and over 100 other felony counts, the star witness for the prosecution was Gene Roberts because the entire time he had been an undercover cop.
Wow. That sounds amazing. So, is that still in the writing stages then?
Gil Bellows: We just completed it so we're now going to go out and find ourselves a Gene Roberts to play it.
Excellent. I'll definitely keep my eye out for that. So, finally, what would you like to say to all the fans of the show about their support throughout the years and what to expect from this new DVD set?
Gil Bellows: Well, first of all, I'd like to thank the fans for their support. We have amazing fans that were devoted to that show so I'm just glad for them that they're finally going to be able to own the DVD's so they can watch them. What I'm excited about as well is there's this new generation, late teens or early 20s who were too young, at that point, to watch the show, who I think would really love it. I think that's the great thing about boxed sets, is it gives a whole other generation an opportunity to experience the magic and excitement that got people interested in the first place.
Excellent. Well that's all I have for you, Gil. Thanks so much for your time and the best of luck with all your new film projects.
Gil Bellows: Thank you. Take care.
The gigantic Ally McBeal: The Complete Series 31-disc set and the Ally McBeal: Season 1 six-disc set will both be available on DVD on October 6.