Joseph Wapner was one of the nation’s most-famous judges in the 1980s – to the point that Dustin Hoffman’s title character in Rain Man detoured a cross-country trip just to watch him – and helped launch a court reality television phase that continues today.
But the former star of The People’s Court has died Sunday. He was 97.
Wapner presided over The People’s Court in first-run syndication for 12 seasons between 1981 and 1993. The show was one of the first to feature real people with real small claims cases. And while his court was not an actual part of the American judiciary, it did serve as binding arbitration, with Wapner as the arbiter – similar to how court shows are run today.
Wapner would become a household name, even as interest in People’s Court waned in later years. While he reportedly was upset about the show’s cancellation in 1993, he would return for short stints on the revived show in later years, including a final appearance in 2009 to celebrate his 90th birthday, with current judge Marilyn Milian.
Joseph Albert Wapner was born Nov. 15, 1919, in Los Angeles. His parents were immigrants from Romania and Russia, his father becoming an attorney in the days before Hollywood. He would attend Hollywood High School before moving on to the University of Southern California. Wapner got his undergraduate degree, served in World War II, and then returned to get his law degree.