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Judge Joseph Wapner

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As the forerunner of dozens of television court judges, from Judge Judy Sheindlin to Judge Joe Brown, Joseph A. Wapner presided over one of television's most popular reality series -- The People's Court -- for 12 years. Though the program did not officially constitute the first "reality-based" courtroom drama on the glitter box (such 1950s dramas as Traffic Court and Famous Jury Trials had preceded it), it did mark the first to feature ordinary citizens in unrehearsed scenarios, and as such, never failed to intrigue 1980s audiences. (The prior dramas had all featured reenactments with professional actors.) Wapner arrived at the People's Court bench after years as an attorney and off-camera judge. The son of an attorney and a homemaker, he grew up in Southern California and attended Hollywood High (where he reportedly dated marquee heartthrob Lana Turner at one point), served on the Pacific Front during World War II, and then studied law at the University of Southern California. Following a decade as a private litigator, Wapner shifted gears to serve on the bench; he moved from L.A. Municipal Court to Superior Court, and there received an appointment to Presiding Judge in 1969, supervising well over 200 other justices. By the late '70s, then-60-year-old Wapner officially retired and spent the majority of his time conducting private arbitrations, until the People's Court producers tapped him to star on their new program. The assignment lasted from September 1981 until the early '90s, and at its peak netted over 12 million viewers; by 1993, however, ratings began to decline and the program was promptly cancelled. Wapner subsequently entered a lengthy retirement, but did preside over the Animal Planet network's reality series Animal Court beginning in 1998. Wapner died in 2017, at age 97.



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