Let the Record Show That Night Court Was a Hit

In July we learned about Sirota’s Court which Night Court seemed to be a clone of. Debuting on NBC in January of 1984, Night Court ran for nine seasons until May of 1992. The series was supposed to begin in fall of 1983, but the executives at NBC were concerned about Harry Anderson’s lack of experience as an actor. They delayed the show; every show that debuted in fall of 1983 was cancelled, so Night Court was put on the schedule mid-season.

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Thursday nights on NBC were part of “Must See Thursday.” The schedule featured The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and Cheers followed by Night Court.

An unconventional judge, Harry Stone (Harry Anderson) presided over a Manhattan night court overseeing petty crime and dealing with a lot of wacky clients, odd coworkers, and bizarre situations. The role of Judge Stone was originally offered to Robert Klein, but he could not come to an agreement on the salary with NBC.

The main characters include Judge Stone, a public defender, a prosecutor, a couple bailiffs, and a clerk of court.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by NBC-TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5882810g) Harry Anderson Night Court – 1984-1992 NBC-TV TV Portrait

Harry Stone is a humorous judge (and magician). Although he was young, he was appointed because when the outgoing mayor called prospective judges, Harry was the only one who answered the phone. Stone likes old movies, Jean Harlow and adores Mel Tormè. The show’s creator Reinhold Weege discusses Stone’s admiration for Tormè on the DVD commentary. He said Tormè said he began to notice a younger audience at his concerts which he attributed to the Night Court references and happily appeared on an episode of the show.

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The public defender role went through several changes during the course of the show. Gail Strickland was Sheila Gardner in the pilot. Paula Kelly was Liz Williams during the first season. Ellen Foley was brought on board for season 2 as a possible romantic interest for Judge Stone. Markie Post showed up for season 3 as Christine Sullivan and stuck around for the next seven seasons. Post was the first choice for the role in 1984 but was committed to The Fall Guy. When that show was cancelled, she was hired. Christine  was a bit naïve and committed to helping others. She was a fan of the royal family and collected Princess Diana memorabilia as well as porcelain thimbles.

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The prosecutor was Dan Fielding (John Larroquette). He was a sex-obsessed, somewhat witty, egotistical and greedy man. However, at times he could display compassion for others but not for long. He was always trying to get Christine to go out with him, but there was always a romantic tension between her and Stone.

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Nostradamus “Bull” Shannon (Richard Moll) was on the show for its entire run.  He came off as a bit dim-witted but was patient, kind, and devoted to Judge Stone.

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For the first two seasons, he worked with Selma Hacker (Selma Diamond), a chain-smoking older bailiff who had been married six times. Diamond was diagnosed with cancer after season 2 and passed away shortly after. Florence Kleiner (Florence Halop) came on for season 3. Older like Selma, they had similar personalities. “Flo” loved motorcycles and heavy metal music. Halop also was diagnosed with and died from cancer after season 3. Rosalind Russell (Marsha Warfield) began in season four and stayed for the duration of the show. She was a practical, no-nonsense woman.

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Clerk Lana Wagner (Karen Austin), was asked to leave the show after only ten episodes. I could not substantiate it, but she claims it was her diagnosis of Bell’s palsy that ended in her being asked to resign. Macintosh “Mac” Robinson (Charles Robinson) would take over in season two for the rest of the series. A Vietnam veteran, he was easy going and funny and always wore a cardigan, plaid shirt and knit tie.

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Weege also mentioned in a DVD commentary that he named a lot of the pimps and hookers on the show after friends of his.

Although there were a lot of great crooks on the show, one of the most interesting episodes featured Seinfeld’s Kramer, Michael Richards. He appeared as a burglar who thought he was invisible and showed up naked in court. He was one of the funniest criminals on the show.

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Like many of the 1980s shows, Night Court had a jazz instrumental theme song. This one was written by Jack Elliott and featured Ernie Watts on saxophone.

