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The People's Court's Judge Wapner Has Died At 97

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Photo by Kristian Dowling/Getty
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Judge Joseph Wapner, of The People's Court fame, has died. Judge Wapner was 97.

Wapner was first welcomed into our homes in 1981, when The People's Court premiered. He then spent 12 years as the show's judge.

“He behaved like a judge who had been on the bench a little too long, and that’s what made it work,” Robert Thompson, a television and pop culture scholar at Syracuse University, told the Washington Post. “It’s hard to remember what a state of cultural virginity the American audience was in, in regards to what we’d call regular people — nonactors without scripts. ...It turns out regular people are whiny, petty, annoying folks, so Judge Wapner’s crotchety grouch thing was just what we wanted — to shut them up now and then.”

According to KNBC, Wapner was a decorated World War II veteran who graduated from law school at USC in 1948, then entered private practice the following year. Wapner eventually became an L.A. County Superior Court judge for 20 years before his time on the show, notesTMZ.

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A 1989 poll by The Washington Post found that 54% of national adult respondents could correctly identify Wapner as the judge on The People's Court, while only nine percent could name William Rehnquist as then-Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This may have been thanks in part to Dustin Hoffman's famous "three minutes to Wapner" scene in the previous year's film Rain Man:

In 2009, shortly before his 90th birthday, Judge Wapner received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

TMZ adds that Wapner fell ill last week and was hospitalized. His condition grew worse and he was sent home, under hospice care, where he died Sunday morning.

Wapner is survived by his wife Mickey, to whom he was married for 70 years, and two children.

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