“People think I’m kind and considerate, and that I listen and evaluate, and give each party a chance to talk,” Judge Wapner said in an interview just as “The People’s Court” was becoming a nationwide hit. “The public’s perception of judges seems to be improving because of what I’m doing, and that makes me happy.”
Born on Nov. 15, 1919, in Los Angeles, Joseph Albert Wapner graduated in 1937 from Hollywood High School, where he briefly dated the future film actress Lana Turner, and in 1941 from the University of Southern California, where he received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.
During World War II, he served with the Army in the Pacific and was wounded by sniper fire on Cebu Island in the Philippines, leaving him with shrapnel in his left foot. He received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for his bravery and was honorably discharged in 1945.
After earning his law degree from the University of Southern California in 1948, Judge Wapner worked in private practice as a lawyer for nearly a decade, until Gov. Edmund G. Brown of California appointed him to a judgeship in Los Angeles municipal court in 1959. Two years later, Judge Wapner was elected presiding judge of the city’s vast Superior Court system, in which he supervised some 200 fellow judges.
“I was the only Jew who’d ever been elected,” he said in a 1982 interview, “and I don’t know when there’ll be another.”
Of the numerous cases Judge Wapner heard before his retirement from the bench in 1979, perhaps the most notorious was the divorce trial of the California sports tycoon Jack Kent Cooke and his first wife, Jeannie Carnegie. The $49 million settlement that Ms. Carnegie ultimately received would earn an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records.
But the full measure of Judge Wapner’s celebrity was not realized until 1981, when he was…