Sometimes the best and most important television stars aren't the most obvious. There's no rule that says they have to be the most beautiful or the most prepared. In the case of Judge Joseph Wapner, he wasn't even an actor. He just came along at the right time, had the right personality and he was given the right opportunity. For twelve years, he entertained fans with his bluntness and wisdom on The People's Court, and even in death, his legacy lives on. The early reality show star passed away this weekend at the age of 97.
Prior to his almost overnight fame, Joseph Wapner was a well-respected Judge for more than two decades in the Los Angeles County Superior Court. In 1980, he was approached by John Masterson and Stu Billett, who pitched the concept of filming individual cases in small claims court. It was a huge hit immediately, and Wapner, in turn, became a household name. Both he and the People's Court were even referenced extensively in the beloved 1988 film Rain Man.
The People's Court, with Judge Wapner at the helm, ran for twelve seasons because it was cancelled in 1993 after the ratings dipped. A few years later, it was revived by TMZ head honcho Harvey Levin, and it has been on the air ever since, only with the cases being adjudicated by a series of successors. It has also been followed by a stream of other courtroom reality shows, most notably Judge Judy.
Outside of the legal and television world, Judge Wapner was extremely successful in his personal life, as well. He was married to the same woman, Mickey Wapner, for 70 years. Together, they had three children, two of whom grew up and became attorneys.
Given the preponderance of reality television programs on the air now, it's difficult to understand just how revolutionary The People's Court was. It gave viewers a chance to observe real people going about their lives, and it launched countless numbers of ideas in the heads of wannabe producers who began scheming different types of everyday things they could broadcast to the world.
More than anything else, Judge Wapner was good at his job. He was fair. He was upfront, and he ruled in straightforward, easy to understand ways. Were he some ridiculous character or were his integrity below reproach, The People's Court never would have worked. By extension, reality television may not have worked. But because he was so likeable and fun to watch and most importantly, competent, The People's Court thrived.
Our sincerest thoughts go out to Judge Wapner's family, as well as everyone else who was touched by his life. By all accounts, he used his 97 years well.