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Rusty Burrell, 76; Bailiff in Real Life and on 'The People's Court'


As a sheriff's deputy in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, Rusty Burrell served as bailiff during the trials of Caryl Chessman, Charles Manson, Patty Hearst and other high-profile cases.

But for millions of Americans, Burrell was best known as the affable, silver-haired bailiff in the courtroom of Judge Joseph Wapner on TV's "The People's Court."

Burrell died Monday of lung cancer at his home in Rosemead. He was 76.

Burrell spent 25 of his 31 years with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department as a bailiff in the court system, including working in Wapner's Los Angeles Superior Court courtroom.

Burrell had just retired in 1981 when he was asked to serve as bailiff on the "The People's Court." The syndicated series featured real plaintiffs and defendants who had taken their grievances to small claims courts in Los Angeles and then agreed to have their cases heard by the retired Judge Wapner for a swift disposition of their claims on national TV.

The series ran until 1993.

In 1998, Burrell returned to a TV courtroom to serve as bailiff on "Judge Wapner's Animal Court" on cable's Animal Planet network.

"I told the producer I wouldn't do it without him," Wapner said at the time. "He's the salt of the Earth. He knows how to deal with people, and he has such a great sense of humor."

A native of Metropolis, Ill., Burrell lied about his age and enlisted in the Navy at the start of World War II. After his discharge, he played baseball for a couple of years as a pitcher and outfielder in the St. Louis Browns' farm system.

"He came out [to Los Angeles] to play ball and stayed," said Burrell's son, Larry, adding that one of his father's friends, a former police officer working as a store security guard in Pomona, suggested that he join the department.

After a short time with the Pomona Police Department, Burrell switched to the Sheriff's Department in 1950 for the higher pay: $290 instead of $200 a month.

Burrell once said he became a bailiff because Superior Court Judge Elmer "Larry" Doyle liked his sense of humor.

"I was visiting a friend of mine who was working in Judge Doyle's courtroom," he recalled. "The judge loved to play practical jokes on people. When I laughed at one he pulled on me, he asked me if I would like to become his bailiff."

When Burrell began appearing on "The People's Court," he was no stranger to television.

He already had served as the original bailiff on the syndicated television series "Divorce Court" in the 1950s. The show featured a real attorney playing the judge and real lawyers but used actors as litigants.

The show's producers had been talking to Burrell about being an advisor on the show.

"He was a good looking guy, and they just decided to put him on the show," said Larry Burrell. "My dad was in charge of getting the attorneys to be on the show."

One of the attorneys who appeared frequently on the show was Judge Wapner's father.

During his years with the Sheriff's Department, Burrell also moonlighted as a bit actor in a number of television shows such as "General Hospital" and movies, including "Take Her, She's Mine," starring James Stewart, and "Fate Is the Hunter," starring Glenn Ford.

He also appeared in numerous TV commercials and was, Larry Burrell said, "Col. Morton on packages of Morton's Frozen Foods."

While working as a bailiff, Burrell accompanied Chessman, the-so-called "Red Light Bandit" and serial rapist who was executed in 1960, to the law library every day. And during the Manson trial, Burrell guarded the notorious cult leader, recalling, "that was me sitting right beside him all the time.

"He used to tell me, 'Rusty, why don't you let me go?' And I'd say, 'Charlie, you know I can't do that.' And he said, 'You know, I could get up and walk out of here any time I want.' And I said, 'Charlie, you won't even get to the door.'"

Larry Burrell said his father enjoyed appearing on television, "but it wasn't his big thing. He was never a Hollywood guy. In all honesty, he did it more just to support his family."

In addition to his son, Burrell is survived by his wife, Clara; son Mark of Anaheim Hills; five grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and a sister, Faith Martin.

A memorial service will be held at 9 a.m. today at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be made to an Alzheimer's group of choice.

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