Critics loved the show. It was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series in the Emmy awards in 1985, 1987, and 1989. In 1985, the show was up against Kate and Allie and the rest of the shows that was part of the Must-See Thursday with The Cosby Show winning. In 1987 it was up against the same slate except Kate and Allie was replaced with The Golden Girls which won. In 1989 it lost to The Wonder Years. Larroquette, who was the most popular character in the show, won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor four years in a row and then asked that his name be taken out of consideration. Overall, the show was nominated for 31 Emmys and won 7 of those. In an aside, Larroquette was offered his own spin-off show, but he turned down the offer.

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Anderson received credit for writing five of the episodes and Anderson, as well as Larroquette and Robinson directed several episodes of the series.

After season seven, the show began losing its audience. The cast members were getting tired of their characters, and the writers had a hard time coming up with new plots. Season eight was supposed to be the last one. Among other character wrap-ups, Harry and Christine would get married and Dan would become a priest. However, at the last minute, NBC renewed the show for another season, so the marriage did not take place and Dan ended up with Christine in the finale. The cast was offered more money to return for a tenth season, but they declined.

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In doing a bit of research, I learned that New York’s real night court operates from 5 pm to 1 am. Because of the crazy goings on that happen there, it has become a tourist attraction. It’s the only place where courts operate during these hours. One reporter wrote that “At 12:30 am on a freezing Wednesday morning, it’s not just New York City’s famously 24/7 bar and club scene that’s a hive of activity. Deep in the heart of Manhattan, a man in handcuffs is standing in front of a judge, listening to a string of firearm and assault charges as a crowd of lawyers hum around him and solemn family members watch from the benches. This is night court, an operation that has become a strange kind of tourist attraction for visitors in New York looking for something a little out of the ordinary.”

This show was based on characters rather than plots, and the wrong actors would have made the show a disaster. This cast was able to pull it off. They were quirky but still allowed the audience to get to know them and like them. The fact that the show was set in the same setting for most of the nine seasons and did not seem to be repeating plots over and over again is pretty impressive. I don’t think they should have done a season 9 but hindsight is always 20/20 as they say. The show holds up well after almost four decades. It’s worth watching just to see how the main characters interact and grow during the run of the show.

Sheldon Leonard: A True TV Pioneer

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The Depression changed the course of Sheldon Leonard’s life. He was born in Manhattan to Jewish parents. He went to Syracuse University on an athletic scholarship. While there, he was president of the dramatics club. His degree was in finance, and he landed a job at a prestigious brokerage firm. Then the Depression hit, and he was out of a job. He had to fall back on the only other skill he could think of which was acting.

In 1931 he married Frances Bober whom he was married until his death. They would have two children.

Acting was not quick money either though. It took five years until he landed his first major Broadway role in Hotel Alimony in 1934. It did not have a long run, but his next two shows were more successful: Having a Wonderful Time in 1937 and Kiss the Boys Goodbye in 1938.

 

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He then entered film work. He had several very small roles in a couple of movies and a couple of shorts, but in 1939 he was cast in Another Thin Man, the popular movie series with William Powell and Myrna Loy. That began his career as a heavy, often being cast as a gangster. He would appear in To Have and Have Not with Bogie and Bacall in 1944. In 1946 he was cast as the bartender in It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Because it has become a Christmas staple, it has brought Sheldon a lot of recognition. Sheldon would appear in 74 movies during his career, 69 of them by 1952.

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During this time, he also gave radio a try. He was working on both sides of the mic. He sold scripts to several shows including Broadway is My Beat. He also portrayed his stereotyped gangster role on many shows including as Grogan on The Phil Harris, Alice Faye Show. You could hear him on Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, Duffy’s Tavern, the Halls of Ivy, and The Judy Canova Show, among others.

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It was only a matter of time before Sheldon took his talents to television. He appeared in four episodes of Your Jeweler’s Showcase in 1952. In addition, he was listed as producer and director for several of these episodes. He appeared in I Love Lucy in 1953 as vacuum salesman Harry Martin and several I Married Joan episodes in 1952-53. One of my favorites was his role as Johnny Velvet on Burns and Allen when he kidnaps Gracie but takes her back because she drives him crazy. In 1954 he co-starred in The Duke which lasted 13 episodes.  This show featured an artistic boxer who leaves the ring to open a nightclub. Sheldon also directed the pilot as well as some early episodes of Lassie and The Real McCoys.

