Robert Downey Jr. Both Saved and Shook Up ‘Ally McBeal’

The Big Picture

  • Robert Downey Jr.’s decision to join the cast of Ally McBeal in its fourth season was seen as an attempt to revive his acting career after a series of highly publicized drug arrests.
  • Adding Downey’s character Larry as a love interest for the titular character, Ally changed the dynamics of the show.
  • Despite Downey’s significant impact on the show and his Golden Globe win, his time on Ally McBeal ended unhappily when he was dismissed from the series after being arrested for drug use.


It’s almost comical now to think of an A-list actor like Iron Man and Oppenheimer star Robert Downey Jr. joining a mid-budget network dramedy. But the year was 2000, and things were different. Network television was the place to watch television, and Downey was looking to revive his acting career following a series of highly publicized drug arrests. The Oscar-nominated star joined Ally McBeal for its fourth season, at a time when the general consensus was that the once-critically beloved Ally was beginning to overstay its welcome.

Ally McBeal TV Show Poster

Ally McBeal

Follows the personal and professional life of lawyer Ally.

Release Date
September 8, 1997

Creator
David E. Kelley

Main Genre
Drama

Genres
Drama , Comedy , Fantasy

Rating
TV-PG

Seasons
5


Robert Downey Jr. Took ‘Ally McBeal’ in a New Direction

Indeed, Ally McBeal was in a precarious spot creatively at the time that Downey joined the cast. Ally’s (Calista Flockhart) first love and fellow Cage & Fish colleague Billy Thomas (Gil Bellows) had suddenly dropped dead of a brain tumor in Season 3, which supposedly explains a series of erratic behaviors the character had exhibited. Billy’s death, while tragic and well-executed, effectively ended the love triangle surrounding him, Ally, and his wife Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith), which had been a focal point of the series since the pilot. Better yet, much of Ally McBeal’s signature neurotic style of comedy (including but not limited to Ally’s hallucinations and John (Peter MacNicol) liking a fresh bowl) relied upon the titular character being single, terrified of aging, and unlucky in love. So it was an interesting choice to introduce Downey as fellow lawyer Larry Paul in Season 4 as a love interest for Ally.

The implication here, of course, is not that Ally didn’t deserve a genuine love interest who was going to stick around for more than a few episodes at a time. Especially for a series that revolves around a professional young woman’s trials and tribulations in life and love in her late twenties, network television’s presumption was that audiences would grow bored with watching Ally’s singledom and its accompanying neuroses. And the fact of the matter is that Downey and Flockhart shared as much romantic chemistry as any number of TV’s best couples, a list on which Ally and Larry should surely rank. But the writers and producers of Ally McBeal surely didn’t predict the ways in which Ally and Larry’s pairing would single-handedly save and derail the series.

Robert Downey Jr. Throws Off ‘Ally McBeal’s Dynamics

Calista Flockhart and Robert Downey Jr. in Ally McBeal
Image via Fox

Ally’s ratings had definitely been better by the time Season 4 rolled around, not at all helped by the departures of Bellows and Thorne-Smith from the main cast. For argument’s sake, let’s assume the series wasn’t its strongest in Season 3. Maybe it wasn’t, but what no one seemed to acknowledge at the time was that placing Ally McBeal in a long-term relationship would leave a hole in the series that forced the writers to place Ally’s neuroses, suddenly on vacation once she started dating Larry, on the remaining supporting cast. See also: John and Richard’s (Greg Germann) random and unwatchable trip to Los Angeles, and Ling (Lucy Liu) suddenly inheriting Ally’s abandoned penchant for physical delusions.

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What follows is somewhatof the Rhoda effect: when Valerie Harper was spun-off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s, the writers wasted no time in not only putting the terminally self-deprecating Rhoda in a relationship, but making her a married woman by halfway through the first season. Ratings were strong, but Rhoda’s creators felt she lacked the “edge” she had when she was single. They had her get divorced and the series was stronger creatively, but ratings fumbled, and it was cancelled a few years later. Even so, Rhoda is still worth a watch.

Similar to Rhoda, Ally had lost her edge when they put her in a relationship; even with her hilariously entertaining quirks and problems that apparently revolved around her wanting someone to love, she was a stronger character on her own. And one would think that someone with the star power of Robert Downey, Jr. would steal the spotlight from Flockhart, but that was also far from the case: their characters were genuinely great together. It just didn’t feel like Ally McBeal when they were.

Robert Downey Jr.’s Time on ‘Ally McBeal’ Wasn’t All Happy

As CBS News put it at the time, Downey had made a “much-heralded” comeback as Larry on Ally. When he won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Series, Miniseries or Film for his portrayal, he appeared visually overwhelmed by the attention, including a standing ovation as he approached the stage. In a 2003 interview, he regarded compliments on his time on Ally McBeal with laughter and dismissed it as highly overrated and his lowest point in terms of addiction. “Funny, isn’t it? For some people, that’s the litmus. Will he ever be as good again as he was on Ally McBeal? You put a Hugo Boss suit on a guy, clean him up a little, feed him his lines and he manages to perform like he isn’t a drooling goo-goo,” he said, maintaining that he wasn’t the right person to ask about who he was during his time on the series. “At that stage, I didn’t give a fuck whether I ever acted again.”

While the original intention was for Larry and Ally to get married at the end of Season 4, with Season 5 chronicling their married life, the actor was arrested in April 2001 after he was picked up by police, found to be under the influence of drugs. Just hours after his release, creator David E. Kelley released a statement confirming Downey’s dismissal from the series, despite reports at the time that tried to downplay his departure. Downey had previously been arrested in November 2000 while starring on Ally, but Kelley chose to keep him on. Essentially, Larry was written out of his own wedding, and he disappeared as Ally always feared he would: with a note.

Sure, Downey might’ve saved Ally McBeal from getting cancelled a season sooner. Sure, he and Flockhart made a perfect onscreen couple. But what many critics at the time chose to ignore was what made Ally what it was: Ally. Network audiences might’ve felt like they were owed the opportunity to watch the character fall in love after so much pouting and hallucinating, but they weren’t. In some bizarre way, Downey’s departure was prophetic, since it returned things to status quo: Ally McBeal lovelorn and reflective, walking home alone. Because maybe that’s just how things were meant to be.

Ally McBeal is available to watch on Disney+ in the U.S.

Watch on Disney+

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