On January 4, 1984, NBC premiered the workplace sitcom Night Court, starring comedy-magician Harry Anderson in a role that was written for him by creator Reinhold Weege.
Anderson had previously been seen on Cheers as a fedora-wearing sleight-of-hand con artist who would always get the better of the gang at the bar, and Weege cast him in the role of Harold T. Stone, a fedora-wearing sleight-of-hand prankster who also happened to be a municipal court judge. Stone looked exceedingly young to be on the bench, and his unorthodox, playful style got him a lot of side-eye in the pilot episode and through much of the first season.
As you can see in the opening credits for the pilot above, the original cast was quite different than it was when the show hit its stride. Karen Austin was the original court clerk Lana Wagner, who openly questioned Harry's bona fides before being teased as his potential love interest for a time, and eventually being replaced by Charles Robinson as Mac.Robinson. Weege was big on using his actors' real names for their character names.
Gail Strickland was Sheila Gardiner, the first public defender on the show, although she didn't make it past the pilot episode. Paula Kelly came on as Liz Williams for the rest of Season 1, to be replaced in Season 2 by Billie Young as played by Ellen Foley, who also happens to be the answer to the trivia question "who was the singer dueting with Meat Loaf on 'Paradise By the Dashboard Light?'" Alas, it seems the showrunners didn't love her forever, finally settling on Markie Post as Christine Sullivan for the remainder of the show's run.
Then there's the case of the bailiffs. Richard Moll was a constant as the giant, bald dope-with-a-heart-of-gold Bull Shannon, and Selma Diamond was perfect as the snarky, too-old-for-this-nonsense Selma Hacker, but she passed away after 35 episodes. Their dynamic was so popular that Weege replaced her with another short, crotchety, gravel-voiced older woman in Florence Halop's Florence Kleiner for Season 3, but after Halop also died 22 episodes later, he wisely went in a new direction with Marsha Warfield as the hard-nosed, no-B.S. Roz Russell.
Also markedly different in Season 1 was Dan Fielding, the role for which John Larroquette would eventually win four consecutive Emmys. Fielding was originally a very prim, aloof conservative type before he eventually morphing into the over-the-top sleazeball we remember.
It was announced last month that the show will be getting a sequel series, briging back Larroquette and focusing on Harry Stone's daughter Abby, but curiously enough, the original isn't currently available for streaming. In fact, one of the only clips available online for Season 1 is this short one from the second episode of the series, guest-starring Michael J. Fox as a troubled kid who runs into someone who claims to be the real Santa Claus.
Night Court ran from 1984-1992 on NBC, and it was a staple of NBC's powerhouse Thursday night block of sitcoms throughout the 1980s that included Fox's Family Ties and Anderson's previous gig, Cheers.
People are talking about Night Court in our forums. Join the conversation.
Andy Hunsaker has a head full of sitcom gags and nerd-genre lore, and can be followed @AndyHunsaker if you're into that sort of thing.