Judge Joseph Wapner, whose groundbreaking run as the retired judge-turned-TV arbiter on The People's Court inspired generations of true-life television court shows, has died at the age of 97.

TMZ reports that the Los Angeles native, who earned his Juris Doctor at the University of California's Gould School of Law in 1948, died Sunday morning after being hospitalized for breathing troubles.

Wapner's People's Court run marked the beginning of arbitrating small claims on the small screen, as he hosted the show for a dozen years from 1981 to 1993.


Wapner was parodied on Saturday Night Live and memorably referenced in Rain Man by Dustin Hoffman's character, who only had "three minutes to Wapner."

In addition to several guest appearances as himself on shows like Muppets Tonight and The Bonnie Hunt Show, Wapner returned to TV in 1998 for Animal Court, a short-lived spin-off series series about legal issues surrounding animals.

Wapner was also a military veteran, having served in the U.S. Army during World War II and earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service. Before becoming the barrister of The People's Court, Wapner was a judge in the Los Angeles Municipal Court for two years before being promoted to the Los Angeles Superior Court, where he served on the bench of an additional 18 years.