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Ed Koch on 'The People's Court': A true TV star

Ed Koch, with the Queensboro Bridge in the

Ed Koch, with the Queensboro Bridge in the distance, celebrates the renaming of the bridge in his honor at the Water Club Restaurant in Manhattan. (May 19, 2011) (Credit: Getty Images)

Well, who among you remembers that Hizzoner Ed Koch -- who died at 2 a.m. Friday at the age of 88 -- was a TV star who appeared in many TV shows including "Spin City", had a memorable outing on "Saturday Night Live” (four to be exact), and hosted "The People's Court” for a few years?

To be blunt, the former mayor was a ham, and was a natural for TV. Here's a clip of his "People's Court” days -- it didn't last long, but I recall that he was a pretty good and fair-minded judge -- and a story I wrote about that long-ago outing.

Koch, as anybody who ever covered him for a TV station or newspaper in this city well knew, was a pleasure -- a font of color and quotes that brightened just about any story. There were many many controversies, too -- but this post is about his TV stardom, and that was interesting enough.

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Newsday (New York) September 8, 1997, Monday, ALL EDITIONS


BYLINE: By Verne Gay. SECTION: PART II; Page B03 LENGTH: 1234 words

PERHAPS Manhattan's Hotel Pennsylvania -- named for its more famous cousin across the street, Pennsylvania Station - has seen better times. Perhaps not. Tourists lounge on the lobby floor, awaiting rooms.

The carpets are well worn and, in places, stitched together by electrical tape. Huge elevators, perfumed with the scent of bubble gum, rumble up a couple floors to the Grand Ballroom -- which is neither. This hotel almost looks like a courthouse. It is, sort of.

The ballroom has been transformed into a cavernous TV studio and, of all things, a courtroom. Plaintiffs and defendants grimly face the podium and TV cameras. Courtroom spectators sit behind them, fidgeting. One man, who looks strikingly like Salman Rushdie (nah, couldn't be him), yawns stiffly.

And the judge . . . yes, he looks familiar, too. He pushes his glasses up on top of his head. He pushes them down again. He looks up. He looks down. He smiles. He frowns. He lifts a finger to his lip: "Sshh . . . ," he directs a chattering plaintiff.

"Do you have anything in writing?" he wonders. And thus the Felliniesque moment is complete. This judge happens to be named Ed. As in Edward I. Koch, former three-term mayor of the City of New York, and a man on a mission -- to bring justice to the little people of this great city.

In this darkened room, and beneath the steady gaze of a large and ferocious-looking plastic eagle perched above his desk, sits the now and future king of "The People's Court," which begins today in a new version at 3 p.m. on WNBC / 4. Surely there have been more unusual career moves in the history of prominent political lives. For the moment, it is impossible to think of one.

This all seems so -- what's the word? -- bizarre. Yet at the same time it seems so perfectly appropriate. Ed Koch as TV judge? What about Ed Koch as game show host? Or Ed Koch as "Columbo”?

Allow us to admit the obvious: This man was made for the small screen. A few days before a taping, Koch is sitting in his midtown office, where he works days as a partner with the law firm of Robinson Silverman Pearce Aronsohn & Berman.

He is surrounded by mementos of grander days - medals presented by kings and presidents, photos with George Bush, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Behind him is a microphone, through which he conducts his daily radio show for WABC. At 72, he looks fit, if not precisely thin.

His voice is calm, cadenced. He has heard all the questions about the show. He has all the answers. "I tell people never retire," he says bluntly in response to the obvious question - why this? "Don't retire. Don't retire. Because the brain softens. You lose your acuity. The muscles in your body soften and become enfeebled. Retirement, in my judgment, keeps you from being relevant. And that's what I really want. I want to be relevant." For some people of his age, "relevance” can simply mean improving a handicap at a Port St. Lucie golf course. For Koch, it has meant a hurricane of activity since leaving City Hall in 1990. He is currently a radio host, New York Post columnist, Bloomberg TV commentator, New York University lecturer, weekly-newspaper movie reviewer, commercial pitchman, sometime movie cameo star and murder mystery novelist. (In his next book, due this fall, a detective named Ed Koch solves a mystery involving the rubout of Santa Claus.)

But relevance as judge of "The People's Court”? To Hizzoner, the question is irrelevant. This, he says, will educate people about the court system and inspire other senior citizens. And, yes - he's not afraid to admit it - this will make him a buck. A lot of bucks? Sure, although he concedes that "my ends are modest. I still buy all my clothing on sale, but I buy in better stores."

Even so, there is an issue of decorum here. (Isn't there?) Former mayors of New York City simply do not go on to become stars of syndicated TV shows. They go on to become ambassadors (Robert Wagner, to Spain), or criminal court judges (Vincent Impellitteri), or labor arbitrators (Jimmy Walker).

But then, none were Ed Koch. "People certainly didn't think Judge Joseph Wapner the original judge on "Court” was silly, so they shouldn't think I am," he says. "It's unique. I don't know anybody who's left public office and then went on to have a third career with the dimensions of mine . . . Life is short. Make the most of it." Stu Billett, creator, along with Ralph Edwards, of the original "Court," admits that "when I called him about the job I was nervous as hell. Here he was, a former mayor . . . What's he going to think about doing People's Court?' "

Koch had no trepidation. When he got the call, he thought, "Why not? This could be fun." The original "Court," which ran from 1981 to 1993, was a TV curiosity. Average people took their problems -- some quite strange, some hilarious - before a rather stern and humorless former California Superior Court judge. Judge Wapner rarely cracked a smile, even when - in one well-known instance -- a stripper was sued for having failed to completely disrobe.

The show went into decline just as Oprah, Phil and a pack of wannabe talk show hosts took over the afternoon airwaves. When the talk craze abated, Billett and Warner Bros. TV considered a revival - this time complete with trendy interactive elements (including talking to people outside the courtroom who can react to Koch's decisions) and well-known TV types (Carol Martin, a former WCBS / 2 anchorwoman, will be an in-studio anchor).

They chose New York as a locale because "so many people are packed in here, your problems are exacerbated and New Yorkers aren't afraid of talking out," says Billett. He sought out Koch because he was the "quintessential New Yorker." Koch himself figured he had other qualifications, too. For one, he had appointed 140 judges during his three terms. For another, he had worked briefly as an arbitrator in small claims court just after he was admitted to the bar in 1949.

He decided then and there that small claims were just as important as big claims. As a lawyer, Koch retains authority to render binding decisions in what amount to small claims cases on TV.

"People say to me, Why would you not be bored by these cases -- they are so petty.' But they are exactly the same cases that appear in Supreme Court or trial court, except that small claims court is limited to judgments of three-thousand dollars . . . Real people, real cases . . . Nothing that affects people is trivial." TV's newest judge heads down to the Hotel Pennsylvania each Tuesday and Thursday, just after his radio show ends. Since taping began earlier this summer, Koch has ripped through 16 cases a week - all binding, because plaintiffs and defendants both agree not to appeal. On a recent day, he heard about a landlord-tenant dispute. Another case was about a woman who claimed a neighbor upstairs had cut a hole in her closet ceiling and poured ammonia on her clothes.

But those were not his favorite cases. His favorite involved a young woman who claimed a seamstress had made her bridesmaid's dress too small. The seamstress insisted that it fit perfectly. Koch then directed the woman  who was, in fact, a tad zaftig -- to a dressing room. When she re-entered, the judge looked her up and down.

He then sternly announced, "I am not Calvin Klein, but this dress does not fit. Judgment for the plaintiff."

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