Joseph Wapner, First Judge on TV’s ‘People’s Court,’ Dies at 97

  • Program spawned a genre of courtroom-based reality TV shows
  • It ‘captured the wondrous banality of the human condition’

Joseph Wapner, the stern, grandfatherly judge of television’s “The People’s Court” who spawned a genre of courtroom-based reality shows that veered from his subdued and decorous model, has died at age 97.

Wapner died in his sleep on Sunday after being hospitalized a week ago with breathing problems, his son, David Wapner, told the Associated Press.

Joseph Wapner circa 1985.

Photographer: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

A lifelong resident of Los Angeles, Wapner aspired to be an actor and settled for a career in law. After retiring as a Superior Court judge, he found a way to combine both interests on “The People’s Court,” which was widely syndicated by Ralph Edwards Productions.

During its 1981 to 1993 run, the show plucked almost 2,500 cases from Los Angeles-area small claims courts. Though presented as courtroom trials, the cases were binding arbitrations, decided by Wapner.

To get on the show, parties had to drop their court disputes and agree to abide by Wapner’s ruling -- and, perhaps, endure his scolding. To sweeten the deal, the show paid all judgments, which were limited to a maximum of $1,500.

Wapner’s cases shed light on the underbelly of America’s judicial system: motorists arguing over fender-benders, a stripper demanding payment for her work, a woman suing her dry cleaner for ruining her fake-fur coat.

“No show has so engrossingly captured the wondrous banality of the human condition,” Newsweek said in 1986.

A ratings hit, it led to imitators such as “Judge Judy,” “Judge Alex,” “Judge Mills Lane,” “Judge Joe Brown” and “Cristina’s Court.”

Still Going

Meantime, three successors kept “The People’s Court” in session long after Wapner stepped down: former New York City Mayor Edward Koch; Jerry Sheindlin, the husband of “Judge Judy”; and Marilyn Milian, a former judge on Florida’s state circuit court.

Wapner wasn’t thrilled with the trend he launched. In 2002, the New York Post quoted him saying that Judith Sheindlin -- the former Manhattan Family Court judge who became TV’s much-watched “Judge Judy” in 1996 -- was too rude.

“She is not portraying a judge as I view a judge should act,” Wapner said, according to the newspaper. “She’s discourteous and she’s abrasive. She’s not slightly insulting; she’s insulting in capital letters.”

Sheindlin, for her part, offered praise for Wapner’s legacy in a 2005 interview on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” Asked about how she came to land a TV show, she said: “All the judges watched Judge Wapner. All America at one point or another watched Judge Wapner. And I used to say to myself, ‘I could do that.’”

Early Years

Joseph Albert Wapner was born Nov. 15, 1919, in Los Angeles, where his father ran a one-man law practice representing “always the little guy,” Wapner recalled in his 1987 memoir, “A View From the Bench.”

The elder Wapner appeared occasionally on episodes of “Divorce Court,” the 1950s TV show that heralded the reality courtroom boom of the 1980s.

Hoping to become an actor, Wapner transferred to Hollywood High School and tried with minimal success to make his mark on its drama department. He did manage to meet and briefly date a fellow student, Judy Turner, who would achieve stardom later in life as Lana Turner.

Wapner studied philosophy at the University of Southern California and graduated in 1941. As a lieutenant in the U.S. Army during World War II, he was injured by shrapnel while fighting in the Philippines.

Feeling Pain

Wapner said his war experience shaped his behavior on the bench: “I realized that a great deal of life is exactly and precisely about being able to feel pain, my own and other people’s.”

After graduating from USC’s law school, he spent 16 years as a lawyer and became a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge in 1959, overseeing traffic tickets and small claims. In 1961, California Governor Edmund G. Brown elevated him to Superior Court, where he became presiding judge. He retired in 1979.

“When I was on the bench I used to have a yellow pad and I put on the pad at the beginning of the day, ‘patience’ and ‘restraint,’” Wapner said in a 2005 interview with the Archive of American Television.

His second career, starting at 61, had its genesis in a discussion between TV producer Ralph Edwards, who had come up with the idea of a reality television courtroom show, and his friend, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Christian Markey.

Markey recommended the recently retired Wapner, his long-time tennis partner, for the starring role, according to a 2003 story in the Metropolitan News Enterprise of Los Angeles.

‘Good Wit’

Wapner “had a good wit. He knew how to smile. He knew how to treat people and conduct a court,” Markey said, according to the newspaper.

Wapner was quoted by People magazine in 1982 as saying, “The public’s perception of judges seems to be improving because of what I’m doing, and that makes me happy.”

One of his many fans was Raymond Babbitt, the fictional autistic savant played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 film “Rain Man,” who compulsively counted the minutes until “The People’s Court” and fretted, “Gotta watch Wapner. Gotta watch Wapner.”

A 1989 survey by the Washington Post found that 54 percent of American adults could name Wapner as the judge of “The People’s Court,” compared with 9 percent who could name the U.S. chief justice at the time, William Rehnquist.

Wapner said in his interview with the Archive of American Television that he learned from a newspaper article, not from producers, that his run as TV’s judge had ended in 1993. “It irritated me to no end for a long time,” he said.

He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame three days before his 90th birthday in 2009.

Wapner had two sons and a daughter with his wife, Mickey. One son, Frederick, became a Los Angeles Superior Court judge.

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