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However, the show that made him a household name was his director/producer role on Make Room for Daddy, Danny Thomas’s hit sitcom. The show was in the top ten, and Sheldon even found time to appear on the show 19 times. The show continued from 1953-1964. Leonard had found his sweet spot. During his career, he would direct and produce shows such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle USMC, I Spy.

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Sheldon convinced Carl Reiner to step back from acting as Rob Petrie and produce The Dick Van Dyke Show. That conversation resulted in Dick Van Dyke accepting the role and 158 episodes. If you watch carefully, you will notice Sheldon appearing twice on the show in minor roles. The show was nominated for 25 Emmys and won 15.

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Sheldon also is credited with creating the spinoff. One of Danny Thomas’s episodes was set in North Carolina where he gets picked up for speeding in a rural town and has a run-in with Sheriff Andy Taylor. This episode turned into the long-running The Andy Griffith Show which was on the air from 1960-1968 netting 249 episodes. The show won 6 of the 9 Emmys it was nominated for.

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The spinoff was so successful he did it again, moving Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle from the gas station attendant on The Andy Griffith Show to his own show, Gomer Pyle USMC. That show was on the air for five years (150 episodes), and Sheldon would also make an appearance there as Norman Miles.

Thomas and Leonard (L&T Productions) were also behind the The Joey Bishop Show and The Bill Dana Show. Thomas and Leonard’s shows were notable for emphasizing the characters and relationships over slapstick or situation comedy. You cared about the characters even when they were a little kooky like Gomer Pyle or Barney Fife. They were committed to high-quality scripts. Many of the writers they employed went on to successful shows of their own including Danny Arnold for Barney Miller; Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson for The Odd Couple, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy; and Bill Persky and Sam Denoff for That Girl and Kate and Allie. L&T Productions ended in 1965.

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In the mid-1960s Sheldon produced I Spy. He cast Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as secret agents.  This was the first series to star a black actor in a lead role. In a March 7, 2016 Modern Times article, David Fantle and Tom Johnson discussed Sheldon Leonard and I Spy. Leonard said he knew what he was doing. “Race was very much an issue at that time,” he said. “I was intellectually conscious of it, but emotionally unaware of it. When I say emotionally unaware, I mean I was free to think of Cosby as the man to fill the slot I needed. Intellectually I knew the problems I’d have to face to get him on the air.” I Spy was a humorous suspense show and was known for its exotic locations, filming in countries such as Hong Kong, England, Morocco, France, and Greece among others. The critics rewarded Leonard. The show was nominated for Outstanding Dramatic Series Emmy every year of its three-year run and earned Leonard an Emmy nomination for directing in 1965.

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Sheldon was also the producer behind Accidental Family and Good Morning World, both shows debuting in 1967 and ending in 1968 and My World and Welcome to It in 1969. Accidental Family was about a widower  who is a stand-up comedian. He buys a California farm which is managed by Sue Kramer who is also his son’s governess and his love interest. Good Morning World was about morning disc jockeys in LA. One is happily married, and one is a ladies’ man. Goldie Hawn was the next-door neighbor and Billy De Wolfe was their boss. On My World and Welcome To It, John Monroe is a married man with a daughter. He frequently daydreams and fantasizes about life. This show was unusual in that it included some animation along with the live action.

 

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In the Fantle and Johnson article referenced above, Leonard also talked about his favorite sitcom. He said his favorite might be the one that needed the most attention. “My favorite show was cancelled after the first year. My World and Welcome to It, based on the writings of James Thurber and starring William Windom. It won every award, and they cancelled . . . It was satire and above their (the network bosses’) heads. That show and I Spy are my favorites.”

In the early 1970s Sheldon would produce From a Bird’s Eye View and Shirley’s World. From a Bird’s Eye View was a sitcom about two stewardesses, Millie from England and Maggie from America. Millie was always getting into mischief and Maggie bailed her out. Shirley’s World starred Shirley MacLaine as a photographer who travels the world for her London-based magazine. The locales were similar to I Spy.

