Joseph A. Wapner, best known as the tough judge on The People’s Court for 12 years, died this weekend at his home in Los Angeles. He was 97 years old, and his death was confirmed by his son.
A World War II veteran, Judge Wapner entertained millions on the popular daytime television show, which inspired an entire generation of similar shows involving television judges and real cases:
Judge Wapner had served for 20 years on the California Municipal and Superior Courts before becoming the occasionally irascible, highly watchable star of “The People’s Court,” a daytime series on which real-life plaintiffs and defendants from California small claims courts would argue their cases before him.
A decorated veteran of World War II, Judge Wapner ran his television courtroom from the show’s debut in 1981 to the end of its original run in 1993 with stern, mesmerizing discipline, cutting off onscreen complainants who displeased him and threatening to levy unspecified penalties on those who dared to interrupt him.
But Judge Wapner’s reasoned verdicts, in disputes over missing pets, encroaching fences or botched hairdos, were difficult to argue with. And his evenhanded hearings of cases in which mere pocket change was at stake let millions of viewers know that no matter how seemingly insignificant their legal disputes, they, too, were entitled to their day in court.
“People think I’m kind and considerate, and that I listen and evaluate, and give each party a chance to talk,” Judge Wapner said in an interview just as “The People’s Court” was becoming a nationwide hit. “The public’s perception of judges seems to be improving because of what I’m doing, and that makes me happy.”
On air, Judge Wapner was joined on the show by real-life bailiff Rusty Burrell and host Doug Llewellyn. When it was on the air, The People’s Court was one of the biggest hits for syndicated reality TV shows.
A poll conducted by The Washington Post in 1989 found that while two-thirds of those surveyed could not name a justice of the Supreme Court, 54 percent could identify Judge Wapner as the judge of The People’s Court.
Let us pray for Judge Wapner’s family during this difficult time. Rest in peace.