Rikki Klieman, an accomplished attorney and actress and wife of Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, takes New York by storm
It must take a lot to throw Rikki Klieman off her game. She won’t let a blizzard ruffle her any more than a cross-country move leaving her dream job behind, or an unexpected return to public life as her husband once again assumes the top cop position in America’s biggest city.
Klieman, 65, is married to William Bratton, who just became the city’s police commissioner, a job that he had in New York for two years in the ‘90s under Mayor Giuliani and for seven years in L.A., from 2002 to 2009. When the pair returned to New York after their stint in California, both assumed they’d regain a sense of privacy and normalcy, which they did, temporarily.
“This is completely different, but I did it once before,” Klieman said of adjusting to her husband’s new gig. She recalled that when the possibility of his taking the job first came up, they sat down together with a yellow legal pad and listed the pros and cons, a scenario indicative of how they make all their big life decisions – together, and with a mutual respect for each others’ career ambitions.
“How selfish would that have been, not just as a wife but as a citizen of New York, to deny him this,” Klieman said. “The wife in me may have wanted him home and we could make angels in the snow today. [But] there is no better person than Bill Bratton for this job, and I’m proud of him, even when I’m exhausted.”
Klieman’s own professional schedule is enough to exhaust most people. She splits her time working as an on-air legal analyst for CBS This Morning, commenting on major cases that grab national attention, writing legal papers and a memoir, speaking to various groups of women leaders and attorneys, and snagging guest roles on TV shows and in movies.
“From the age of four through about the age of 24, I thought the only thing on earth that I wanted to do was be a serious actress,” she said. “I had some fantasies about coming to New York and doing Shakespeare in the Park.”
While her training at Northwestern University and years of childhood acting classes had prepared her for the craft, the gruel of auditioning in the face of fierce competition sent her in search of another career. Floundering, she reached out to a professor who had taught her undergraduate class in constitutional pre-law.
“In those days women were teachers, social workers, nurses, secretaries. There was no professional career path for women that we knew of at that point,” Klieman said. Her professor suggested that she try law school. She replied that “girls don’t go to law school.”
“And he said, ‘no, but women do.’ Those four words forever changed my life,” said Klieman.
She turned her energy to building a successful career as a trial lawyer – “what else would an actress want to be?” – and worked as a prosecutor in Boston, first under John Kerry and later William Delahunt, who became a Massachusetts congressman.
“My theater in the courtroom became worth for me so much more than outside the courtroom,” she said. She was able to draw on her acting training to become a dynamic force in the courtroom – which was sometimes on national display when Boston began broadcasting trials in 1981 – and that lead her to a job on Court TV.
“I had the good fortune of going on as a guest commentator during the O.J. Simpson preliminary,” she said. “The Daily News did a review of the legal commentators in New York and I got a great review.”
She began working for Court TV regularly. In 1998, she caught the attention of the Court TV executives, and was offered a job as a primetime host. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, Klieman remembers, but there was one problem – she had started dating Bill Bratton, and knew that the schedule demands might wreck their relationship.
“I knew if I took that job that I was going to kill my relationship with Bill. I’d been married before, I’d always put my work first, and that was not going to happen,” Klieman said. She made the unheard-of decision to ask her boss for a daytime host job instead, a choice that was much less common in the 90s, before professional women were daring to “have it all” and balancing a career with a personal life.
“I thought that I was going to ruin the cause of women for eons,” she said. “I expected to be fired.” Instead, her boss agreed to compromise and she took the nighttime gig for a few months, then transitioned to a more manageable daytime position. She stayed at Court TV until 2002, when she moved to L.A. with Bratton, to whom she was married by then. It was a tough call to leave her perfect job, but the proximity to Hollywood allowed her to re-establish her acting career. She often played lawyers and judges and worked with directors who would rely on her real-world experience to bring authenticity to the parts, like when she played a lawyer opposite James Caan on the show Las Vegas.
Now, back in New York, Klieman will still take on small roles – she played a court clerk in The Fighter and was thrilled when director David O. Russell asked and heeded her advice on making her part and the court scene as realistic as possible – and gets a helping hand from her husband in keeping it all together.
“I give a copy [of my lines] to my husband and he has a responsibility that when we are in a car together going to an event, he will take out his script, and he will run lines with me in the car, he will run lines with me on the phone between appointments,” Klieman said.
That’s just one example, she said, of how the couple keeps their relationship thriving in the midst of two high-powered and demanding careers.
“This thing that a marriage is a 50/50 effort does not sell for me. It’s 100/100,” she said.
“[Your] life is important, but the others’ life is equally important, and if you communicate on a daily basis, there are times when each person understands that there are times when the other’s needs come first.”
When they can carve it out of their schedule, the couple spends time together over dinner at their favorite Italian restaurants on the East Side, near their east midtown home, and La Mangeoire, a French restaurant on East 53rd Street and 2nd Avenue. “It’s just like you think you’re going to a country restaurant in France, it’s like going to Provence,” Klieman said. She also sings the praises of a local dry cleaner, Mme. Eleanor’s Cleaners, on First Avenue, where she has always brought her most prized pieces of clothing – like a beaded dress with a chocolate cake spill – for repair, even when she lived in L.A.
In the midst of juggling her hectic life, Klieman still takes the time to mentor young women. Her most frequent advice to the next generation is to not let fear hold them back from pursuing their professional goals.
“The world is out there. I’m just unafraid – maybe it’s because I was a young actress,” Klieman said. “Someone rejecting me is irrelevant to me, it’s not about me. If you’re not afraid of people saying no to you, you can do a lot.”
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