STORY WRITTEN BY ROB LOWMAN
Southern California News Group
In Billy Bob Thornton’s new series “Goliath,” his character has an electric guitar sitting in his living room.
The actor, who recently came off the roadwith his band The Boxmasters, says the guitar was the idea of the prop guys, who knew he was a musician.
But don’t expect to see Thornton playing it in the new series from David E. Kelley, premiering Fridayon Amazon. “I might hit a guy with it,” the actor allows. That goes to his volatile character Billy McBride, a once-respected trial lawyer and former partner in a high-powered legal firm who has taken to drink and fallen down a long way in his career. Circumstances, however, bring him full circle, and he finds himself in court against the firm he helped found.
Thornton says he has always wanted to play a character like this.
“He’s a down-and-out guy who has been kicked up by the big boys, the kind guy who is never part of the student council at school. This guy is a junkyard dog who has been in the big arenas.”
Adding, “So there is a parallel of my own life. I’ve never been part of Hollywood. I always felt like I had to fight the system in terms of getting things that I like to do.”
Kelley, who has won 10 Emmys for his legal dramas, such as “Ally McBeal,” “L.A. Law,” “The Practice” and “Boston Legal,” has a law degree from Boston University. He created “Goliath” with Jonathan Shapiro, a former federal prosecutor and trial lawyer. So both have knowledge of what it’s like inside the courtroom.
The pair zeroed in on Thornton, who could balance both the character’s damage and legal smarts..
“When Billy Bob came in, he connected with the character and started to play with his unlikability,” says Kelley. “He gives him a rage that is interesting,” adds Shapiro, noting that when they talked with Thornton about the role he started talking about things that upset him in America’s legal system.
“Then I went to see his band in Agoura, and in the middle of the concert he sort of took the microphone and went on a tear about society,” says Shapiro.
Thornton had played a lawyer once before in “The Judge,” which starred Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. “I did what I call a big cameo and did most of my research for that,” he says. “But I thought I wanted to do this for a longer period of time than just a few scenes.”
Billy McBride is clever — Kelley says Billy “graduated from Indiana University with the idea of being Atticus Finch” — but now he’s a mess with a drinking problem. Shapiro cites a Betty Ford survey done with the American Bar Association that shows close to 36 percent of all attorneys have problem-drinking issues and more than 25 percent have depression.
The eight-episode “Goliath” refers to the law firm McBride had founded with Donald Cooperman (William Hurt). The two had a bitter falling out years before, and McBride was ousted. Now Cooperman rules the firm that has turned into a “monster of its own,” Kelley says.
Maria Bello, who plays McBride’s ex-wife and is still a member of his old law firm, wanted to be a lawyer when she went to Villanova studying international women’s rights.
The actress took a U-turn after graduation and decided to give acting a shot, but she remains interested in women’s rights and is producing four films that feature strong women.
“This is the first time on television I’ve actually gotten to play a lawyer; so I’m enjoying myself,” she says.
Bello was attracted to the show because of Kelley.
“He was way before his time when it comes to writing strong, complex female characters when you think about “The Practice,” “LA Law” and “Ally McBeal.”
“Goliath,” which is set in Los Angeles, revolves around a case involving an industrial disaster that McBride’s old firm had settled years before. Then a small-time lawyer brings McBride a claim by one of the victim’s sisters. The eight-episode run has a complete beginning, middle and end and won’t leave viewers hanging if there isn’t a second season.
Kelley has two more series coming: a one-hour dramedy for HBO called “Big Little Lies,” coming in February, and another for DirecTV in the works.
After his experience doing the first season of ‘Fargo” on FX, Thornton has been looking more toward TV. In the past Thornton would split his time between indie films and studio stuff. He’ll be seen in “Bad Santa 2” onNov. 23.
“The truth of the matter is that independent film is pretty much done, and if you’re going to do anything approaching independent film, it is in this type of television.”
There is no commitment for a second season of “Goliath” yet, although everyone is open to coming back
“There is another story to be told if we’re fortunate enough to get that far,” says Kelley, but he hopes that the first season’s story of an underresourced individual lawyer taking on a corporate giant will resonate with audiences.
The showrunner says when he was doing his early shows, litigators were the heroes, but the practice of law has changed since.
“We always believed that law was where democracy could ultimately thrive,” Kelly says. “That was the leveling playing field where, if someone was wronged, they could get their day in court and right that wrong. And the truth is that’s just not true anymore.”