 

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In 1975 Sheldon starred in a new sitcom, Big Eddy which only lasted for ten episodes. He was Eddie Smith was the owner of the Big E Sports Arena in New York. He was an ex-gambler fighting the impulse to get back into it. He has a bunch of eccentric people in his life including his ex-stripper wife Honey and their granddaughter Ginger.

In the 1980s, Sheldon would continue to show up on various television shows, appearing in Sanford and Son, The Cosby Show, Matlock, Murder She Wrote, and Cheers.

Along with author Mickey Spillane, Leonard was one of the first two people to become a Miller Lite spokesman. In his New York accent, he tells the audience, “I was at first reluctant to try Miller Lite, but then I was persuaded to do so by my friend, Large Louis.”

Sheldon Leonard passed away at the age of 89 in 1997. His wife Frances passed away in 1999.

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Sheldon Leonard is undoubtedly one of the greatest television producers. Most of his shows were consistently in the top ten. They are classic shows still seen today on Me TV and Antenna TV.  Sheldon required scripts that brought characters to life. He created spinoffs when he believed in the characters. He was not afraid to take risks. Besides casting Bill Cosby, he cast Lois Nettleton as divorced Sue Kramer on Accidental Family. This was in the mid-1960s and yet when Mary Tyler Moore’s show aired in 1970, the network refused to allow her to be a divorced character.

In the Mercurie Blogspot from November 10, 2013, Carl Reiner discusses Leonard: “Sheldon has mentored more people in our business than anyone else I know. He knew how to teach what he knew, and what he knew was situation comedy with the three-camera technique. Sheldon was a producing genius who understood comedy. He had four or five shows going, but he would walk in and give his intelligence and his time to every script that was being read for the week. And we always came away with a better script because we would discuss and argue and come to a better situation.”

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Garry Marshall was also quoted in this same article: “Sheldon was a sort of man’s man, yet he had all the creative sensitivity of the artist. No matter what story you were working on, he could help you fix it. He would never put down your idea. If I had to describe Sheldon in one word, it would be gentleman. He was a Renaissance man with a New York accent—and possibly a gun!”

 

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As a salute to Leonard, the writers of The Big Bang Theory, named their main characters Sheldon and Leonard in honor of Sheldon Leonard.

 

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Sheldon himself seems to explain his success best. After working on his memoir in 1995, And the Show Goes On: Broadway and Holiday Adventures, he said “I was driven by an urge to survive and being very self-indulgent. I never did anything for very long that I didn’t like or enjoy. I would survive only on my own terms. I had to enjoy what I was doing, and I would have done what I did even if nobody paid me. That’s the secret of success in any business: do it well and enjoy doing it.”

 

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He did it all well, and we all enjoyed it.

The Not-So Odd Couple

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Today we look at a show that never received its due credit post production.  Unless you watched Kate and Allie, you might never have heard of the show. Yet, it had two major female stars in Jane Curtin and Susan St. James. It ran for six seasons. It was in the top 20 until the last season. The series was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows of 1984. The show won at least four Emmys and had many nominations.

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Sort of a female Odd Couple, the premise of the show is that Allie Lowell (Curtin) divorces her husband, a doctor, after he was having an affair. They have a son and a daughter. She moves to New York to live with her childhood friend Kate McArdle who is also divorced raising a daughter. Her ex is a part-time actor. Allie’s son Chip is played by Lowell Frederick Koehler and her daughter Jennie by Allison Smith. Kate’s daughter Emma is played by Ari Meyers.

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A lot of stars appeared on the show including Wendie Malick, Dylan Walsh, Andrea Martin, David Groh, Holland Taylor, Patricia Richardson, Barbara Barrie, Ben Stiller Lindsay Wagner, Ricki Lake, and Debra Jo Rupp. Dick Cavett, Dick Butkus, and Joe Namath all played themselves. A fun trivia fact is that Kelsey Grammar had his series acting debut. He played a man who had a blind date with Kate but hit it off with Allie while waiting for Kate to get ready. When he and Kate don’t have a connection, he then asks Allie out, but she spends the entire evening talking about her ex-husband and her divorce.

