Actors and Other Performers

Some lawyers turn to acting or writing as a career. They may have taken law degrees to pay the bills, or because they liked law, but they also honed the legal skills that allowed them to shine in other areas.

John Cleese, who got his start as a comedic and improvisational actor during his university years and later went on to become a founding member of the immensely influential comedy troupe Beyond the Fringe, studied law at Cambridge. He is very familiar to today’s audiences as a founding member of the comedic group Monty Python, its series and its spin-off films (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Monty Python’s Life of Brian) and as the star of Fawlty Towers, as well as as the star of such films as A Fish Called Wanda and Fierce Creatures.

The late Ross Martin (1920-1981) graduated from the National University School of Law (now George Washington University School of Law) before turning to acting.

John Davis Lodge graduated from Harvard Law, and was both an ambassador (to Argentina among other countries) and an actor (The Scarlet Empress (with Marlene Dietrich) and Bulldog Drummond at Bay) Those Bulldog Drummond films were very popular.

Sheila James, who as Zelda Gilroy ceaselessly chased Dobie Gillis in the popular sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, left acting for Harvard Law, graduated at the top of the class (1978) and has served as a member of the California Legislature. She now uses the name Sheila (James) Kuehl.

Bruno Campos, who had recurring roles in such series as E.R. (as Dr. Eddie Dorset), The D.A. (as Mark Camacho), and Nip/Tuck (as Dr. Quentin Costa), left acting in 2010 to earn a J.D. at the University of Michigan Law School.  He is now an associate with Covington & Burling.

Isaac Lidsky, who turned up on Saved By the Bell after Dustin Diamond (Screech) left the show, also left acting for Harvard Law (’04); he later clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and is now in London as a Temple Bar scholar.

William Sanderson, famous from the Nick at Nite television network as the marvelously eccentric Larry, of “Larry, Darryl and Darryl” on Bob Newhart’s Newhart television series, and from the cult film Blade Runner, graduated from Memphis State Law School (now the University of Memphis Law School).

Paul Robeson was a noted actor, as well as a gifted singer (see under Composers and Musicians). Taylor Simpson-Wood, a Tulane Law School graduate, appears in such films as Monster’s Ball, French Silk, False Witness and House of Secrets, a remake of the classic thriller Diabolique. She is also a member of the law school faculty at Barry University.

Former Senator Fred Thompson (TN) had a fairly successful motion picture career before turning to politics. He received his JD from Vanderbilt University.

Portia de Rossi (“Nelle Porter” on Ally McBeal) was in law school when the acting bug bit. And of course, some practicing attorneys parlay their success as lawyers into acting or writing careers, with varying degrees of success.

Johnnie Cochran, one of the members of the “Dream Team” that defended O.J. Simpson, has tried his hand at acting.

Christopher Darden, one of the O.J. prosecutors, played a detective at odds with the female district attorney in the television movie The Trophy Wife’s Secret (also called One Hot Summer Night), and also has started writing novels; among them is L. A. Justice, featuring an African-American female attorney named Nikki Hill. He writes these with Dick Lochte who has written several mysteries set in Louisiana.

Jim Pritchett became known as Dr. Matt Powers on the daytime drama The Doctors after earning a JD from the University of North Carolina Law School; here’s more about his long career.

Lawyer Dean Obeidallah co-founded the Arab American Comedy Festival. Jeff Cohen was a child actor (The Goonies) who got his law degree at UCLA and opened his own firm in Los Angeles. Josh Saviano (The Wonder Years) earned a law degree from Cardozo Law School and practices in New York (curiously enough) at Morrison, Cohen.

Charles (Charlie) Korsmo (Dick Tracy, Hook) attended both M.I.T. (physics) and Yale Law School and clerked for the Hon. Ralph Winter (2d Circuit). He now teaches at Case Western University School of Law.

John Kerr (South Pacific, Tea and Sympathy) enrolled at UCLA School of Law in 1966, graduating in 1969. He maintained a private practice until retiring  in 2000.

Gerard Butler (300, P.S. I Love You) earned a law degree from the University of Glasgow before the acting bug bit. He had worked at an Edinburgh law firm and almost qualified as an attorney, but… Ed McDonald is a New York lawyer who had a part in the film “Goodfellas.”

Michael Maguire, who earned a music degree at the University of Michigan and went on to win a Tony for his performance on Broadway as the original Enjolras in Les Miserables earned a J.D. from Southwestern Law School.

Less well known lawyer-actors include Edwin Adams (JD University of Illinois) and James Brincefield (“Beau James”). I can’t overlook Melvin Belli, who appeared as “Gorgan the Friendly Angel” on an episode of Star Trek called “And the Children Shall Lead.” Michael Schwartz is an actor-lawyer-teacher. Tom Schmid quit a successful legal career to become a full-time thespian. Mike McLaren (The People vs. Larry Flynt; A Time to Kill) is also a lawyer in Memphis. Christopher Rich (born 1657) was a lawyer and theater manager. Australian-born Julian McMahon, son of a former Prime Minister, quit law school to star in a couple of primetime dramas. Cajardo Lindsey, an Indiana University Law graduate, works in Denver, but also carries on a career as an actor. Jerry O’Connell (Sliders, Crossing Jordan) briefly pursued a law degree at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. He’s married to actress Rebecca Romijn.

The similarities between acting and lawyering are not lost on commentators. See the discussion of the film Trial and Error by Rob Waring on the Picturing Justice website, Bernard Hibbitts’ The Senses in Law and my Law and Drama page. Read suggestions on how to turn an actor into a lawyer in “From a Distance”, by James C. Freund. If you’re particularly interested in using your background or interest in literature, film or television during your law studies, consider writing a paper or doing some research into the area of law and film, law and literature, or law and popular culture. I have some difficulty knowing where to classify Sterling Johnson. Trained as a lawyer and engineer, he is also a bubblemaker.  Australian-born Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect 2, What To Expect When You’re Expecting) earned a Bachelor of Laws degree in 2009 from the University of New South Wales  before embarking on an acting career.