Ed Koch branches out judicially -- on TV Revival: The former mayor will be the judge when 'The People's Court' returns to the air.

On the Air

September 07, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Ed Koch has tackled plenty in his 72 years, most notably during his three terms as mayor of New York. Which means he's hardly daunted by the prospect of taking over from the esteemed Joseph Wapner as judge of a new version of that '80s TV staple, "The People's Court."

"I think Judge Wapner was a wonderful role model," the 72-year-old Koch says over the phone from his New York office, home base for a career that today includes lawyering, authoring, lecturing and -- beginning at 9 a.m. tomorrow on WMAR, Channel 2 -- judging. "I just happen to be different. He comes from California, that's orange juice. I come from New York, that's seltzer."

Spoken like a man who knows he was chosen precisely because he embodies the peculiar traits of the town he led for 12 years. He's loud, garrulous (some might say pushy), blunt, flamboyant and a host of other adjectives that suggest he pretty much dominates wherever he finds himself.

"I got a call from my agent, William Morris, saying that they had received a call from Stu Billett in California, who is the owner of "The People's Court," saying that he was going to revive the show but they were going to move to the New York region, and they had decided that the quintessential New Yorker was me."

His TV judgeship, Koch adds, adds a welcome chapter to his career in government.

"I have served in two of the three branches of government -- the executive branch as mayor, and the legislative branch as a congressman," he says. "And I thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice to serve in the third branch? How many people have done that, served in all three branches?' "

Koch promises a "People's Court" format that won't vary dramatically from what people are used to. Real people with real disagreements will still be going at each other. Sparks will occasionally fly. He, as judge, will listen to both sides and make his decision in accordance with the law.

But there will be differences. Both Rusty Burrell, the bailiff, and Doug Llewelyn, the post-courtroom interviewer, are out. Josephine Ann Longobardi, a nine-year veteran of New York City Criminal Court, will serve as court officer, while Curt Chaplin, a radio and TV correspondent whose work has appeared on HBO and ESPN, will fill Llewelyn's shoes.

In addition, Carol Martin, a one-time reporter and anchor on New York's WCBS-TV, will act as the show's "in-studio anchor," providing details of the case and commentary on the legal issues involved.

Koch also promises a change from the Solomon-like stoicism Wapner tried to practice from his bench. Wapner "saw himself as an umpire, which many judges do," Koch explains. "I view myself more as an inquisitor. I'm taking a more active role than he did. I think they're more reserved on the West Coast, slower-paced."

Slow-paced is not a description anyone would apply to Koch. His workdays begin at 5 a.m., and he never goes to sleep before midnight. He's a partner in a New York law firm, is host of a weekday morning radio call-in show on WABC-AM, puts together three editorials a week for cable's Bloomberg Television, pens a weekly column for the New York Post, writes movie reviews, lectures at NYU and stars in commercials (most recently for Dunkin' Donuts).

He's also an author of nine books, including three mystery novels in which he's the central character. "The fantasy is I'm still the mayor and help solve murders that the police find difficult," Koch explains. "Murder on 34th Street" is to be published in November.

That's a pretty hectic schedule right there, but Koch says he's having no trouble fitting in the eight-trials-a-day, two-days-a-week "People's Court" filming schedule. Especially when the "trials" prove so intriguing.

Like the bride-to-be who had contracted with a seamstress for her bridesmaid's gowns. But after weeks passed and the dresses had yet to be fitted, she decided to purchase the gowns off the rack. When the bride demanded her deposit back, the two women ended up in "The People's Court."

The seamstress insisted the dresses fit fine, countering that the plaintiff and her bridesmaids we're just too demanding. So Judge Koch asked a bridesmaid to try one on. And justice proved swift.

"I peered over the bench," Koch says, "and I looked, and I said to the court, 'I am not Calvin Klein, but this dress does not fit. Judgment for the plaintiff.' "

The Sheppard story

DNA evidence may suggest his innocence, but plenty of people -- particularly in and around his suburban Cleveland hometown -- still believe Dr. Sam Sheppard was guilty of murder.

That's the upshot of "Sam Sheppard: The Real Story," a compelling, unsettling and confusing (just like the real case) documentary airing tonight at 10 o'clock and again at 1 a.m. on the Learning Channel.

Sheppard's name may not ring an immediate bell with everyone, but his case sure should; it was the inspiration for "The Fugitive," both the TV show starring David Janssen and the movie starring Harrison Ford.

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