If ever there was a perfect name for a show about celebrity defense attorney Mark Geragos, ABC TV found it: “Notorious.”
The series, which debuts tonight (Sept. 22) in the 9 p.m. time slot that long housed the hot new series “Scandal,” offers a look behind the curtain at how a lawyer closely based on Geragos creates a symbiotic relationship with a major TV news producer who helps him spin and win a number of headline-making cases.
The show is indeed based on Geragos’ 20-year work relationship with Wendy Walker, a top producer at CNN who allowed the lawyer to make frequent appearances on the network that garnered her both scoops and great ratings. He, in turn, used his chance to comment on cases as an opportunity to set the tone of public opinion toward his cases and clients.
With a client base that has included singer Chris Brown, killer Scott Peterson and the legendary Michael Jackson, Geragos has established himself as the go-to attorney for stars facing serious legal challenges. Yet, despite his choice of clients, the affable barrister has received widespread acclaim for his extensive pro bono work and other charitable endeavors, developing a reputation as a pillar of the local Armenian-American community. The longtime La Cañada Flintridge resident is also a frequent presence in Pasadena’s social scene.
With the debut of “Notorious” (on which he is an executive producer and a frequent consultant) about to air, Geragos, 58, took time out to speak with the Pasadena Weekly about the show, his father (a former prosecutor), his charity work and why he became a defense attorney.
PW: How closely does “Notorious” tie into your life?
Mark GeragoS: It’s loosely based on my relationship with Wendy Walker, who for 20 years was a senior vice president at CNN and was the executive producer of “Larry King Live.” Wendy has been a very close friend of mine. Piper Perabo plays Wendy, and Daniel Sunjata plays my part. There’s a fascinating dance we do between someone like myself representing high-profile clients and someone like Wendy, who’s producing shows that get all kinds of ratings. I don’t think the public quite gets the dance, or the symbiotic relationship between two people like that, but this is going to pull back the curtain.
What would you say to those who would find that kind of attorney-press relationship questionable?
I’ve always said if you as a lawyer are representing clients who are high profile in the culture, if you don’t try to shape what’s going on in the culture, then you’re doing your client a disservice. And that’s precisely what the show is about.
The show has the same fun, thriller vibe as “Scandal.” Some of the twists in the pilot are jaw-dropping. Are the plots close to the reality of your cases?
The first show is about my character, Jake Gregorian, whom I named after my son. He goes to the house of a client whom the LAPD has surrounded after he’s supposedly barricaded himself in his house. Just last week, I was doing a podcast and got a call that Chris Brown was in his house with the LAPD surrounding it. I had to go up there. When he finally came out after I got there, he raised his hands just like the character of client Oscar Keaton in “Notorious,” and that was a perfect example of life imitating art. Not only could you not predict it, but when I was living it, I was thinking to myself, “People are going to think I set this whole thing up.”
So is the show going to draw cases largely from real life, like “Law & Order?”
The first episode, I couldn’t have planned it if I wanted to, to have a client with an identical situation. But most of the other episodes, I’ll sit in the writer’s room and give them trials and cases I had and the writers will run wild with it. It’s different from “Law & Order” because it’s not only the public cases that I’ve got, but also things that nobody knows about that the writers take and run with.
So do you get a lot of criticism or pushback for taking on some of your clients, whom the public sometimes broadly assumes are guilty?
All the pushback I get is ironic. As soon as someone has a problem, the first person they call is me, and then they don’t understand why things don’t go as smoothly as they would hope. There’s an old expression that “A Democrat is a Republican who’s been indicted.” Until you have the authorities coming after you, you don’t truly understand or appreciate what a lawyer can do for you.
Do you ever turn down anyone who asks to be a client?
I’m in a very good position now. In the old days, I’d tend to take anyone who’d pay. I’m in a position now that that’s not the case. I take cases I believe in, clients I believe in, and that’s liberating. My criterion is that I like to like the client or the cause, and I tend to want to be the person who’s fighting against the authorities and helping the underdog.
You do a lot of charity and pro bono work as well.
We spent a whole lot of time on Pasadena’s Armenian Genocide Memorial at the corner of Walnut [Street] and Raymond [Avenue]. We’re currently sponsoring the Pasadena Police Athletic League Golf Tournament, and I do all kinds of pro bono work for Armenian Bone Marrow Donor Registry. I’m the chairman of that, and I’m on the board of the Armenia Fund, which has raised over $150 million mostly through telethons on Thanksgiving Day. There’s quite a few other charitable endeavors and pro bono work going on literally every day of the week.
You got your start in law by growing up watching your father Paul in action.
My father, who’s my hero, was a district attorney for the first 13 years of my life. He’s still alive and through 2003 was my partner, and that’s why we called it Geragos & Geragos. I used to follow him around in courts up until I was in eighth grade watching him prosecute. The reason I didn’t become a prosecutor and am a defense lawyer is I watched him put a guy away in state prison for having marijuana and I said, “Dad, how can you do this? It’s unbelievable.” And shortly thereafter he left the prosecutor’s office. He and I worked 20 years together.
My father is my hero, still alive but obviously not hitting on all cylinders. What I inherited from him was his passion for his work. There are a lot of easier ways to make money than practicing law, so it’s not about that. It’s about the change you can effect by working in the law and helping the underdog.