Dubbed by one fan “the coolest sidekick since Kato on ‘The Green Hornet,’” Elk Grove resident Petri Hawkins Byrd, aka Bailiff Byrd, makes a living playing straight man to witty, acerbic Brooklynite Judge Judith Sheindlin on the hit syndicated TV courtroom series “Judge Judy.”
And what entertainment can be skimmed from this endless parade of human foibles and frustrations (all real people, all real cases) airing weeknights at 5 and 5:30 on UPN-31.
A housesitter claims her friend’s dog chewed up her dentures. A student accuses an older couple of beating him up at a Cher concert. A woman refuses to repay her ex-fiancé for the breast augmentation surgery he bankrolled.
It’s enough to make viewers at home want to hurl a shoe at the TV set (or just plain hurl), but save for a raised eyebrow or conspiratorial glance at the judge, Bailiff Byrd gets to comment on few of the “Jerry Springer”-like, mostly shallow-end-of-the-gene-pool proceedings. That privilege is reserved for Judge Judy:
“I’m the boss, applesauce!”
“Do I have ‘stupid’ written on my forehead?”
“I don’t give a rat’s a-- what you disagree with, sir!”
But relative silence is just fine with the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Byrd, who’s content to loom menacingly when the situation calls for it (in seven seasons, he’s never had to physically toss anyone out of the courtroom) and catch the occasional bone Judge Judy throws him—an opportunity to respond to what’s going on in the courtroom, to show off his own talents. For underneath that watchful, somber countenance and swelling khaki uniform beats the heart of a born actor and comedian, an improvisational whiz who has proven he can rise to the occasion when Sheindlin unexpectedly gives him the floor. This is, after all, showbiz in justice’s robes.
Every other week, Byrd—like Sheindlin, a native of Brooklyn—hops in his Nissan Maxima and drives to L.A., where anywhere from 30 to 36 cases are filmed over three days. Away from the camera, in the cafe at Borders in Elk Grove, he has plenty to say about Judge Judy and the people who appear before her.
“When people ask me what she’s really like, I always say, ‘What you see is what you get.’ She’s not faking it. I agree with most of her decisions—the Brooklyn in us gives us a low B.S. tolerance—but sometimes I think we’re listening to two different cases. She might tell someone, ‘You’re lying!’ because in her world that doesn’t happen, but in Petri Hawkins Byrd’s world—been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.
“Judy and I have decided I’m probably the more compassionate one. She might look at some kid and say, ‘He’ll never be an asset to society; lock him up and throw away the key,’ whereas I spend much of my time counseling at-risk youth, and I wouldn’t believe all of them are a waste; there’s some good in everyone. So for me, I’m always looking at people with a hey-that-could-be-me type of attitude as opposed to, ‘What a jerk!’ When people ask me about people on the show, they’ll say, ‘Are they jerks or what?’ And I say, ‘That’s a broad stroke. They’re people.’”
People, yes, but like porcupines and puffer fish, many of these people pile on so much armor you can’t see the soft, sensitive parts underneath.
“A lot of the people who come on the show are people who are in pain and don’t know how to deal with it,” says Byrd, 46. “They want a sense of control and they manifest that desire by suing somebody. What some of them really need is therapy.”
The majority of cases just leave Byrd shaking his head in wonder. “I have never,” he says slowly, for emphasis, “seen so many women give so much money to men they have known for such a short time.” A smile curls across his face as he adds, “I don’t understand it. During my single years, I never met any of these women. Everybody I knew was broke!”
Much of what Byrd does on the show goes unfilmed. When justice hurts, he has been known to administer a little post-decision TLC, oftentimes smoothing things over between feuding parties. “I say, ‘Hold on, Humpty,’ and take them back to my dressing room and console them,” he says.
Byrd received a degree in criminal justice from New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 1989. While in college, he worked as an officer in the Brooklyn Family Court system. He later was transferred to the Manhattan Family Court system, where he first worked with Judge Sheindlin. She had served in New York family courts since 1972 and had a reputation as a tough but fair judge. Eventually she was appointed supervising judge in Manhattan. “We used to call her the Joan Rivers of the judicial world,” Byrd recalls. “She was just hilarious.”
In 1993, Sheindlin and her inimitable style were written up in the Los Angeles Times, which led to a report by “60 Minutes” on CBS. Then, in 1996, Larry Lyttle, president of Big Ticket Television, offered the judge a courtroom on the little screen. Byrd, who by that time had moved to California, read about Sheindlin’s upcoming project in a Liz Smith column and wrote the judge a congratu-latory letter saying, “If you ever need a bailiff, I still look good in uniform.”
Judge Judy called him at home to accept, and he’s been her bailiff ever since.
