Thursday, May 1, 2003
‘Day in Court’ Judge Bolts When Show Becomes Soap Opera
By ROGER M. GRACE
“Day in Court,” an ABC-TV network offering from 1958-65, featured accurate portrayals of courtroom proceedings—at least until its star, UCLA law Professor Edgar Allan Jones Jr., left the show.
With Jones presiding, there was spontaneity and a quest for faithfulness to the law.
Real cases were selected, but ones that had “twists.” Here’s a listing for the Nov. 3, 1960 “Day in Court” show: “A man is accused of attempting a bank robbery by using hypnosis.”
Top UCLA third-year law students who would otherwise have needed to work 20 hours a week to support themselves were paid an equivalent sum to conduct five hours a week of legal research for the show, with the proviso that they donate the remaining 15 hours to the law review or equivalent activities. The product of their research was utilized by writers, who fashioned scripts, unseen by Jones until the rehearsals.
One researcher was William Gould, editor-in-chief of the law review in his senior year, now a name partner in the Century City law firm of Troy & Gould. He expresses gratitude for the program Jones set up, remarking:
“I was newly married and had no money, and it got me through school.”
He said he submitted four story ideas a week, each set forth on a single page. The ideas were derived from published appellate decisions, or occasionally were applications of principles in a restatement, he said.
The summary told how the judge should rule, Gould recalled. He said a writer would occasionally phone him to ask if a different result should be reached if the facts were tweaked in this way or that.
One case he brought to mind was developed from an appellate court opinion harking to a bygone era. An action was brought by a man who was injured when riding through town on horseback. He alleged negligence in the form of a carpenter’s bench having been left in the middle of a street. Updating the facts, Gould said that in his scenario, the plaintiff was a bike rider injured as the result of running into an obstruction in the street.
Jones’ tenure as a judge of “Day in Court” ended in October, 1964. His show had been number 1 in the daytime ratings—with a weekly total of about 20 million viewers—and “General Hospital,” a soap opera, had been number 2. But then “General Hospital” pulled ahead of “Day in Court,” so, the network programmers reasoned, “Day in Court” should be turned into a soap.
“There was no way I could have gone along with that,” Jones told me.
A UPI columnist, Rick Du Brow, commented Oct. 30, 1964:
“It is irritating to watch how ABC-TV’s respectable afternoon show, ‘Day in Court,’ has been turned into a soap opera in the current network trend toward serials.
“The major destruction of the program’s past concept was brought about this week with the beginning of a 10-part continuing story. Notable by his absence, because of his rejection of the new formula, is the man who used to be the star and the main reason for watching ‘Day in Court,’ Edgar Allan Jones Jr….
“ ‘Day in Court’ and television have lost a remarkable performer in Jones. There was no better ad libber in the television medium—and it was necessary, for the program’s authenticity, that he be accomplished in this skill. For it was Jones’ belief that though the shows and cases were thoroughly researched by top students, tones and innuendoes could give different impressions and lead to different conclusions when acted out—and to react naturally and with legal logic, he would often ad lib, even decisions, requiring sharp reactions from his casts.”
The show left the air four months later.
In 1991, Jones retired as a law professor, after 40 years at UCLA. He’s written a novel, “Mr. Arbitrator,” and is working on another book, “Break a Leg, Professor” (on a law school professor with a TV show). At 82, he continues to handle labor arbitrations, which he’s been doing since 1953.
Next week: a look at the courtroom TV show craze of the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company
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