'The People's Court' Judge Joseph Wapner Dies at 97

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Joseph Wapner, the retired judge who starred on The People's Court for 12 years, died on Sunday morning. He was 97.

"As TV's first judge, Judge Wapner blazed the trail for a genre of court shows still thriving and in the pop culture zeitgeist some three decades later," the show's producers and distributor, Warner Brothers, said in a statement to ET. "We mourn his Honor's passing and celebrate his full life."

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David Wapner told The Associated Press that his father was hospitalized a week ago with breathing problems, and was then taken to his home in West Los Angeles where he was under hospice care. It was there that he died in his sleep.

Before becoming a TV judge when The People's Court premiered in September 1981, Wapner served as a L.A. Superior Court judge for 20 years. The People's Court -- which made Wapner an instant celebrity and earned him a star on the Hollywood walk of fame in 2009-- is often credited as being one of the first reality TV programs, and became the model for many court TV programs that came after it, including Divorce Court, Hot Bench and Judge Mathis.

The People's Court was canceled in 1993, but aired in syndication until it was revived for a second time in September 1997. Former lawyer and mayor of New York, Ed Koch, replaced Wapner for two seasons and was later succeeded by Judge Jerry Sheindlin (Judge Judy Sheindlin's husband). Florida State Circuit Court Judge Marilyn Milian is now presiding and has become the show's longest-reigning arbiter.

Wapner was married for 70 years to wife Mickey, and was the father of three children.

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