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, the Associated Press and The Washington Post report.
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 1981 to 1993, was a pioneer for court TV. The half-hour syndicated program followed the arbitration of small-claims cases, with the instantly popular Wapner issuing no-nonsense verdicts.
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 attending University of Southern California for his undergraduate and law degree, which he completed in 1948. 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.
The People’s Court premiered in 1981and still airs in syndication today with Judge Marilyn Milian.
Wapner is survived by his wife Mildred “Mickey” Nebenzahl, sons Fred Wapner and David Miron-Wapner, a sister, four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.
Contributing: The Associated Press
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