There Are No Split Opinions About Divorce Court Judge William Keene: As a TV Star, He's a Shoe-in

updated 08/18/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/18/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

After nearly two years on TV's Divorce Court, Judge William Keene has heard it all—accusations of adultery, homosexuality and insanity, allegations of a concealed Nazi past, even charges that a husband became obsessed with UFOs after encountering aliens on a camping trip. "He named our fifth child Quasar," the wife cried, "and she hates her name. She wants to change it to Betty." But no matter what the testimony or the argument, Keene, 61, remains the calm center in a soap-operatic storm, dispensing justice and wisdom with gray-haired sagacity on the show that draws an average seven million daily viewers.

"You might think some of the cases are off-the-wall, that they don't happen in real life, but they do," says Keene, who spent 18 years as a California Superior Court judge in Los Angeles.

"Sometimes a lot of foolishness goes on in the show," adds his wife, Pat, 60, "but I don't think Bill has even come close to looking ridiculous. I think that's partly why the show is so successful."

Now syndicated to 150 stations, and 160 starting in the fall, Divorce Court's success is beyond dispute. The show was inspired by the longevity of the original Divorce Court, which ran from 1957 to 1969, and the recent popularity of People's Court, starring Judge Joseph Wapner, who's known Keene since they were both Superior Court judges in the '60s.

Although Divorce Court uses actors to portray the bickering couples, the show has some basis in reality. The scripts are loosely based on actual divorce cases from around the country; Keene writes his own opinions, and the lawyers are authentic. "Every trial lawyer is a ham anyway," comments Keene, whose button-down personality hides a hint of the imp (he wears saddle shoes under his robes). "Judges are also actors to a certain extent," he continues. "When I was on the bench, I was at center stage. If judges are honest, they'll admit that there's an element of that in every courtroom."

Born in Youngstown, Ohio and raised in Alhambra, Calif., Keene says he wanted to be a famous trial lawyer from the day he got out of the Army after World War II. After attending UCLA (where he became friends with Watergaters John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman) and graduating from its law school in 1952, he practiced criminal law in L.A. Appointed to the bench by Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown in 1963, Keene was the presiding judge in such headline-making murder trials as the Hillside Strangler, the Freeway Killer and Charles Manson's preliminary proceedings. After returning to private practice in 1984, Keene was contacted by Divorce Court's producers and was selected from a field of 50 judges. He tapes the show for three months each year, then spends the other nine in private legal practice or traveling with his wife.

Unlike the miserable couples paraded on Divorce Court, Keene and Pat, his high school sweetheart, have been married for 39 years. For 34 of those, they've shared the same unpretentious two-story house in Manhattan Beach. "I don't know if there's any secret to our success," says Pat, a former kindergarten teacher. "I think people who were married in the 1940s maybe expected to stay married. For some people now marriage is like something they buy at the store. If they don't like it, they just take it back."

Perhaps as an antidote to divorcing people on the air, Keene gets immense pleasure out of performing weddings, including those of his children—Andrew, a 35-year-old dentist, and Kerry, a 30-year-old clerk in L.A. Superior Court. As for the future of the institution, he's optimistic. "I think the pendulum is swinging back from the '60s to the point now where marriage is much more appreciated by society."

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