Retired judge Joseph Wapner, who famously presided over televised court cases on The People’s Court for more than a decade, has died at age 97.
Son David Wapner told The Associated Press that his father died at home in his sleep. Joseph Wapner was hospitalized a week ago with breathing problems and had been under home hospice care.
The show, which Wapner hosted from its inception in 1981 until 1993, was a pioneer in courtroom TV. The half-hour syndicated program followed the arbitration of small-claims cases, with the instantly popular Wapner issuing no-nonsense verdicts.
“As TV’s first judge, Judge Wapner blazed the trail for a genre of court shows still thriving and in the pop culture zeitgeist some three decades later,” Warner Bros. Television, which distributes the series, said in a statement confirming his death. “We mourn his Honor’s passing and celebrate his full life.”
People’s Court has been presided over by Marilyn Milian since 2001, after brief stints by former New York City mayor Ed Koch and Jerry Sheindlin, the husband of rival Judge Judy.
Wapner served at the L.A. Superior Court from 1961-79 after two years as a municipal judge. He was recommended for The People’s Court by another superior court judge, Christian Markey, who had been approached by producer Ralph Edwards.
Born in Los Angeles, Wapner attended Hollywood High before graduating from University of Southern California with undergraduate and law degrees. After a period in private practice, he was appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1959 and the Los Angeles Superior Court in 1961. He retired as judge in November 1979, the day after his 60th birthday.
“Everything on the show is real,” Wapner told the AP in a 1986 interview. “There’s no script, no rehearsal, no retakes. Everything from beginning to end is like a real courtroom, and I personally consider each case as a trial.”
“Sometimes I don’t even deliberate,” he added. “I just decide from the bench, it’s so obvious. The beautiful part is that I have carte blanche.”
The People’s Court became such a pop culture touchstone that Dustin Hoffman’s character is addicted to the show in the 1988 Oscar-winning film Rain Man. And in 1989, a Post survey found that 54% of Americans could name Wapner, while only 9% could identify then Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.
Wapner is survived by his wife of 70 years, Mickey, and his two sons, David and Fred. His daughter, Sarah, died of heart disease in 2015 at the age of 56.
Both of his sons became attorneys, and his son Fred also became a judge in Los Angeles County in 1997. David has worked as an environmental consultant in Israel.