Petri Adonis Byrd was the oldest of four children, three boys and a girl, growing up in the burly neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He added the name Hawkins when he joined the “Judge Judy” show as a tribute to his mother, whose maiden name was Hawkins.
Byrd doesn’t remember his father ever holding down a full-time job. His father was a drug dealer who bounced between prison and rehab most of the time.
“My escapes were going to school, reading, television and movies—anything that would take me out of the world I was in and put me in a world that could be,” Byrd says.
The young Byrd watched with fascination the likes of Flip Wilson, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Ed Sullivan and Bill Cosby, and learned to do dead-on impersonations. His father thought he was so funny, he had his friends call Petri from prison just so they could hear him imitate the stars.
Meanwhile, Byrd’s mother held the family together. “My mom was a stay-at-home mom and I thank God for it,” he says. “She was a strict disciplinarian, very much about us going to school and being correct in the way we treated people.”
As much as he loved acting, Byrd also was enamored with the law.
“(Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall was one of my heroes,” he says. “Growing up, I was aware of the civil rights movement, and I always understood how laws have to be changed in order to affect people’s lives. I wanted to be a lawyer so I could make change. I’m a voracious reader and, as you can tell, I’m a voracious talker, and the idea of tugging at a jury’s heartstrings always appealed to me. I went to John Jay as a means of staying connected to the criminal justice system.”
In 1989, Byrd’s personal life changed radically. He and his wife, Felicia, separated and Felicia moved with their children to the West Coast. Trying to get back on the right track, the couple engaged in cross-country counseling for five months. Then Byrd came out to California to reconcile with his wife—and never looked back. “It was a one-shot deal for me to get our relationship back together, and I jumped at it; I didn’t want to be a statistic,” he says. “One day when I was there, our 2-year-old was running on the beach. I just looked at him and thought, ‘I can’t take him back to the city.’ It was the best decision I ever made.”
So Byrd began a new career as a Special Deputy U.S. Marshal in San Mateo. Three years later he accepted an offer to work as a student counselor at Monte Vista High School in San Mateo. He was making $30,000 a year and delivering pizzas on the side when he spotted the column on Judge Judy and wrote her that fateful letter.
Few people ever fall into a career that blends two disparate interests—in Byrd’s case, entertainment and law—so perfectly. He feels as though there is finally order in his court, and it’s good—very good. He won’t say how much he’s paid to be on “Judge Judy,” but whatever it is, it affords him a nice home in Laguna West and plenty of time to spend with his children, ages 15, 13 and 9 (he also has a 20-year-old daughter who attends college Back East) and to work on community projects he holds dear.
Byrd and his family decided to move from the Bay Area to Elk Grove six years ago after they researched places to live on the Internet. They were impressed with Elk Grove’s affordable housing and family-oriented atmosphere.
Asked if he’d ever move to L.A. to be closer to work, the answer is an emphatic “No.” Byrd eschews Hollywood glitz in favor of the simple, reflective life. His church, Radiant Life, on Stockton Boulevard, is his rock and his car is paid for, and that’s enough for him.
Byrd is a popular master of ceremonies and inspirational speaker and spends a lot of time working with troubled youth. He operates a nonprofit mentoring program called Teach Them to Fish, focusing on physical, mental, social and spiritual development.
Byrd also indulges his creative side whenever he can, writing poetry and screenplays. Once or twice a month he can be found at Sandra Dee’s Bar-B-Que & Seafood, 601 15th St., reading his own poetry or just hanging out.
Sandra Dee’s owner, Sandra Dee Johnson, has known Byrd for 13 years and considers him “a big brother.” She says, “He has beautiful poems—some are beautiful and some are hilarious. And he has some intellectual ones that are just like—whoa! Petri is deep.”
“Petri has positive vibes around him,” she says. “Whenever you’re in a sour mood or a down mood, Petri’s got your back.”
One of Byrd’s recent acting experiences was as a judge in the independent movie End of the Law, which was shot in Sacramento and premiered at the Crest Theatre on Oct. 3, 2003.
“It was the first time I ever saw myself on the big screen with hundreds of people in attendance,” he says. “My part was toward the end of the movie, and just as it was going to the courthouse scene, I was sweating bullets. I couldn’t do that on a regular basis; I couldn’t imagine being Denzel (Washington) with so many peers and critics watching. Then you realize you are your own biggest critic. I would love to do more in-front-of-the-camera things but it’s getting to the point where it takes a little longer to get the bags out from under my eyes in the morning, or uh-oh, my stomach’s out of control; gotta get to the gym and do more crunches.
“I don’t mind being a sidekick or bit player; there are no small roles, only small actors, right? I may be second banana, but as long as I’m on the tree, I’ll be fine.”