Like Jurist, Like Daughter

By Karin Lipson. STAFF WRITER

SOME TWO OR THREE years ago, actress Amy Brenneman decided to make
a videotape for her mother as a birthday present. As part of the
project, she spent a few days at her mother's workplace, talking to
colleagues and friends who shared their reminiscences of Brenneman's
mother for her tape.
Since Brenneman's mother is Connecticut Superior Court Judge
Frederica S.
Brenneman, going to Mom's office meant hanging out in a branch of
the Hartford Superior Court. And since Frederica Brenneman is,
specifically, a juvenile-court judge, what her daughter found, she
recalls, "was this very unique group of professionals-social workers,
probation officers, all in the same courthouse and working on behalf of
children." Something clicked. With that birthday tape an idea was born
that has become "Judging Amy," the new one-hour CBS dramatic series
starring-you guessed it-Amy Brenneman, and inspired by the life and
times of Hartford Judge Frederica S.
In "Judging Amy," which debuts in a special time slot Sunday at 8
p.m. (it moves to its regular Tuesday time period Sept. 21 at 10 p.m.),
Brenneman portrays Amy Gray, newly separated, newly a single mom, and
very newly a juvenile-court judge in, yes, Hartford, Conn.
The show also features Tyne Daly as Amy Gray's lovingly acerbic
mother, Maxine.
A retired social worker, Maxine is frequently at loggerheads with
her slightly shell-shocked daughter, a Harvard-educated refugee from New
York who has moved with her 6-year-old daughter back to the family home
in Hartford. As she starts her life over, Amy finds that her background
in corporate law has clearly been less-than-ideal training for her new
What makes a good judge, the rookie "Honorable Amy Madison Gray"
asks her mother in the show's first episode? "Pee before you take the
bench. Don't wear perfume. And always make sure there's no food on your
teeth," replies the courtroom-savvy Maxine.
That Judge Amy is soon dealing with a case of child neglect is no
Child neglect "is really her specialty," Brenneman says of her own
mother's work in the juvenile court system. Now semiretired, Judge
Brenneman still frequently sits on the bench ("like a substitute judge,"
says her daughter) and serves as a consultant to the show.
Having grown up hearing about juvenile law, "I was interested in
using that for a series-it's a branch of law I had never seen on TV,"
says Amy Brenneman (perhaps best known for her role as a police officer
in the early days of "NYPD Blue"). "And it's a different style of
courtroom-there's no jury, and the judge gets to participate very freely
with everybody in the courtroom." In fact, the show's Judge Amy,
confronted on her first day in court with an alphabet soup of
social-welfare agency abbreviations, does directly confront members of
the court on their predilection for bureaucratic sludge: "I'd like to
talk to DCF \[Department of Children and Families\] about the OTC
\[order of temporary custody\] and to the D-A-D," she barks.
The what? "The Dad," she explains, only slightly apologetic at her
little joke.
Is her own mother-we're referring here to the real Judge
Brenneman-like that? "My mother is so smart, and she suffers no fools,"
says Brenneman. "She doesn't really strive to be polite, she's a real
straight shooter. That's kind of blinding at times, but she doesn't
worry about making \ socially palatable." But, adds the actress, "my
mother would lay down in front of a train for me; the love is so strong
that it's almost hard to talk about it." As a child, says Brenneman, she
didn't visit her mother's courtroom all that frequently. But "in the
last four or five years, I see her more in court, and it blows me away,
because all the very best of her comes out.
"My mother's an extraordinary person. The intelligence, the
compassion and the no-nonsense cutting through the bureacracy-she's the
smartest person in the room!" Based on her credentials, Judge Brenneman
(who has declined to give interviews about the show) would seem always
to have been the smartest person in the room-or was sitting in an
exceptionally smart room. A 1947 magna cum laude graduate of Radcliffe
College, she was part of Harvard Law School's first class of women
graduates, in 1953. (Amy Brenneman carried on the family tradition by
graduating from Harvard University in 1987.) Frederica Brenneman was
also, says her daughter, "the second woman to be put on the bench in
Connecticut, in 1967. Pretty late, huh?" she notes, for women to have
stormed that particular male bastion.
When she was first appointed to the bench, her mother "didn't know
anything at all about being in the courtroom," says Brenneman. "She had
to learn on the fly, by asking questions. And I wanted that to appear in
the first episode." The person she credits with "really nailing" Judge
Amy's initial nervousness, and much else, is Barbara Hall, an executive
producer and the chief writer on the show.
In fact, Amy Gray's status as a newly separated woman coping with a
small child reflects not the life of Frederica Brenneman-who met her
husband, an environmental lawyer, in Harvard Law School and has been
married for 48 years-but that of Barbara Hall.
"When I was exactly the age of the character, 34, I got divorced and
had a little girl this little girl's age," says Hall. Moving to another
city like Judge Amy, "I just blew my life up, in a way, and started
over." It was, Brenneman agrees, Hall who salvaged the show after an
early team of writers was unable to get the right tone. With time
running out on Brenneman's CBS contract for a pilot, Hall was called in
by Twentieth Century Fox (which is producing the show for CBS) and wrote
the pilot in five days.
For that show, and for the ensuing ones that have just been taped,
Frederica Brenneman served above all as legal adviser. "I send all the
scripts to her, and see what she has to say, mostly about the legal
stuff," says her daughter.
And does her mother correct the scripts? "Yeah, all the time!" says
Brenneman, laughing. "I just spoke to her, and she's been giving me an
earful about the next episode." Still, "As we get into the series, it's
less directly linked" to her mother, says the actress. For one thing,
the requirements of a TV show are different from those of a courtroom.
"We may stress certain points-where she may say, oh, that's not legally
important-for dramatic effect." Her mother "just loves what she does-she
would love this to be case law, case law and more case law," says
Brenneman. But, "there's always a moment where it's different. It ends
up being better for our narrative purposes -you take a fictional leap.
"We're all," she notes, "getting used to the process." So, if Judge
Frederica Brenneman is getting used to taking that fictional leap from
case law, is there anything else about the show that she's worried
about? Remember, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this judge is also a
"Her big concern about the show," acknowledges the judge's daughter,
"is whether I'm eating and sleeping."