Thursday, June 19, 2003
Sheldon Sloan: Almost the Star of the ‘People’s Court’
By ROGER M. GRACE
“People’s Court,” which went on the air in 1981 and lasted for 12 years, is associated in just about everyone’s mind with its star during those years, retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph A. Wapner. However, the show had been in the planning stage for six years, and was not developed with Wapner in mind.
A former Los Angeles Municipal Court judge, Sheldon H. Sloan, has told me that he had been offered, and tentatively accepted, the role. Other judges, I’ve learned, were also in contention.
“It looked interesting, and I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it,’ ” Sloan, the 1996-97 Los Angeles County Bar Assn. president, recounted.
But, as lawyers are prone to do, Sloan wanted to negotiate the terms.
Stu Billett, who was to serve as executive producer of the syndicated show (along with Ralph Edwards), met Sloan through a mutual friend. Billett interviewed the former judge—who had been on the bench from 1973-76 —“a couple of times” and, as Sloan remembers it, told him, “You’re the guy I want.”
However, Sloan was then making $250 or $275 an hour as a sole practitioner, and Billett, he recounted, was “offering to pay me what I could be making practicing law.” Also on the downside was that five half-hour shows were to be taped each Saturday, cutting down on his time with his two kids.
So, Sloan wanted the pie sweetened. Through his friend and client Lee Gabler, a top Hollywood agent, he sought to negotiate for an interest in the show if it were to become successful. But while the negotiations were taking place, Sloan related, Wapner retired. (He left the bench Nov. 16, 1979.)
Billett contacted him, Sloan said, and told him:
“Shelly, you’re a great guy, but Joe Wapner looks more like a judge than you do.”
This was probably in early 1980. Sloan was 45 at the time, and the white-haired Wapner was 60.
Does Sloan regret not having grabbed the job when it was offered?
“I hardly ever look back,” he said.
And, he reflected, he’s not sure that public recognition is something he would have wanted.
His son-in-law is actor Jim Belushi. Sloan said he realizes the pains of fame when he goes to a restaurant with his daughter and her spouse, explaining:
“His life is interrupted. People come over. They want his autograph. They want to talk with him, pose for pictures with him.”
Wapner told me he hadn’t known of negotiations by the producers with Sloan. He disclosed, however, that when he did a screen test for the role, he did discern that a retired judge who had been a colleague of his on the Superior Court was also in the running. The nameplate on the bench bore that former jurist’s moniker, he said.
Apparently, Wapner did not push for terms as advantageous as Sloan wanted. He revealed that he didn’t acquire any ownership interest in the show until he had been on it for 10 years.
Billett said he doesn’t remember negotiations with Sloan, but won’t dispute that they occurred. He recounted that they “had two or three judges” under consideration for the role—and were contemplating alternating them—before Wapner auditioned.
A person to whom he does recall offering the part is M. Peter Katsufrakis, the real-life Los Angeles Municipal Court small claims judge back then. Billett said Katsufrakis was “afraid to leave the bench” because he would have surrendered retirement benefits. The producer recounted that Katsufrakis was “very unhappy” after the show “became a big hit.”
I remember in the mid 1960s, as a college student, going to small claims court to watch “The Peter Katsufrakis Show,” a form of entertainment resembling the rowdy TV talk show with Joe Pyne.
Another jurist who regrets not having foreseen the success of “People’s Court” is Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Malcolm Mackey, who in 1979 replaced Katsufrakis in the small claims court. KABC aired live proceedings in his courtroom on one occasion and ABC’s “20-20” later taped a segment there, he recounted. An outgrowth of that, Mackey said, was an offer by Billett to have him preside in the pilot for “People’s Court.”
That would have meant resigning from office. The mere chance of landing the role if the pilot were successful didn’t seem to be worth the sacrifice.
Even if he got the role, Mackey said, he assumed the show would not go beyond a 26-week run.
“People’s Court,” with Wapner, did become an enormous success. Conceivably, the show, starring Sloan or Katsufrakis or Mackey, would have been an even greater success; perhaps it would have flopped.
But it was Wapner who got the role, and next week, I’ll take a look at how that came about.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company
MetNews Main Page Reminiscing Columns