'People's Court' judge Joseph Wapner dies
at 97: reports
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[February 27, 2017]
By Bill Trott
(Reuters) - Joseph Wapner, the former
real-life judge who presided over "The People's Court" on reality
television with a Solomonic presence that made him one of the best-known
legal figures in the United States, died on Sunday at the age of 97,
news reports said.
Wapner's son, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Fred Wapner, told
CNN his father died at his home in Los Angeles of natural causes. A
grandson, Gabriel Wapner, confirmed the death to the Washington Post,
which said Wapner had suffered several strokes in recent years.
From 1981 through 1993, Wapner served as an arbitrator on "The People's
Court," resolving disputes that were usually trivial, with both parties
in the litigation agreeing to abide by his ruling.
Wapner handled two cases on each half-hour show, ruling with a
commanding demeanor and basing decisions on his three decades as a
lawyer and judge. He was stiff but sometimes showed a dry wit.
The show made Wapner an unlikely judicial superstar and pop culture
touchstone and its catchphrase - "Don't take the law into your own
hands: you take 'em to court, the People's Court" - worked its way into
Wapner was spoofed on comedy shows, suggested for a seat on the U.S.
Supreme Court and became a key element of Dustin Hoffman's Academy
Award-winning portrayal of an autistic savant in the 1988 movie "Rain
Hoffman's character was obsessed with watching "The People's Court,"
reciting the show's introduction and counting down the minutes until
Wapner was on the air.
In a 1989 survey by the Washington Post, 54 percent of respondents were
familiar with Wapner, but only 9 percent could identify William
Rehnquist as U.S. chief justice.
CAME OUT OF RETIREMENT
"The People's Court" was the brainchild of two game-show mavens and they
asked Wapner if he would be interested in coming out of retirement to
The show fared well as a syndicated series, airing on more than 160 U.S.
television stations in the 1980s and in 20 foreign countries.
The show's staff looked through pending small-claims cases to find
people willing to resolve their disputes on the show rather than in a
real court. Many cases were ordinary - overdue rent, damage to a car or
a broken oral contract - but others were unique. That is how a stripper
ended up before Wapner complaining that attendees at a bachelor's party
refused to pay because they thought she was unattractive.
[to top of second column]
Judge Joseph A. Wapner, former host of the television series "The
People's Court" poses with Graumans Chinese theater in background
before ceremonies unveiling his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
in Hollywood, California November 12, 2009. REUTERS/Fred
The show's producers paid any damages or costs that Wapner might
Wapner was dropped from the show in 1993 and a new version of "The
People's Court" made its debut in 1997 with Ed Koch, the former New
York mayor, on the bench. He was replaced two years later by Jerry
Sheindlin, the husband of Judy Sheindlin, star of the similar "Judge
Wapner found Sheindlin's acerbic style to be not very judicial.
"She's discourteous and she's abrasive," Wapner told the New York
Post in 1992. "She's not slightly insulting. She's insulting in
Wapner was born Nov. 15, 1919, in Los Angeles and attended Hollywood
High School, where he dated classmate and future movie star Lana
After majoring in philosophy at the University of Southern
California, he joined the Army, serving as a lieutenant in the
Pacific theater during World War Two. He was awarded a Purple Heart
and given a Bronze Star for pulling a wounded soldier out of
After the war, Wapner graduated from the USC law school and went
into practice with his father. In 1959, he was appointed to a
municipal court that handled traffic and small-claims cases and was
named two years later to California's Superior Court, handling
criminal and civil cases, until he retired from the bench in 1979.
After his run on "The People's Court," Wapner appeared on "Animal
Court" for the Animal Planet cable channel, presiding over cases
(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Diane
Craft and Peter Cooney)
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