Joseph Wapner, a retired judge who presided over “The People’s Court” for more than a decade, died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles, his grandson told the Washington Post. He was 97.
The grandson, Gabriel Wapner, could not confirm a cause of death, but he has suffered from a series of strokes in recent years. According to TMZ, Wapner exhibited breathing problems and was hospitalized last week before returning home on Friday for hospice care.
Wapner was the first judge to preside over “The People’s Court” when it premiered in September 1981. Before his daytime TV debut, he served on the bench of the Los Angeles Superior Court judge for 20 years.
In a statement on Sunday, Warner Bros. Television, which distributes “The People’s Court,” said, “As TV’s first judge, Judge Wapner blazed the trail for a genre of court shows still thriving and in the pop culture zeitgeist some three decades later. We mourn his Honor’s passing and celebrate his full life.”
The first iteration of “The People’s Court” would go on to run for 12 seasons and inspired a slew of other court- and crime-based syndicated TV shows, including such long-running series as “Judge Judy.” It’s still on the air today, but with Marilyn Millian on the judge’s bench.
“The People’s Court” is currently in its 32nd overall season. It was canceled in 1993, but revived in 1997 with former lawyer and Mayor of New York Ed Koch as arbiter.
Wapner was a municipal judge for two years before serving at the L.A. Superior Court from 1961 to 1979. He also made his mark on pop culture, being lampooned in sketch shows including “Saturday Night Live.” Dustin Hoffman’s “three minutes to Wapner” expression in “Rain Man” was quickly adopted by “People’s Court” fans.
Wapner was married to his wife, Mickey, for 70 years. He had three children.