A few years ago, Amy Brenneman decided to create a special 70th-birthday present for her mother, Connecticut Superior Court Justice Frederica Brenneman. Video-cam in hand, Brenneman interviewed lawyers, bailiffs and clerks at the Hartford courthouse where her now-73-year-old mother served for more than 30 years on the juvenile-justice bench. “Everybody gets scared to be in front of Judge Brenneman,” says the actress, amused but impressed. But in the end, “the impression I got is that she is a benevolent despot.”
An inspiring one, to boot. That videotape gave Brenneman, 35, the idea for Judging Amy, her CBS series about a high-powered Manhattan lawyer, Amy Gray, who, 6-year-old daughter in tow, moves back home to Connecticut to take a job as a juvenile-court judge and live with her blunt but good-hearted mother (Tyne Daly). Brenneman’s real-life father, Russell, 71, a retired environmental lawyer, has jokingly called the show “an insane homage,” but Amy became the season’s top-rated new drama. “[Judge Brenneman]’s a little mystified by the world of TV,” says Daly, who has met the judge on her occasional visits to the set. “To see her daughter in the costume she wears when she goes to work, the same mock-up courtroom—there must be a certain amount of Twilight Zone in that.” Brenneman’s mother—only the second female judge to be appointed in Connecticut and one of the first women to graduate from Harvard Law School, class of ’53—helps shore up the show’s authenticity as an unpaid, uncredited consultant. “When she’d first give us notes,” says Brenneman of her mother, now semiretired and on the bench in Bridgeport, Conn., “they were just blindingly critical.”
She got over it. Besides, as executive producer, Brenneman holds the show together during good times and bad. In December, a few unattended candles started a fire that gutted her trailer on the Los Angeles set while she was elsewhere being fitted for a costume. “She was very upset,” says costar Dan Futterman, who plays her brother, an aspiring writer. “It burned all of her Christmas presents for us, so she went around telling everyone what their gift would have been.”
Brenneman’s parents once hoped she would become an attorney like older brother Matthew, 39. (Her other sibling, Andy, 38, produces computer software.) But Brenneman, who grew up in the Hartford, Conn., suburb of Glastonbury, discovered in a grade school production of The Music Man that she preferred to court an audience’s applause. She majored in religion at her parents’ alma mater, Harvard, and after graduating in 1987 put in her time on the road as a fledgling theater actress before making her series debut on 1992’s short-lived Middle Ages.
The next year, Brenneman became watercooler fodder (and an Emmy nominee) on ABC’s NYPD Blue, where she played David Caruso’s girlfriend and appeared in the buff in the premiere. Still, the most significant episode in her 1½ seasons on NYPD was No. 6, directed by a new acquaintance, Brad Silberling (City of Angels), 36, who would become her spouse in 1995. With the series getting started, those were hectic days, “but that’s why it was great,” says Silberling, who shares a five-bedroom lodge-style house in L.A. with her (the couple plan to have a family someday). “We saw each other through the swirl.”
That doesn’t mean, though, that Brenneman is letting her hair down anytime soon. “We decided that when I’m on the bench it’s always back and very slick,” she says. “There’s got to be no sexiness. My mother has always described putting the robe on as ‘you’re playing a role, and that is that you’re the boss, you’re in charge.’ That image really appeals to me.” Case closed.
Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles