A 1989 Washington Post poll revealed that only nine percent of Americans could correctly identify William Rehnquist as the Chief Justice of the United States. In news that surely made civics teachers everywhere cringe, though, a stout 54 percent of Americans knew that Joseph Wapner was the judge on The People’s Court. Let’s take a look at five things you might not know about the most famous TV judge of the 1980s.
1. His Show Was Almost Very Different
If NBC had gotten its way, Wapner would never have appeared on the bench of The People’s Court. The show made its TV debut in 1981, but executive producer Stu Billett had been futilely trying to sell the concept since 1975. Only NBC had any interest in Billett’s idea, but the network wanted something quite a bit different.
NBC’s idea went something like this: an African-American comedian (preferably Nipsey Russell or Pigmeat Markham) would act as the “judge” in a civil case and toss out some zingers as the details unfolded. During a commercial break, a real judge would coach the comedian on what to say in his verdict, and the comedian would then hand down some comic justice.
Executive producer Billett thought this was “a stupid idea,” but he agreed to make a pilot of the comedic show provided he could also produce a more serious pilot. In the end, though, he only taped the serious pilot starring Wapner.
2. His “Courtroom” Wasn’t Actually a Courtroom
Judge Wapner was a real judge; before making the leap to TV he had retired after serving on the bench of the Los Angeles County Superior Court for 18 years. His “courtroom” on the show wasn’t an actual courtroom, though. Instead, Wapner was an arbitrator who happened to work on a set that looked like a small claims court.
While Wapner’s arbitration decisions were binding, even losing parties didn’t leave the show empty-handed. It’s tough to pin down exactly what the payout for appearing on The People’s Court was, but available reports make it sound like losing defendants received a small appearance fee and had the show pay any damages awarded to the plaintiff. If a defendant successfully avoided a losing judgment, the plaintiff and defendant got to split $500.
3. He Had One Very Famous Date
Unfortunately for Wapner, the romance got off to a rocky start. He asked Turner to join him for a Coke at a neighborhood drugstore, only to realize that he didn’t have any money in his pockets. Turner ended up footing the bill. After that debacle, Wapner’s chances weren’t so good, but he did manage to get one more date. He later told The New Yorker, “The following Saturday, we double-dated at a dance. That was the beginning, middle, and end of our acquaintance. She dropped me.”
4. He Settled the Momentous Case of Letterman v. Carson
Wapner appeared on The Tonight Show several times over the course of his career, including this memorable episode in which he acted as an arbitrator during a dispute between host Johnny Carson and a young David Letterman. Take a look:
5. He Was a War Hero
The People’s Court may have been a silly little bit of entertainment, but Wapner was a serious soldier. He served in the Army during World War II and rose to the rank of first lieutenant. Wapner received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his risking his own hide to pull a wounded buddy out of heavy machine-gun fire.