The Hollywood community is in mourning once again, after the passing of a TV legend. Judge Joseph A. Wapner, who served as the judge and star of the hit syndicated TV series The People's Court, died Sunday at the age of 97, at his home in Los Angeles. The judge's son David confirmed his death yesterday, with the judge passing away in his sleep
Associated Press broke the news yesterday, revealing that Judge Wapner had been hospitalized a week ago for breathing problems and he had since been in hospice care. Before The People's Court debuted in 1981, Judge Joseph A. Wapner had served as a Los Angeles Municipal Court and Superior Court judge for over 20 years, before he retired in 1979, a day after his 60th birthday. During his time on the bench, he was credited with innovations that were aimed at saving time during lengthy trials, increasing the number of trials heard solely by a judge, with no jury, if both sides would agree to this stipulation.
Joseph A. Wapner was a Los Angeles native, born November 15, 1919, and graduating from Hollywood High School in 1937, where he briefly dated film star Lana Turner. He received a bachelor's degree in Philosophy in 1941 from the University of Southern California, before serving in World War II, winning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star after he was wounded by a sniper fire in the Philippines. He was honorably discharged in 1945, and he went back to USC to receive his law degree in 1948. He worked in a private practice as a lawyer for a year before Gov. Edmund G. Brown of California appointed him to a judgeship in Los Angeles municipal court in 1959. Just two years later, the late TV star was elected presiding judge of the city's vast Superior Court system, in which he supervised more than 200 judges.
The People's Court ran in syndication from 1981 to 1993 with Judge Joseph A. Wapner presiding over small claims cases, alongside bailiff Rusty Burrell and host Doug Llewellyn. He was approached by TV producer Ralph Edwards (Truth or Consequences, This Is Your Life) to preside over a show similar to Divorce Court that would feature real life small claims court cases. His audition showed Wapner presiding over a case involving a petite woman and her boyfriend, a professional football player, and when the judge immediately told the defendant to be seated when he approached the woman, the producers knew they had found the right man for the job. The show went off the air in 1993, but it would be relaunched just four years later in 1997, in the aftermath of the O.J. Simpson trial, with the late TV icon being replaced by Ed Koch. The show is still running to this date, with Marilyn Milian presiding over the court cases since 2001.
After The People's Court went off the air, Joseph A. Wapner became the star of a different court TV show, Animal Court, which ran from 1998 to 2000 and reunited the judge with his bailiff Rusty Burrell, where he tried cases involving animals. He also guest starred as Commissar Joseph A. Wapner in the pilot episode of Sliders, and appeared as himself in episodes of Muppets Tonight, Sunset Beach and Malcolm & Eddie. The judge is survived by his wife of over 70 years and by two sons. He is preceded in death by his daughter Sarah, who passed away in 2015.