James Earl Jones as Judge Barry Conrad Isaacs
Which actors would be best at playing a judge?

By Ed Cohen

Nothing close to a consensus emerged from the 314 real-life judges who responded to that question, which was this month’s one-question survey emailed to NJC alumni. Below are the top 10 vote-getters.

The specific question was: “If you could pick any actor, present or past, to play a judge in a courtroom drama, who would it be?”

Listed are the number of votes they received and any movies or TV shows in which they actually played a judge, according to a quick search of IMDB.com:

  1. James Earl Jones (23 votes): Sommersby (1993), Undercover Angel (1999)
  2. Morgan Freeman (22): The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
  3. Spencer Tracy (22): Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
  4. Gregory Peck (17)
  5. Denzel Washington (13)
  6. Fred Gwynne (12): My Cousin Vinny (1992), Sanctuary of Fear (1979)
  7. Viola Davis (9)
  8. Tom Hanks (9)
  9. Jimmy Stewart (8)
  10. Clint Eastwood (7)

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephen Marcus thought Tracy did a “magnificent job” in Judgment at Nuremberg as the fictional Judge Dan Haywood, who heads a military tribunal hearing evidence against four German judges who served in the Nazi regime.

Gregory Peck may have never played a judge, but one anonymous judge (most participants chose to vote anonymously) thought his Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) displayed “judicial centers of gravity: intuition, empathy and unwavering moral strength.”

Likewise, Omaha County (NE) Judge Thomas K. Harmon appreciated the demeanor of lawyer and actor Joseph Welch as the judge in Anatomy of a Murder (1959).

“(He was) even-handed, at times humorous, but his respectful manner kept control of the courtroom, allowing the trial to play itself out. Perfect judge, in my opinion!”

Welch served as chief counsel for the U.S. Army in the famous Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. According to Wikipedia, he took the movie role because “it looked like that was the only way I’d ever get to be a judge.”

San Diego Superior Court Judge Timothy B. Taylor had an interesting reason for nominating another lesser-known actor, Nelson Leigh.

“He was my maternal grandfather; he played the judge on the old Perry Mason series, nine episodes.”

Longtime New York judge and NJC faculty member Philip S. Straniere nominated … himself.

“l played a judge in Night of January 16th, Inherit the Wind and Annie,” he reported.  

Among other judges who gave their names, First Justice James M. Sullivan of the Plymouth (Massachusetts) District Court nominated Burt Reynolds (The Longest Yard, Smokey and the Bandit, Boogie Nights). Justice of the Peace Al Cercone from Dallas liked Bonanza’s Ben Cartwright, Lorne Greene. Juvenile Court Judge Mary M. Z. Stevens of Douglas County, Nebraska, suggested Ben Kingsley (Gandhi, Schindler’s List).

Administrative law Judge Theresa Timlin of the U.S. Labor Department went with Kathy Bates (Misery), adding, “I think we need to move away from the old white male stereotype.”

One unnamed judge said Emma Thompson would make a good Sandra Day O’Connor.

Another wryly imagined an appellate panel consisting of Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) and ex-wife Amber Heard (Drive Angry) – who opposed each other in a recent high-profile defamation lawsuit – along with prop comic Carrot Top.

“That would be genuine courtroom drama!” the judge wrote.

Dozens more actors received at least one vote, including:

Tom Cruise, Sidney Poitier, Jack Lemmon, Sam Waterston, Charlton Heston, Samuel L. Jackson, Bradley Cooper, Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Paul Newman, Will Smith, Ronald Reagan, Michael Caine, Antonio Banderas, Pam Grier (“as her Fox Brown character”), Reese Witherspoon, James Spader, Susan Sarandon, Daniel Day Lewis, John Houseman, Olivia de Havilland, Judi Dench, John Wayne, Robert Duvall, Rita Moreno, Edward James Olmos, Meryl Streep, Marlon Brando, Wilford Brimley, Andy Griffith, Idris Elba, Maggie Smith, Anthony Hopkins, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Helen Mirren, George Clooney, Tom Selleck, Glenn Close, Sean Connery, Hal Holbrook, Halle Berry, Don Knotts, Jodie Foster, Michael Gambon, Jon Voight, Angela Bassett, Edwin Booth, John Lithgow, Charles Laughton, Ruby Dee, Dennis Quaid, Raymond Massey, Octavia Spencer, Marisa Tomei, Edward LeSaint, Edward Hermann, Hedy Lamarr, Alan Rickman, Simone Missick, Ossie Davis, Ed Harris, George C. Scott, Will Sampson, Gene Hackman,  Steve McQueen, Orson Welles, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Randall, Eve Arden, Hattie McDaniel, Robert De Niro, Kevin Costner, Robin Williams, Donald Sutherland, Christian Bale, Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Wilkinson and Fred Thompson.

* Each month the College emails an informal, non-scientific, one-question survey to its more than 12,000 judicial alumni in the United States and abroad. The results, summarized in the NJC’s Judicial Edge Today, are not intended to be characterized as conclusive research findings.

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