Joseph Wapner was one of the nation’s most-famous judges in the 1980s – to the point that Dustin Hoffman’s title character in Rain Man detoured a cross-country trip just to watch him – and helped launch a court reality television phase that continues today.
But the former star of The People’s Court has died Sunday. He was 97.
Wapner presided over The People’s Court in first-run syndication for 12 seasons between 1981 and 1993. The show was one of the first to feature real people with real small claims cases. And while his court was not an actual part of the American judiciary, it did serve as binding arbitration, with Wapner as the arbiter – similar to how court shows are run today.
Wapner would become a household name, even as interest in People’s Court waned in later years. While he reportedly was upset about the show’s cancellation in 1993, he would return for short stints on the revived show in later years, including a final appearance in 2009 to celebrate his 90th birthday, with current judge Marilyn Milian.
Joseph Albert Wapner was born Nov. 15, 1919, in Los Angeles. His parents were immigrants from Romania and Russia, his father becoming an attorney in the days before Hollywood. He would attend Hollywood High School before moving on to the University of Southern California. Wapner got his undergraduate degree, served in World War II, and then returned to get his law degree.
Wapner was appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1959, before moving up to the Los Angeles Superior Court – a role he maintained until his retirement in 1979.
Around that same time, producer John Masterson proposed a real-life courtroom show to Let’s Make a Deal host Monty Hall. The concept never got off the ground, but one of the young salespeople tasked with selling the idea – Stu Billett – refined the idea, and took a different route – first-run syndication.
That allowed the show to sell to individual stations around the country, instead of trying to earn a full network pickup. It’s where nearly all the existing court shows exist today, and was a primary vehicle for the success of shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in the 1980s and 1990s.
Wapner was picked to star, with support from the likes of Rusty Burrell as his bailiff and Doug Llewelyn as the courtroom reporter – a role he recently reprised last year on the existing People’s Court.
Following the first People’s Court cancellation, Wapner would spend two years on Judge Wapner’s Animal Court on Animal Planet, and would make a guest appearance on the syndicated show Sliders for its pilot.
Although he reportedly once dates actress Lana Turner in high school, Wapner married Mickey Wapner in 1946, who survives along with two sons – both of whom became lawyers and even a judge. A daughter, Sarah, died in 2015.
Wapner is actually the second People’s Court judge to die. Former New York City mayor Ed Koch, who launched the revival of the series in 1997, died in February 2013.
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