Thursday, July 31, 2003
Surly Ex-Police Officer Presides On TV’s ‘Superior Court’
By ROGER M. GRACE
Superior Court” was one of a number of courtroom shows that went on the air in the 1980s with hope on the part of the producers that the success of “People’s Court” would be duplicated. It wasn’t, in any instance.
That hope seemed realistic with respect to “Superior Court” for a simple reason. It, like the ratings-winner that inspired the imitators, was a production of Stu Billett and Ralph Edwards.
But while “People’s Court” was like a child to Billett, “Superior Court” was more of a stepchild.
Unlike the show launched in 1981 with retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph A. Wapner presiding, the new program wasn’t Billett’s idea, and he didn’t pick its initial star, former Beverly Hills Municipal Court Commissioner William D. Burns Jr.
Telepictures Corporation (now part of Warner Brothers) was syndicator of “People’s Court.” It wanted to do a scripted courtroom show, like “Divorce Court,” and do it on its own. At the last minute, however, it brought Billett in, and gave him the task of producing a pilot—virtually “overnight,” he noted.
There was a rush to get the pilot shot, Billett explained, because the National Assn. of Television Program Executives provided a forum in various cities each January at which producers could show their wares. Station managers would come to pick shows to place in their line-ups the following fall. The NATPE exhibitions were close at hand.
Billett said he found a “spectacular” courtroom set which Paramount had assembled for a movie which it decided not to shoot, and was planning to dissemble. The producer said he acquired it and had it moved to the private studio nearby on Vine Street where “People’s Court” was already being taped.
Burns had already been selected to play the judge. Scenes were hurriedly assembled. In one, Billett recounted, a purchaser of a home sued because he hadn’t been told that the previous owner died there of AIDS. The producer brought to mind:
“One of the lines was, ‘You can’t get AIDS from a home.’ ”
The show, depicting both civil and criminal proceedings, went on the air in 1986. It debuted here on Sept. 16 at 4 p.m. on KHJ-TV, Channel 9. Like “People’s Court,” it was a half-hour program, broadcast five days a week.
The fact that “Superior Court” was scripted is seen by Billett as one of the reasons why it paled in comparison to “People’s Court” on which Wapner decided actual disputes (binding arbitrations in a court setting).
“ ‘People’s Court’ was real and ‘Superior Court’ was not,” he said.
Burns, who at that time was a neighbor of mine, was not someone I would have pegged as potential rival to Wapner. A former police officer, he was gruff and rough around the edges—though, as Billett recalled his countenance: “He kind of looked like Spencer Tracy, if you squinted in the dark.”
Burns was commonly referred to in the press as a “real judge,” through he hadn’t been. He was a commissioner for a period of about two and a half years, ending in 1981.
Billett said he doesn’t know how Burns came to be selected. However, the managing editor of the show, Harvey Levin (yes, the Harvey Levin seen through the years on “People’s Court”), told me he thinks an executive of Telepictures encountered Burns when he appeared before him on a traffic ticket.
The show did feature “real cases,” in a sense. There were not on-air adjudications, as on “People’s Court.” Indeed, it would be a bit difficult to use such an approach where the disputants were the state and alleged felons. Rather, as on “Divorce Court” and courtroom shows of earlier decades, fact situations were derived from actual cases.
“We went and found all these great cases,” Billett enthused, noting that they scoured Lexis. He termed the experience “more fun than anything I’d done.”
Levin (an attorney, now on inactive status) told me that “pitch meetings” were held at which decisions were made as to which cases made the grade. (It sounds like the Wednesday conferences of the California Supreme Court.) Levin said that spirited debates took place among him, Billett, writers Joyce Corrington and her husband (since deceased) John William Corrington, who had been a practicing attorney, and others.
“Superior Court” was “much more story driven” than “People’s Court,” Levin said, which he termed “performer driven.”
The show lasted three seasons. There were 238 episodes.
Its moment of glory—actually, a week of glory—came in 1987 when guest judges included a former California chief justice, a sitting Court of Appeal presiding justice, and a judge of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. And there were daily comments from a member of the United States Supreme Court. More about that next week.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company
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