Judge Joseph A. Wapner, once regarded as the seminal figure of television mainstay The People’s Court and a driving force behind current reality TV programming, is now dead at the age of 97.
TMZ reports that the retired court officiant passed away Sunday morning following a brief hospital stay last week after he first complained of having breathing problems. He was admitted to a publicly unnamed medical establishment, before being transferred to the care of a hospice worker at his West Los Angeles residence.
The entertainment publication additionally notes that Wapner’s condition worsened sometime after his hospital visit, but did not state the main reason for his illness or his sudden passing.
“Wapner became an instant sensation when the show debuted in September 1981,” TMZ further explains.
“The People’s Court was the [first-ever] TV reality show, and it opened the door to many more, including a slew of [other] TV court shows. He was opinionated, passionate and irascible as he heard thousands of cases during his 12-year run.”
Since stepping down from his podium and away from The People’s Court spotlight, Wapner has been succeeded by a handful of other judges including another late notable, former New York City mayor Ed Koch, for three seasons of the show’s 1997 resurgence, and Judge Jerry Sheindlin, the real-life husband of another television court ruler, Judge Judy Sheindlin, from 1999 to 2001.
Judge Marilyn Milian, the show’s first female and non-Caucasian leader, has held the reins of The People’s Court since that point and began her 15th year as the show’s officiant back in September of 2016.
Just two days ago, the official Twitter profile for The People’s Court paid tribute to Judge Wapner’s days on the bench by sharing a clip of a 1988 appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, where the strong-willed ruler overlooked a made-for-laughs court case between Letterman and one of his strongest chat-show competitors at the time, the late Johnny Carson of Tonight Show fame.
— The People's Court (@thepeoplescourt) February 24, 2017
Judge Wapner’s son David confirmed that his father was found dead inside of his home with NBC News on Sunday afternoon, and that he had passed away in his sleep. Wapner leaves behind two other children and a wife, Mickey, whom he married in 1946 at the age of 27. A grandson, Gabriel, similarly relayed to the Washington Post that Wapner was dead, but seemingly didn’t know how his grandfather had met his end.
Initially starting off as a half-hour series in the early 1980’s, the popularity of Judge Wapner and The People’s Court ultimately found its way to becoming a major piece of pop culture history, with several mentions of the program and Wapner popping up in different fashions via other television shows and feature films.
One of its most notable references came by way of Rain Man, the 1988 Academy Award-winning serial starring Dustin Hoffman as an autistic man who happens to be addicted to The People’s Court and his idol, Judge Wapner.
“Hoffman was reputedly a fan [of Judge Wapner] in real life” as well, the Washington Post adds.
“Instead of invented murder and mayhem, The People’s Court featured unscripted, real-life grievances between plaintiffs and defendants who could be tangent-prone, inarticulate or alarmingly naive. [For example], when a litigant [once] told him, ‘I’m not through, your honor,’ Judge Wapner replied, ‘Well, now you are.'”
The shocking news of Judge Wapner being dead follows reports of two other well-regarded entertainment notables passing away within the past 24 hours: actor Bill Paxton, who lost his life due to heart surgery complications on Saturday evening at the age of 61, and Neil Fingleton, an English actor and former cast mate of HBO’s Game of Thrones who, according to TMZ, succumbed to heart failure Sunday at the age of 36.
[Featured Image by Galbraith/AP Photos]