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Joseph Wapner (1919–2017)

by Legacy Staff

“The People’s Court” judge launched the courtroom-reality TV genre.

Joseph A. Wapner, the judge who presided over the birth of the courtroom-reality TV genre, died Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, after having been hospitalized earlier in the week, according to multiple news reports. He was 97.

Wapner became one of the country’s best-known judges in 1981 when he stepped behind the bench as the original host of “The People’s Court.” But he was a judge long before the show’s debut. Born Nov. 15, 1919, in Los Angeles, Calif., Wapner grew up rubbing shoulders with future stars, attending Hollywood High School and briefly courting Lana Turner. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and attended the University of Southern California for both undergraduate work and law school.


Wapner won appointment to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1959 and to the Los Angeles Superior Court in 1961. He served on that court for 18 years, retiring in 1979. Two years later, he was tapped to serve as the judge on “The People’s Court,” in a new concept for reality television. In a small claims court-style setting, Wapner would arbitrate real disputes and hand down binding decisions, though both plaintiff and defendant would be paid for their TV appearances.

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Wapner presided over “The People’s Court” from 1981 to 1993, a time that cemented the show’s reputation in pop culture — as well as Wapner’s. The show and the judge were a key plot point in the Oscar-winning movie “Rain Man”; Wapner appeared on “The Tonight Show” in 1986 to resolve a dispute between David Letterman and Johnny Carson; and the show’s well-known theme song has been used in multiple TV shows and movies. But by 1993, ratings were low and the show was canceled.

“The People’s Court” was revived several years later without Wapner behind the bench. Today, courtroom shows are a staple of reality TV, harking back to the model Wapner began. In later years, he went on to star on “Judge Wapner’s Animal Court” for two seasons on the Animal Planet cable TV channel, and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Wapner was preceded in death by his daughter, Sarah. He is survived by his wife, Mickey; sons David and Fred; and several grandchildren.

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