Joseph Wapner, who became famous as Judge Wapner on the reality TV series The People’s Court, died Sunday, the Associated Press reported. He was 97 and reportedly had been suffering from breathing problems. Wapner’s son, David Wapner, said his father passed away this morning at home in his sleep. Wapner had been hospitalized a week ago and had been under home hospice care.
Born November 15, 1919, in Los Angeles, Wapner graduated from USC and the USC Law School. He served in World War II and was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star while serving in the South Pacific in Cebu.
From 1961-1979, Wapner served at the L.A. Superior Court before retiring. He then became the judge for the court show The People’s Court, one of the first of its kind when it debuted in 1981. He was on the show for 12 seasons, ending his run in 1993. The show, which continued without him, became a pop culture hit and was parodied on Saturday Night Live and was mentioned by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man when all he wanted to do was watch The People’s Court. “Three minutes to Wapner,” he often told Tom Cruise.
Wapner received a star on the Walk of Fame on November 12, 2009, and on his 90th birthday he returned to The People’s Court to serve as guest judge.
The People’s Court paved the way for many other court shows, including Divorce Court, Judge Mathis, Judge Judy and more.