Forget Shorty, Get Marvin!

How novelist Elmore Leonard's friendship with Palm Beach County criminal judge Marvin Mounts led to a popular book and a new TV show

A devout Episcopalian, Mounts thought as a grade-school student that he might become a priest. Born in West Palm Beach in 1932, he attended the now-defunct Palm Beach High School, where he played on the football team with Harry Johnston, who would later become a congressman, and a man named Deese -- but that name wouldn't mean much to Mounts until years later, when his former teammate's daughter found herself nailed to an oak tree.

Mounts' father, known as Red, moved to West Palm Beach in the early Twenties after failing to earn a living in the Oklahoma dust bowl. In 1925 he became the assistant agricultural agent for what was then a largely agrarian Palm Beach County. He later ascended to the post of agricultural agent, an appointment he would hold for more than 36 years. His appreciation for natural resources was so respected that the county honored him in the Sixties by naming a West Palm Beach botanical garden after him.

Mounts' mother, Juanita Tillman Mounts, worked as a substitute teacher and served as a member of the West Palm Beach city library board. She helped young Marvin, an eighth grader at the time, to secure a part-time job at the library, where he made 50 cents an hour. "It was there," he remembers fondly, "where I learned a love for books." That love ultimately led him to attend the University of the South, located in Sewanee, Tennessee, where he realized that his passion and temperament were better suited for the study of history than for a career in the church.

But history, like faith, became merely a critical diversion for Mounts, who decided to pursue a career in law instead. As his undergraduate years concluded, the Korean War was also rapidly drawing to an end. The G.I. Bill would soon do likewise, warned a friend of the Mounts family, and if Marvin wanted to go to graduate school, he'd better enlist quickly. Heeding this counsel Mounts joined the Air Force, serving at a California base between 1954 and 1956, where he studied bombing-run photos. When he was discharged, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill's provisions to pay for tuition and enrolled in the University of Florida's law school.

His grades were poor at the University of Florida, he admits, but he muddled through, met the woman he would marry, married her in June 1959 after graduation, and began a job search in his native West Palm Beach. "When I got out of law school," he recollects, "the only job available was working in the [Palm Beach County] prosecutor's office," then known as the solicitor's office. He quickly discovered he had a knack for this calling, especially after winning the case concerning the woman who was strangled and buried underground in a car. In doing so he defeated Sidney Catts, a prominent defense attorney at the time and the son of a former Florida governor.

When the solicitor's office was abolished in 1972, Mounts needed to determine if he would run for the newly created state attorney position or seek a vacant circuit court judgeship. Judges, he thought, could be more autonomous and help people more easily: "I thought maybe I could do a better job than some judges that I didn't think much of."

First there was Marvin Mounts. Then there was Elmore Leonard's Bob Isom Gibbs. Now there's veteran big-screen star Beau Bridges' (Norma Rae, Heart Like a Wheel, The Fabulous Baker Boys) Bob Gibbs. Maximum Bob has morphed from novel into TV show.

"He [Gibbs] is very similar to the judge in the book," comments Amy Colonna Robinson, a location specialist with the Palm Beach County Film Commission. Robinson helped coordinate production for Maximum Bob, which wrapped shooting in downtown Lake Worth, Jupiter, and inside the courthouse in Okeechobee City in November.

"He's a little perverted, very Southern," adds Robinson. "I guess he's pretty mean, but he's got a sense of humor. He doesn't come off being crooked. I guess you could say he's pretty likable. But then some of the things he says you're like, 'Oh man.'"

Before fashioning television's newest fictional judge, screenwriter Alex Gansa consulted with Mounts several times and contends that he will continue to use the judge as a resource -- if the series gets picked up for broadcast, that is. Mounts told Gansa, for example, the story of a thief who packed himself inside a shipping crate addressed to a West Palm Beach bank. The would-be thief, a law student at the University of Miami, was arrested before he could steal any of the treasures in the bank's safe-deposit boxes. The student skipped bond and is probably still at large.

Gansa is no TV newcomer. For two years he helped write for The X-Files, the enormously popular Fox Network show about extraterrestrials, UFOs, government cover-ups, and conspiracy theories. Before that he performed a similar task on a number of other shows, including the Emmy Award-winning Eighties medical drama St. Elsewhere. Maximum Bob, he hopes, will be funny in an offbeat way but also dramatic enough to capture viewers' imaginations for an entire hour.

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