He was a respected attorney and jurist who was born in Los Angeles in 1919, attended Hollywood High School and was said to have once dated screen legend Lana Turner. He retired from the bench in 1979, but his greatest fame came in a different kind of courtroom. Joseph Wapner was the presiding judge on The People’s Court from 1981 to 1993, pioneering a brand new genre of TV show and becoming an unlikely pop culture touchstone and household name at a time when he was already in his 60s. Judge Wapner was referenced in everything from Rain Man to the work of “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Judge Wapner died Sunday, in his lifelong hometown of Los Angeles, at the age of 97, as reported by The Washington Post. Wapner’s grandson confirmed the death.
Joseph Wapner was born November 15, 1919, in Los Angeles, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Romania. Upon graduating from high school, enjoying a six-week dalliance the future screen siren Turner, and graduating from USC, Wapner served in the South Pacific during World War II. After the war he got his law degree, also from USC, and practiced law until he was appointed a judge in 1959.
Two years after retiring from the bench, Wapner became the first-ever presiding judge on the syndicated The People’s Court. He was a fair, strikingly competent jurist, often challenging the litigants but never outright insulting them as his successor Judge Judy later would. He was assisted, always, by his two loyal sidekicks: Rusty the Bailiff, and court reporter Doug Llewellyn.
Warner, who retired from the show in 1993, had an influence that went far and wide, from the numerous judge shows that air today— including The People’s Court itself — to references in movies. Most notable among those was 1988 Best Picture winner Rain Man, in which autistic main character Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) was a devout fan of The People’s Court and would count down the minutes “until Wapner.” The show was parodied on Saturday Night Live various times— most notably with Jon Lovitz as Satan and Phil Hartman as Wapner, in 1986 — and Wapner himself made cameos, most notably on the ‘90s sci-fi show Sliders. “Weird Al” Yankovic mentioned Wapner in his MC Hammer-parodying anti-TV manifesto “I Can’t Watch This.”
On the occasion of his 90th birthday in 2009, Wapner both received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and returned to The People’s Court for the final time to preside over one more case.
RIP Judge Joseph Wapner: November 15, 1919, February 26, 2017
Source: The Washington Post