Thursday, August 28, 2003
Rusty Burrell: a Bailiff in Three Courtroom Series
By ROGER M. GRACE
Roy J. “Rusty” Burrell was a deputy sheriff who was urged in the early 1950s to become a court bailiff by a judge who liked his sense of humor. Burrell obliged—and became the most famous bailiff in history.
There is surely no other bailiff who was known across the globe.
And Burrell, who died April 15 of last year at the age of 76, held the distinction of appearing on more sessions of simulated court proceedings than any other person. He was the bailiff on “Divorce Court” (1957-69), “People’s Court” (1981-93), and “Judge Wapner’s Animal Court” (1998-2000).
Retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph A. Wapner, who presided over the two latter courts, remembers watching “Divorce Court.” It was natural that he would have done so. The parties on that show, played by actors, were represented by actual attorneys—and appearing with frequency was his father, Joseph Max Wapner (since deceased).
It was Burrell who recruited lawyers for the show—ones he knew from the courthouse.
“Rusty liked my dad,” Joseph A. Wapner told me. “He thought that he was a good lawyer.”
In the days of “Divorce Court,” Burrell was a real-life bailiff-by-day, and a bailiff on a Hollywood set by night, or at least those nights of the week when the weekly show was taped.
Among notable trials in which Burrell served as bailiff before that show went on the air was that of Caryl Chessman, a serial rapist known as the “Red Light Bandit” (executed in 1960); in the post-“Divorce Court” days, he kept guard on slayer Charles Manson.
“I said to hire him,” Wapner recounted, explaining how Burrell came to serve as the bailiff on “People’s Court.” That was 1981. Burrell had just retired from the Sheriff’s Department after 31 years, the last 25 of them being spent as a bailiff.
The show’s executive producer, Stu Billett, said he wanted a “sexy girl” to play the bailiff, but that Wapner had insisted: “No, you need Rusty.”
So it was that at the start of each daily session of “People’s Court,” for the next 12 years, the voice of Rusty Burrell boomed out, “All rise.” He was seen throughout each episode, rendering him a well recognized television figure.
Wapner described Burrell as “an all-around good guy.” The former judge elaborated:
“He had a tremendous sense of humor. He knew people, he knew how to handle people. He was a charitable man. He was a religious person.”
Wapner termed Burrell “a great family man.” Burrell and his wife, Clara, had two sons, five grandchildren, and one great grandchild.
“He was a good athelete,” Wapner added. “He used to be a professional baseball player.”
Burrell was an outfielder and pitcher in the St. Louis Brown’s farm system for two years before coming to California in 1950 with the objective of playing baseball. He wound up, however, as a police officer in Pomona before switching to the Sheriff’s Department.
When Wapner was asked to preside over “Animal Court” on the Animal Planet cable network, he agreed— with a proviso: that Burrell be his bailiff. For two seasons, starting in 1998, the two were once again paired in a five-day-a-week, half-hour courtroom simulation show.
Burrell was sort of a “sidekick” to the judge.
Ironically, each celebrated his birthday on the same day. Burrell was born Nov. 15, 1925, and Wapner on Nov. 15, 1919.
Re-runs of “Animal Court” are still being aired by Animal Planet. Two episodes are seen each day locally at 6 a.m.
Burrell was thus on courtroom TV shows in the 1950s, ’60s, ’80s, ’90s, and in the current decade.
Harvey Levin, consulting producer of the current version of “People’s Court,” wanted both Wapner and Burrell to appear in 2000 on the 3,000th session of “People’s Court,” taped in New York. Wapner recounted that Burrell had been offered “X number of dollars” to do the show, and that he asked the former bailiff if he wanted him to negotiate on his behalf for a higher amount.
“Sure, judge,” he recalled Burrell responding. (“He always called me ‘Judge,’ he never called me by my first name,” Wapner noted.)
“I got him ‘X’ plus ‘Y,’ ” he said.
Next week: a look at the decision to bring back “People’s Court,” but without Wapner.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company
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