The Hollywood studio "courtroom" of "Judge Judy" Sheindlin may seem inviting enough, but Hugo Escobedo Jr. looked like someone discovering a moment too late that he was in the lion's den and the head lion was about to bite his head off.
During a taping, Escobedo, 18, was trying to persuade Sheindlin that he was not responsible for an accident in Houston that caused considerable damage to a car driven by 19-year-old Angelique Trump, who had filed a small claims suit against him. But the student's case was crumbling. Escobedo, who had no driver's license, testified that he had taken his father's car without permission and had switched places with his passenger after the collision, telling police he was not driving at the time of the crash. Still, he claimed, the accident was Trump's fault.
The magistrate bristled. "Do I look like a 24-year-old movie star to you?" she asked with her characteristic laser-like glare.
"No, ma'am," muttered Escobedo.
She turned to bailiff Petri Hawkins Byrd, standing close by. Byrd met her glance.
"Yeah, you do," he said.
The judge's sour mood instantly dissolved. "You got the job," she said soothingly.
Actually, the bailiff known as "Byrd" has had "the job" from Day 1 — for close to 20 years. Since 1996 when she arrived on the daytime scene and upended the staid court TV genre with her suffer-no-fools demeanor, Sheindlin has had one constant by her side: the solidly built, deep-voiced court officer who has one of TV's most interesting occupations: He is the guard dog to the pit bull.
Moreover, Byrd, 54, actually had the job before he had "the job" — he often served under Sheindlin when he worked as a bailiff in Manhattan Family Court at a time when she was an outspoken family court and supervising judge. Their palpable chemistry, defined by sly asides and knowing glances, is a key component of "Judge Judy," which has jumped from being one of the most popular shows in daytime to the undisputed champ of the syndication arena, outdistancing favorites such as the second-place "Wheel of Fortune," "Jeopardy!" and "Entertainment Tonight."
"I'm the Robin to her Batman, the Kato to her Green Hornet," proclaimed the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Byrd with typical high spirits. "My friend Allen said it best. He said, 'She's the ham, and you're the ham on bacon.'"
Said executive producer Randy Douthit, who has been with "Judge Judy" since its launch, "Byrd underplays it, and it works for the show. He's a big guy, and he plays the attitude of a real court officer. No one told him to act that way — it just comes naturally."
And though Sheindlin is the clear star, Byrd, whose courtroom cool is a sharp contrast to his outsized personality away from the camera, has also acquired his own following, complete with a contingent of fans who ask for autographs and imitate his signature gesture — a two-fingered summons to the litigants to enter the courtroom and plead their case. There's been quiet buzz about possible side projects. He's a comedian at heart, and his repertoire of one-liners and dead-on impersonations of personalities such as Bill Cosby, Bernie Mac andCarroll O'Connor has landed him gigs as an MC at events and as an opening act for some of his favorite "smooth jazz" musicians.
A close connection
If you want to find Byrd on the set, just look for the faded spot on the court's red carpet near the bench that marks his territory.
In a separate interview, Sheindlin, married to former "The People's Court" judge Jerry Sheindlin, said of her connection with Byrd: "We're like two old married people who have reached an accord. I can rely on him to be my protector. We don't have to exchange words — he knows what I'm thinking. People who watch us sense we have a history, and that is very important."
If a litigant is getting out of line or too outspoken, Byrd will approach them and give a quiet but clear warning to calm down. On one show, when a defendant being sued for trespassing in a residence came up with a convoluted story about seeking shelter, a disbelieving Sheindlin turned to Byrd who said, "That's funny. I thought he was going to make something up." In a stolen-check case, Sheindlin told the litigants to calm down, saying she wanted to get it straight "because I'm very organized. Officer Byrd will tell you I'm a very organized person."
"Absolutely," interjected Byrd.
There's another, more personal reason bonding them, said Byrd: "If you want the most abstract, vague reason, here it is: We're both from Brooklyn. To the rest of the world, that might not make sense, but those who are from Brooklyn know exactly what that means. We know about being on the stoop, about egg creams."
"Judge Judy" averages more than 10 million viewers a day. The show, syndicated by CBS Television Distribution, received a boost when Oprah Winfrey abandoned her talk show in 2010 to start her own cable network, but even before that it rivaled Winfrey in total viewers. "Judge Judy," which airs on 260 stations across the country as well as internationally, is one of CBS' most profitable series and is renewed into 2015.
The formula from the beginning has basically stayed the same: Litigants of small claims courts around the country agree to have their disputes decided by Sheindlin. The cases are scoped by researchers scouring through small claims files around the country for interesting conflicts.
The show tapes at Sunset-Bronson Studios every other week, disposing of 10 cases a day in front of a live audience. Financial judgments are paid by the production. Sheindlin often chastises litigants who can't convincingly back up their claims. Fans eat up her "Judy-isms," such as "On your best day, you're not as smart as me on my worst day," and "They don't keep me here because I'm gorgeous — they keep me here because I'm smart."
Byrd, who received a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, recalled that Sheindlin first got a reputation for her sharp tongue when he worked with her in the Manhattan Family Court system. One of their first main encounters came when he was imitating her — out of her sight, he thought.
"I had on her robe and her glasses, and I was doing this really good impression of her for these lawyers and clerks and stenographers," Byrd recalled. "Everyone was laughing. Then all eyes shifted to my left and they stopped laughing.... I said. 'I'll just resign. Please don't fire me.' But she was very cool. She had a sense of humor."
He was not surprised when he learned in 1996 that Sheindlin had been offered a courtroom show. By then he had relocated to San Mateo to be a special deputy U.S. marshal. He wrote her a congratulatory letter, and not long after, the two were working together again.
Byrd offered his own theory on one key to the show's endurance: "Our times are becoming more desperate — we're at a worse place than ever before. Judy represents 16 years of integrity. She will not be moved because the times are changing. People who can't stand her watch her, and people who love her watch her."
There are similarities between them — they are both devoted to their families. Byrd has four children, Sheindlin has five children and 11 grandchildren. But they rarely socialize: "We have a good working relationship, and we have friends in common, but we travel in different circles," said Byrd. "We're diametrically opposed on some issues," he said. "She's a big-dog advocate. I do a lot of work with youth groups. That's not her forte. But on some levels, we have the same sense of justice."
Byrd said he is committed to helping troubled young African American men. There have been faint rumblings about a possible reality show that would center on him as a counselor. But for now the combination of him and Sheindlin is unbreakable. "I'm not going to say there'd be no Judy without Byrd," he said. "But you know what? It wouldn't be the same Judy."