Thursday, August 21, 2003
1980s: Judges Played Judges, Actors Played Judges
By ROGER M. GRACE
“People’s Court” was the ratings-grabbing, premier courtroom simulation show of the 1980s. Then, there were the others.
“ ‘Superior Court’ kind of was there with the others,” its executive producer, Stu Billett, said.
Billett was also executive producer of “People’s Court” which began in 1981.
In light of the success of that series, starring retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph Wapner, “Divorce Court,” a long running show which began in the black-and-white era, was brought back in 1984. Another retired Los Angeles Superior Court judge, William Keene, presided over it. Billett called that show “a joke, almost.”
Plots were often hokey, and centered on sex.
"Superior Court" and "The Judge" debuted in 1986, and "Trial by Jury" went on the air in 1987. Other courtroom shows of the 1980s were "People's Court," which began in 1981, "Divorce Court," revived in 1984, and "On Trial," a 1988 show. All of the courtroom shows were syndicated.
“Superior Court” went on the air in the fall of 1986, as did “The Judge,” a show taped not in Hollywood but, of all places, in Columbus, Ohio. “Judge Robert Franklin” was a mellow, avuncular and white-haired gent who was shown at the opening of each show bidding his wife and kids good-bye on their doorstep, then waiving to them as he drove off to the the courthouse to do justice. He was played by an actor, Bob Shield.
In Billett’s view, “ ‘The Judge’ was done pretty well.”
KHJ-TV, Channel 9, showed “Superior Court” at 4 p.m. each weekday, followed by “The Judge.” The shows were advertised as if they were linked productions which, Billett noted, they weren’t.
The shows spotlighted in this series of columns are those that simulated court proceedings. There was the other kind of court show—the drama, with plot, and scenes shot other than on sets with make-believe courtrooms. You know, like “Perry Mason.” That 1957-66 show starred Raymond Burr—who in 1987 again appeared in a courtroom series, “Trial by Jury,” this one being of the simulated-proceedings variety. Produced by Dick Clark, it featured reenactments of old cases.
In 1988, “On Trial” went on the air, beamed locally by KCOP, Channel 13, Mondays through Fridays at noon. The title was the same as that of a 1956-57 courtroom anthology series, with episodes introduced by Joseph Cotton, and also was the title of a 1948-52 program featuring debates on public issues. The new series, unrelated to the earlier ones, was hosted by Nick Clooney, previously an anchorman on KNBC, Channel 4, and recently host on the American Movie Classics cable network. Scenes were shown of actual trials, now that cameras were allowed in courtrooms in most states.
As for “Superior Court,” its star, former Beverly Hills Municipal Court Commissioner William D. Burns Jr., was dumped after the first season. He was replaced by a former judge of that court, Jill Jakes—who was defeated at the polls the 1982 by Charles G. Rubin—and retired San Diego Superior Court Judge Louis M. Welsh.
In the next and final season, 1988-89, an actor, Raymond St. Jacques, was cast as the judge. Billett said he was a “menacing looking black guy.”
It wasn’t generally know, Billett said, that St. Jacques was gay. Then one day, he recalled, the show’s publicist telephoned him, panicked. He advised Billett to turn on Channel 4. There was the series’ star, on the “Today” show, with fellow TV judges Shield and Keene. He was clad in a yellow silk suit and an orange shirt.
“He was flaming,” Billett remarked, and was now out of the closet.
St. Jacques portrayed Judge Clayton C. Thomas. The announcer intoned at the start of each episode:
“In this courtoom, it is brother against brother, husband against wife, cop against criminal. One man stands between them. One man stands for justice. Judge Clayton C. Thomas. Superior Court.”
St. Jacques died in 1990, Burr in 1993, and Welsh and Shield in 1996.
Jakes has resigned from the State Bar and Burns is on inactive status.
Clooney, brother of singer Rosemary Clooney, is a columnist for the Cincinnati Post.
Keene, 78, is associated with an alternative dispute resolution service.
Next week: a look at a figure on courtroom TV shows in five decades, bailiff “Rusty” Burrell.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company
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