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Joseph Wapner's Death

Joseph Wapner

The life and death of Joseph Wapner:

He was a real-life judge and a television personality to boot. He was the first judge in an arbitration based reality court TV show, which has become a very popular genre.

Joseph Albert Wapner was born in Los Angeles. His Jewish parents had settled there years earlier. His father Max was an attorney born in Romania and his mother Fanny was of Russian ancestry.

Wapner intended Hollywood High School and claimed to have once dated actress Lana Turner, then known as Judy Turner…

Lana Turner

…while they were in high school together.

A graduate of the University of Southern California, he graduated USC law school in 1948, after serving in World War Two. He was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant and was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star while serving in the South Pacific.

Wapner was appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1959 by California Governor Pat Brown. Within two years he was elevated to the Los Angeles County Superior Court, serving there for 18 years before retiring.

And then he claimed media fame, presiding over the People’s Court from 1981 to 1999.

Joseph Wapner, The People's Court

On the show, he conducted binding arbitration settlements to resemble a small claims court. The cases he handled were hardly of earth shaking importance.

Johnny Carson once invited Wapner on to the “Tonight Show” to settle a dispute Johnny had with David Letterman. Carson wanted a skit and Wapner insisted he run it like all his other cases.

It involved an old truck Letterman kept near his Malibu property. Carson deemed it an eyesore and had it towed away. When it was returned to Letterman the headlights were broken. Judge Wapner awarded Letterman $24.95.

Even if the cases were whimsical at times, he presided over a total of 2,340 half hour segments.

Weakening ratings meant he would not be invited back to the series in 1993. But he did receive a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in November 2009.

Joseph Wapner star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame

And Judge Wapner’s celebrity crossed over to the silver screen, thanks to numerous references to him in the hit 1988 movie “Rainman”, starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.

Wapner married Mildred Nebenzahl in 1946 and they remained together until he died.

Joseph Wapner and wife

They had two sons David and Fred Wolfe who became attorneys and a daughter Sarah, died in May 2015 of heart disease.

Judge Wapner died at the age of 97 from respiratory failure at his Los Angeles home, where he was under home hospice care.

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