Saturday, January 26, 2013

Court's Adjourned!

Category:  TV/Tribute

Reinhold Weege passed away in December.  As you probably scratched your head going, "Who?," I was hit with an attack of nostalgia and dragged out my DVDs.  
Night Court creator Reinhold Weege

Reinhold Weege was a comedy writer who worked on Barney Miller in the 70s.  He had, as he said, the usual share of failed pilots and shows in his career as well, including Park Place, a sitcom about work in the Legal Aid office.  In 1983 NBC came to Weege and asked him to develop a series.  They gave him one word to work with:  court. What Weege gave back to NBC was a classic:  Night Court.  In watching the DVDs of the show I am reminded of just how incredible this series was.

The show was set in a criminal court room in Manhattan, and in reality it could not have been set anywhere else in order to obtain the cast of loonies that marched through the court on a weekly basis.  We may all know someone like Phil the wino or Dan the pervert, but only in New York could they all congregate in a single room.  Many of the situations were so outlandish that one would think Weege had, like David Byrne did for the characters in True Stories, lifted situations from the headlines of Weekly World News.  But that was part of the show's charm.

The main joy, however, was the regular cast of goofball characters.  Harry Anderson, as the story goes, went to the casting audition for Night Court and told Weege, "I am this guy!"  Weege said he rolled his eyes at Anderson's proclamation, but Anderson wasn't lying:  like Harold T. Stone, Anderson is a gifted magician and a Mel Tormé fan (so much so that Anderson gave the eulogy at Tormé's funeral in 1999).  It's impossible to think of anyone other than Anderson in that role.  Fun-loving, as apt to use an exploding gavel as a real one, and a man with a heart as big as he is tall, Harry Stone is the judge we all want to face should we ever find ourselves in court.  The ace up his sleeve, figuratively and literally, was that he would listen, no matter how absurd the defendant's argument sounded.  It endeared him to the people brought before him.

Judge Stone (Harry Anderson) lays down the law
Anderson always claimed that he is not an actor and that the ensemble cast just made him look good.  Weege, however, vehemently disagreed:  "He is a good actor," he said when interviewed for the DVD release.  "He's a very good actor."  Three Emmy nominations for the role of Harry Stone as well as Anderson's post-Night Court roles, including playing Dave Barry in Dave's World and Elwood P. Dowd in a Hallmark updated version of Harvey, indicate that Weege's proclamation was far more accurate than Harry's.

John Larroquette racking up the Emmys
as sleazeball Dan Fielding
John Larroquette, however, was the towering strength in a towering cast (quite literally:  Weege said that, unintentionally, Night Court boasted the tallest cast in prime-time history, with 6'2" Charles Robinson, 6'4" Anderson and 6'5" Larroquette still looking up to 6'8" Richard Moll).  Dan Fielding is one of the legendary characters in television history thanks to Larroquette's brilliant acting and his willingness to do anything and everything -- from taking a pie in the face to wearing a pair of jockey shorts that had been "guaranteed not to ride up" around his neck -- to get a laugh.  Dan Fielding was, as Weege said, "the crème de la scum" of nighttime television characters, a bootlicker that could make the best bootlickers before him (think Hogan's Heroes' Colonel Klink or Bewitched's Larry Tate) look like independent thinkers in comparison; and his obsession with cheap sex (when called a "nondescript, morally bankrupt gigolo" in one episode Dan snapped in disgust, "Hey!  Who are you calling 'nondescript'?"), or any sex (demanding that Christine repay him for saving her life by sleeping with him) endeared him to no one.

Larroquette is an avid book collector, but the books in his home don't have enough space to hold the things that can be written regarding his acting genius.  He won four consecutive Best Supporting Actor Emmy awards as Dan Fielding; and, had he not withdrawn his name from consideration after the fourth award, he probably would still be getting Emmys for playing a character in a series that ended 21 years ago.  Larroquette continues to wow, picking up a Tony in his Broadway debut for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying as well as a fifth Emmy, in 1998, for a role in The Practice.  He is currently in the NBC series Deception, and if he gets Emmy number six this fall I will not be the least bit surprised.  The man could play a log and get an award -- because he is that good.

One of the things that may be overlooked because of all the silliness that went on between rulings is how legally accurate the show was.  One attorney group hailed Night Court as the most accurate show, from the standpoint of the legal rulings, on television.  That is partially because Weege spent time in actual courts, watching the procedures.

Weege said he loved to put friends' names in the episodes as characters.  The judge's name was remarkably similar to that of actor Harold J. Stone, who coincidentally appeared in an episode of Barney Miller that Weege wrote.  Carla Bouvier, the prostitute that fell in love with Harry in the first season, was also named after one of Weege's friends.  The most notorious "naming," however, was revealed in the third season episode "Hurricane," when Dan admitted that his real first name was not Dan, but Reinhold.  (In the second season Dan's parents showed up, revealing his last name was not "Fielding" but Elmore, making Dan's real name Reinhold Fielding Elmore.)

After reading the book Sweeps:  Behind the Scenes in Network TV, I am amazed that Night Court ever got past a pilot, let alone lasted nine seasons.  Anderson said in the DVD interview that the members of the show were, in his words, "strung along," with a pilot made, two episodes months later (while Anderson was busy conning Sam Malone out of everything but the bar on Cheers as Harry the Hat), then three more, before finally being renewed for a full season.  That probably contributed to the revolving door of actors in the first two seasons:  Karen Austin, the no-nonsense court clerk Lana Wagner (who in the pilot referred to the court as her court, not the judge's) was gone by the end of the first season, replaced by guest stars before Charles Robinson settled into the role of Mac in the second season.  Paula Kelly was great as Liz, possessing a little more "street smarts" (that Marsha Warfield later brought with her Roz character) than the relative innocence of Markie Post's Christine Sullivan; however, she, too, probably tired of the uncertainty of the show's future and left.  Ellen Foley, who sang the spectacular female part on Meat Loaf's classic "Paradise By the Dashboard Lights," was a wonderful counterpart to both Dan's sleazy remarks and Harry's hustling (warning him that she was no slouch at pool when he challenged her to a game on her first night of work), but she, too, departed, making room for Christine.

Selma Diamond & Richard Moll provided what
Weege referred to as a "Mutt & Jeff" appearance

Then there were the deaths.  Selma Diamond's role as the caustic bailiff Selma Hacker was written expressly for her by Weege, who admired her work as a writer on Your Show of Shows. Diamond chain smoked, a fact that, like many other similarities between actors and their characters (such as both Larroquette and Fielding being natives of Louisiana), was written into the show.  How the constant smoking made it on network TV some dozen years after cigarette commercials were banned is beyond me.  The smoking, although comedic on screen (after someone said an action was touching bailiff Selma replied, "Let me have a cigarette and I'll well up with you"), took Diamond's life at the age of 64.  Her replacement, Florence Halop, lasted only one season before she also succumbed to cancer (breast cancer).

Now Weege is gone, too.  He died of "natural causes" that were most likely heart-related (he had bypass surgery in the early 90s) at the age of 63.

Reinhold Weege's great legacy, sadly, is not in syndication anywhere at present time.  It is criminal (pardon the pun) to think that a show that ran for nine years, with the awards and consistently high ratings, is nowhere to be found while eight different cable/satellite channels will be showing the exact same episode of Two and a Half Men tonight.  I hope the programmers are charged with neglect in this matter, and I hope Judge Stone throws the book at them.

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