Joseph Wapner, the affable-but-tough judge who presided over the ground-breaking, popular reality TV show “The People’s Court” for more than a decade, died Sunday at age 97.
David Wapner said his father was hospitalized a week ago with health problems, but died at home, in his sleep, while under hospice care.
Wapner had been a lead jurist in Los Angeles Superior Court when he was tapped by Hollywood to lead “The People’s Court” in September 1981.
The opinionated and craggy Wapner was an instant success as he turned real and unscripted small-claims cases into big-time entertainment on the syndicated half-hour show.
Wapner was so popular that in a 1989 survey by the Washington Post, 54 percent of Americans could identify him compared with 9 percent who could name the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, William H. Rehnquist.
“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.”
During his 12-year rein, Wapner turned “The People’s Court” into an integral part of pop-culture.
He was even a reference point in the 1988 Oscar-winning film “Rain Main,” in which Dustin Hoffman’s autistic character is addicted to the show and says, “three minutes to Wapner.”
Copy cats rushed to imitate the courtroom format and a slew of other shows, including “Judge Judy” hit the airwaves.
After production of “The People’s Court” was shuttered, Wapner remained a TV presence and hosted an Animal Planet show called “Judge Wapner’s Animal Court” from 1998 to 2000.
A Los Angeles native who attended Hollywood High School, Wapner initially wanted to an actor but was discouraged by the theatre director.
He earned his law degree from USC, spent 10 years in private practice, and was eventually appointed to the bench.
Wapner had been retired for two years when he met producers Edwards and Stu Billett, who were looking to create a reality TV show that would eventually became “The People’s Court.”
Wapner is survived by his wife of 70 years, Mickey, and their two sons, both of whom joined the legal profession. Their daughter, Sarah, died in 2015.