Thursday, July 24, 2003
Presiding Over TV’s ‘Divorce Court’: ‘A Fun Kind of Thing’
By ROGER M. GRACE
Back in the 1970s, William B. Keene was an easy-going but politically ambitious member of the Los Angeles Superior Court. Affable and intelligent, he appeared likely to attain political office—but didn’t.
His attributes did lead him to national fame, however, in a role he had not anticipated. In 1984, shortly after he retired from judicial service after 20-years-plus, he became the judge of “Divorce Court,” a five-day-a-week syndicated television show.
While it had been “much more satisfying being a real judge, deciding real cases,” Keene told me, he said he did enjoy his stint on “Divorce Court,” adjudicating “make-believe” cases.
“I was living on the fringes of show business,” Keene said, terming it “a fun kind of a thing.”
He knew he had attained celebrity status when he was walking along a street in New York City. A “guy on scaffolding” recognized him and shouted greetings, Keene recounted.
Taping of the shows took place five days a week, with four shows completed a day, Keene recalled.
“In three or four months, we would tape a whole year’s supply,” he said.
The TV judge related that when he watched the shows, he could tell from how fresh or haggard he looked how early in the day the episode was taped.
From 1986-95, he was of counsel to the law firm of Morgan, Wenzel and McNicholas—and Marshall Morgan, Lee Wenzel (since deceased) and John McNicholas all appeared as lawyers on “Divorce Court.”
McNicholas, now a name partner in McNicholas & McNicholas, said he was in four or five segments of “Divorce Court,” commenting that it was a “hoot.”
He recalled that he would appear at the studio at 6 a.m., tape a show, and be able to get to court on time.
On one show, he brought to mind, Keene ruled against him. “I tacked up a notice of appeal on the [studio’s] bulletin board,” he recited.
Another lawyer who appeared on the show was Robert Courtney, whose practice has long been restricted to criminal defense. Courtney said that people who knew him and saw him in the role of a lawyer on television assumed they had viewed an actual proceeding and would make comments to him like, “Gee, I didn’t know you did divorce work.”
His lack of knowledge of family law didn’t matter, he said, because there was a script. Deviation from the lines that were written was permissible, however, just so the final words of questioning—the cue to the actor playing the witness—was faithful to the script, Courtney said.
He noted that the attorneys were at liberty to fashion their own closing arguments. In one show, he recalled, he represented a woman who found out, after she was married, that her husband wore a toupee. Courtney said he argued that it was a marriage by fraud and that his client should get this, and that—“but, by way of settlement, he can keep the toupee.”
Using attorneys to portray attorneys was faithful to the formula of the original 1957-69 show. But in later years, Keene said, those roles went to actors.
“I think the actors were better,” he commented, explaining that “sometimes the lawyers were very stiff in front of the cameras.” A number of them were accustomed to taking copious notes in court, Keene added, and “couldn’t get away from that yellow pad.”
Another eventual change he pointed to was that actual cases no longer inspired the storylines. He said the writers were turned loose and “didn’t script anything that resembled a decided case,” acknowledging that some of the situations they dreamt up were “way out in left field.”
Through the seven years the show was on the air, he said, “my role didn’t change.” His rulings, he explained, were always ad libbed, and he could make the call any way he saw fit.
The original “Divorce Court” was criticized for its frequent use of adultery as a theme. Back then, of course, adultery was a ground for divorce. But “no-fault” divorce had been in effect in California since 1970.
So on the new “Divorce Court,” there were no more suits based on adultery, right? Wrong.
The show was set in a “‘fault’ jurisdiction,” Keene advised.
And in that jurisdiction, adultery was a ground for divorce…and presumably a basis for ratings.
Courtney said that “probably half the scripts” dealt with adultery. He remembered the fact situation in one case he handled on the show:
“The bride fooled around with the husband’s brother in the wedding dress at the reception. The husband’s mother walked in on them.”
Not exactly family entertainment.
Next week, a discussion of another courtroom show in the 1980s, “Superior Court.”
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company
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