Judge Judith SheindlinTribute Video
One of TV's most enduring stars, Judge Judy Sheindlin had no idea that TV was her future when she was grinding through 40 to 50 cases a day as a family court judge in New York during the 1980s and '90s. But the host of Judge Judy, syndication's top-rated show, has certainly made the most of life after her retirement from family court. The irrepressible Sheindlin offers swift justice and routinely beats such power performers as Wheel of Fortune and The Big Bang Theory. And after 16 years on the air, Sheindlin shows absolutely no signs of slowing down (and woe unto those who step before her bench thinking they will somehow outsmart her).
Now in its 17th season, Judge Judy is defying traditional television logic and still growing its ratings; it has actually increased its viewership a whopping 27% from the 2010-11 TV season and often ranks as the top show in all of syndicated television.
"Over the last few decades, there have been very few shows that have achieved the remarkable success that she has," says Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS. "Not only has Judy sustained that success year after year, how many shows grow in their 15th or 16th year in syndication? She started as a fresh voice and she's been a remarkable presence in daytime television ever since."
After passing the bar in 1965 and a brief detour in corporate law, Sheindlin began prosecuting juvenile delinquent cases for the state of New York in 1972.
In 1982, New York Mayor Ed Koch appointed Sheindlin to the bench in the city's family court. In 1986, she was named Manhattan's Supervising Judge, and over the next decade she heard more than 20,000 cases, all while raising five children with her second husband, Judge Gerald Sheindlin, who himself served as a justice on the New York State Supreme Court from 1986 to 1999. (Judy and Jerry, as he's known, share another career milestone: They have both served as television judges. Jerry hosted People's Court from 1999 to 2001 and is currently shopping a pilot.)
It's likely that the fast pace of family court molded Sheindlin into the TV professional she is today.
"We never reshoot anything, we don't do any pick-ups, and she doesn't make any mistakes," says Tim Regler, a Judge Judy executive producer. "I've been at this for 42 years now and I've never seen anything like it."
Sheindlin's quick wit and ease in front of the camera seem to be second nature.
"Here was a lady who had spent most of her career as a civil servant," says Randy Douthit, another executive producer and a director on the show. "Never having been on television before, she comes in and has a hit show. She didn't come to this show as a star; she came in as a civil servant and judge."
At the outset, Sheindlin recalls, she was hoping to do the show for three years. Happily, however, her run has gone on much longer and much more successfully than anyone could have expected. "The last 17 years seem like three," she says. "When you are doing something that's interesting and fun and so not like work, it goes very fast."
Evidence that Sheindlin might be that rare commodity -someone who could revive a genre and perhaps achieve Judge Wapner-like success on a TV court show-first came to national light in 1993, when CBS' 60 Minutes did a piece on the petite, attractive and tough-talking family court judge. While she was receiving appreciative reviews for her first book, Don't Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It's Raining, agents started shopping Sheindlin around to producers, one of whom was Larry Lyttle of Big Ticket Television.
"[An agent] rolled the [60 Minutes] tape before we started the meeting," Lyttle says.Â“"It was immediately clear that there was a unique personality there. I've been asked in hundreds of interviews if I knew what I had when I met her. Honestly, nobody knew, but I knew I would rather fail by taking a chance on her than not taking a shot at all."
And that hunch had Lyttle ready to put all his chips in and produce what became Judge Judy. "Court shows are just talk shows with resolution-that's the secret sauce. And Judy had this uncanny ability to facilitate conversations. She was decisive and clear, coupled with a distinct personality. All of that made it a slam dunk."
In fact, Lyttle was so sure of himself, he immediately called his good friend Moonves and said, "I have the next syndicated hit show." After watching the tape, Moonves had to agree: "I remember I was mesmerized by her, how appealing she was and how funny she was. She really was a breath of fresh air."
Paramount Domestic Television, now part of CBS Television Distribution, launched Judge Judy on Sept. 16, 1996, when Sheindlin was 52.
"Heading into TV was a giant leap of faith," says Sheindlin, who turned 70 on Oct. 21. Â“"I had virtually no name recognition. Big Ticket and Paramount were restarting a genre that was for all intents and purposes dead with a person that nobody knew. That was really gutsy for the TV stations."
Today, starting the 2012-13 season, "The show has really changed very little," Douthit says.Â“"For the most part, she's always herself. She basically does the same thing every single day, yet people are always stunned and entertained by it. She always tells the truth but she does it with a little twinkle in her eye. I always say this, but if she wasn't a judge, she would be a great stand-up comedian."
The esteemed justice-who makes an art out of put-downs such as, "Either you're playing dumb, or it's not an act"-agrees. "I don't think the show has changed at all in 17 years," she says. It's all the same kinds of issues, it's just that with the Internet, cell phones and social media, the modality of irritation has changed." (The savvy Sheindlin recently met the Web head-on with her typically opinionated advice-sharing site whatwouldjudysay.com.)
Daytime TV has seen a lot of change recently-with Oprah Winfrey departing and Katie Couric returning-and the court genre is thriving. But Sheindlin remains its queen, and viewers are glad to know she plans to stick around for a while. She recently re-upped her contract through 2015.
"Right now the show is still on its stride, which is very gratifying, and I'm not tired, which is a good thing," she says. "You never know what's going to happen, so I'm just enjoying every day."
Which is more than we can say for the countless litigants who've stood before her bench when she happily reminds them all, "I eat liars for breakfast." --Paige Albiniak