Joseph Albert Wapner was was the first star of the ongoing reality courtroom series The People’s Court. The court show’s first run in syndication, with Wapner presiding as judge, lasted from 1981 to 1993, for 12 seasons and 2,484 episodes. While the show’s second run has been presided over by multiple judges, Wapner was the sole judge to preside during the court show’s first run.
Wapner’s tenure on the program made him the first jurist of arbitration-based reality court shows, what is now a most popular trend in the judicial genre. Until the summer of 2013, Wapner also held the title of longest reigning arbiter over The People’s Court. However, by completion of the court show’s 2012–2013 season, Marilyn Milian captured this title from him and became the longest-reigning judge over the series. Five years after presiding over The People’s Court, Wapner returned to television as a judge on the non-traditional courtroom series, Judge Wapner’s Animal Court, lasting for two seasons (1998–1999 and 1999–2000).
Joseph Albert Wapner was born November 15, 1919, in Los Angeles to Jewish parents. His father, Max Wapner, an attorney, immigrated to California from Romania, while his mother, Fannie (née Friedman), was from Russia. He had a younger sister, Irene. Wapner attended Hollywood High School and dated actress Lana Turner once while in high school.
Wapner was a graduate of the University of Southern California (1941) and the USC Law School (1948), serving in World War II in between. Wapner was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star while serving in the South Pacific in Cebu. He was honorably discharged from the United States Army as a lieutenant.
Appointed by Governor Pat Brown to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1959, Wapner served two years before being elevated to the Los Angeles County Superior Court, where he served for 18 years before retiring. While serving on the Superior Court bench, Wapner also served as presiding judge in 1969 and 1970. Wapner was president of the California Judges Association in 1975 and 1976. He retired from the court November 16, 1979.
The People’s Court
Wapner presided over The People’s Court from 1981 to 1993, a total of 2,340 half-hour segments. On the show, he ran a respectful, serene courtroom and was known for his stodgy, easygoing manner. On the series, he conducted a binding arbitration which was set up to resemble a small claims court by pitting parties, without lawyers, against each other. The legacy of the show’s high popularity has led to myriad other similar syndicated courtroom shows, such as Judge Judy and Hot Bench, among others.
After 12 seasons on The People’s Court, it was announced that Wapner was not invited back to the court show in 1993, when the ratings had dropped to an all-time low.
After a four-year hiatus, beginning in 1993, The People’s Court returned to the air in 1997, though without Wapner, and still runs today.
Wapner has stated that he was told years later that the show did not want to hurt his feelings; however, he stated that this is exactly what the show did. Wapner also stated that he was not notified when the producers decided to revamp the series. He declined to offer any opinions on the People’s Court judges who succeeded him, as he never watched the revamped program.
On November 12, 2009, Wapner received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Judith Sheindlin of the television court show, Judge Judy and he were the only two television jurists who have received the honor as of 2009. Wapner was critical of Sheindlin.
On November 13, 2009, in honor of his 90th birthday on November 15, Wapner made a one-time-only return to the court show, acting as a guest judge, presiding over a case in the current Marilyn Milian era of The People’s Court.
He appeared in the second episode of Sliders as himself, in an alternate world where the Soviet Union has conquered the USA. The People’s Court is instead a criminal court that hands out long prison sentences, and he is referred as “Commissar Wapner” rather than judge. On August 9, 2008, Wapner appeared as Judge in a Major League Baseball on Fox pregame People’s Court parody segment called “The Players Court“.
On June 27, 1986, Wapner appeared on the Tonight Show to hear a case of David Letterman vs. Johnny Carson over alleged damage to the headlight of Letterman’s pickup truck when Carson had the truck towed to the studio. Wapner ruled in favor of Letterman, granting him $24.95.
During 1999–2000, Wapner served as the national spokesperson for Singer Asset Finance Company, LLC, a specialty finance company, appearing in national television commercials and print ads.
Since around 2010, the soda company Rocket Fizz has marketed a “Judge Wapner Root Beer” drink, featuring the slogan “I sentence you to drink my root beer.”
Wapner was active in Jewish causes, including sitting on the board of a Jewish school. Wapner married his wife, Mildred “Mickey” Nebenzahl, in 1946. Their daughter Sarah died from heart disease in May 2015, aged 56. They also had two sons who became attorneys, David Miron-Wapner and Fred Wapner, who also became a judge. The elder Wapner died on February 26, 2017 at his home in Los Angeles, aged 97.