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John Loeffler sings the theme song, “Along Comes a Friend” composed by Ralph Schuckett. During the first season, Loeffler appeared as a piano teacher in one of the shows. Bill Persky, well respected in television, was the director for the first five years. Persky directed other shows such as That Girl, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Alice and Who’s the Boss. He was the producer for the entire run of That Girl as well. The last season was directed by Linda Day.

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Sherry Coben created the show. She got the idea after attending a high school reunion.  She noticed that the divorced women seemed to relate to each other and received encouragement from each other, so she thought it would make a great show. The working title for the show was “Two Mommies.”

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Kate is free spirited while Allie is more traditional. When the show first begins, Kate is a travel agent, so Allie decides to stay home and take care of the domestic duties for the three kids. At the beginning of the fifth season when the kids are older, Kate quits her job, and Kate and Allie start their own catering company. They both date off and on; the finale for season 5 shows Allie marrying Bob Barsky (Sam Freed), a sportscaster. They get their own apartment for season 6, but the ratings declined so the writers found Bob a new job that required a lot of travel, so Kate moved in with the couple.  The concept never worked because she seemed to be intruding on the newlyweds’ privacy. By this time Kate’s daughter Emma had left the house. In real life, Meyers left the series to attend Yale, but she was in the opening credits and appeared on the show at least once.

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Kate never marries but she has several serious relationships. She dates plumber Ted Bartelo (Greg Salata) during Season 2 but they break up at the end of the year. He re-enters her life in Season 5, but things just don’t work out.

Allie’s husband Charles (Paul Hecht) marries Claire, played by Wendie Malick during the run of the show.

Each episode began with Allie and Kate having a conversation. It reveals how close they were and introduced the episode. At the end of the show, the theme song played and another discussion between the two brought closure to the issue.

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The week the show debuted, it was number four in the ratings. It was consistently in the top 20 for the first five seasons. Persky left after five seasons once Allie married because he felt that the show had accomplished what it set out to do. Allie has learned more about herself, become confident in taking care of herself and relying on her friends to help her navigate life. She now is able to enter a new relationship as a stronger and more independent person. After the drastic changes of Allie getting married and the kids beginning to leave the nest, the ratings declined during Season 6. At the end of the year it was cancelled.

Two of the funniest shows were a parody of I Love Lucy and the episode when the girls go on the Dick Cavett Show.

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St. James and Curtin were friends. St. James’ husband Bob Ebersol worked on Saturday Night Live, which Curtin left in 1980. The two starred in The High Cost of Living, a movie from 1980.

After the show was over, Curtin had several other series including Working it Out and Crumbs which both lasted an unlucky 13 episodes and Third Rock from the Sun, a huge hit and long-running show. Recently she has appeared on The Good Wife and The Librarians.

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St. James was best known for her roles in The Name of the Game, McMillan and Wife, a variety of movies, and an appearance on M*A*S*H.

In an interview with People in June of 2006, St. James said on the show “Jane ran a serious poker game with the kids and crew like Triple Card Cowboy or Blackjack Over Easy.” It sounded like a fun set to work on.

St. James was happy to take on the show because it allowed her to continue living in Connecticut with Dick and their five children. Her TV kids became friends with her own children. Ari Meyers said “I loved Susan . . . I went to her house many times and hung out with her kids.”

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The series spawned two spin-offs but neither went anywhere. Roxie starred Andrea Martin. It aired in April 1987, but after two episodes it was cancelled. Late Bloomer was a season replacement to star Lindsay Wagner, but the show was scrapped before its debut on the air.

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Kate and Allie’s first two seasons were released on DVD in May of 2006, but I don’t think any other seasons have been packaged. The lack of DVD presence and the fact that reruns never ran on a major station keep the show from being remembered. Take some time to watch an episode or two on YouTube and enjoy the camaraderie of these two stars.