Thursday, September 4, 2003
‘People’s Court’ Returns to the Air but Without Wapner
By ROGER M. GRACE
A year after “People’s Court” left the air in 1995 (the last two years being in the form of reruns on the USA cable network), plans were in the works to bring the show back with new episodes. A prime factor in the success of that show, launched in 1981, had been the popularity of its star, retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph A. Wapner. Yet, the plans for a revival did not include Wapner.
It was announced in December, 1996, that former New York Mayor Ed Koch had been given the role. Even before that, however, news had leaked that Koch was in negotiations with Stu Billett, executive producer of the series. Wapner learned of the proposed new venture— sans him—from his brother-in-law, who had read about it in the San Francisco Chronicle.
He was miffed he hadn’t heard about it from Billett, and hurt that his services weren’t wanted. “I felt very badly,” he related. But, he said, “It’s gone, it’s done.”
Billett acknowledged in an interview that he made “a little mistake, maybe,” in not alerting Wapner to his plans. He explained, however:
“You bring shows back. You bring ‘Star Trek’ back, and there’s no Captain Kirk.”
Professionals in the entertainment industry, he said, accept that.
“I understand where Joe’s coming from,” Billett allowed, with apparent reference to Wapner’s lack of show business background. “I wrote him a long letter, explaining.”
Wapner had experience in listening to explanations. That one apparently did not satisfy him.
“He won’t talk to me,” Billett said.
Wapner returned to the show to preside over the 3000th episode, aired Nov. 16, 2000 (one day after Wapner’s 81st birthday and 21 years to the day since he retired from the Los Angeles Superior Court). Billett disclosed that the jurist snubbed him.
“He’s the godfather of one of my kids,” he reflected.
The producer pointed to various reasons why he chose Koch over Wapner.
•“I just thought Joe had had 12, 13 years [on the show],” he said, adding: “There’s an age thing.” He quickly acknowledged, however, that Koch was not in his youth, either. (Koch, born Dec. 12, 1924, is five years younger than Wapner.)
•“Judge Judy had started out here,” Billett recounted. (Initially, she flew to Los Angeles from New York each week to tape episodes.) “I didn’t want to compete for cases,” he said. (Parties to actual small claims proceedings dismiss the actions and agree to binding arbitration in a mock small-claims setting.)
•“Koch helped me sell it,” Billett mentioned, noting that the former mayor was able to get the show to be carried on a top station in New York City.
The Wapnerless version began Sept. 8, 1997. It was syndicated, as the original series had been. The new series with Koch was consistently compared unfavorably to the original—as the series has been under the two judges who succeeded him.
Former New York Mayor Ed Koch became the judge on "People's Court"
I hadn’t read about the re-emergence of “People’s Court.” A TV set was tuned to the show in a doctor’s office, an airport lounge, or wherever one day, and I was surprised to see on the bench someone who looked like—or could it be?—the former New York mayor. It was.
Koch, as mayor, used to stroll the streets of his city, querying constituents, “How ’m I doin’?” As a TV judge, he wasn’t doin’ all that badly. It’s just that he wasn’t Wapner.
Perhaps it was like the 1956 remake of “It Happened One Night” with Jack Lemmon as the male lead. The picture (“You Can’t Run Away From It”) wasn’t at all bad. But Lemmon was not Clark Gable. Inevitably, the copy was compared to that original and, in that light, was a dud.
The “New People’s Court” expanded to an hour a day and featured person-on-the-street reactions to cases and results of polls-by-e-mail. But its ratings lagged far behind those of “Judge Judy”—the success of which had prompted the resuscitation of “People’s Court.”
“Hyperactive” and “wisecracking.” That’s how an Oct. 2, 1997 article in the Christian Science Monitor characterized Koch in his role as judge of the “People’s Court.”
Koch was, Billett noted, a lawyer. But as Wapner saw it:
“He had never been a judge. Unlike a Voltaire Perkins [a lawyer who played the judge on the original version of “Divorce Court”], he didn’t have the capacity for doing so.” Wapner rated Koch’s impersonation of a judge as “poor.”
It just didn’t work out. At a press conference in 1999, Koch passed his gavel to Gerry Sheindlin, husband of Judge Judy. It was Koch who appointed both of the Sheindlins to actual judgeships in New York City in the 1980s.
That didn’t work out either. Marilyn Milian replaced him in 2001.
Was it a blunder not to bring back Wapner? That’s the subject of next week’s column.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company
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