Change of Venue

updated 09/28/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/28/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For once, Joseph Wapner is withholding judgment. The jurist who ruled The People's Court with an iron gavel for 12 years won't throw the book at today's tussling TV benchwarmers. "Every judge is different," Wapner says diplomatically. But he can't resist one swipe at "Judge Judy" Sheindlin et al: "I can probably beat them all in tennis."

That's one opinion likely to stand up to appeal. Tanned and toned after five years off the air, the 78-year-old Wapner still rules the courts—those at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, where he plays four times a week. This month, however, the onetime L.A. Superior Court judge is coming out of retirement. In Judge Wapner's Animal Court, premiering Sept. 28 on cable's Animal Planet, he referees small-claims battles over—you guessed it—critters, both great and small. Cases to air soon involve a cockatoo (which escaped when its designated bird-sitter threw a party in its owner's home), a goat (killed by a rottweiler) and assorted hounds and horses. "I'm enjoying being back in the limelight," says Wapner. "I get a big kick out of it."

In 1993, with younger viewers deserting the show, The People's Court adjourned, and Wapner was out of a job. He decided, he says, "to just relax and try to enjoy life." Along with wife Mickey, 73, he has been doing just that, spending time at their homes in West Los Angeles and Rancho Mirage, Calif. He also serves as president of Simi Valley's Brandeis-Bardin Institute, a Jewish cultural center, and helped raise $10 million to rebuild it after the '94 earthquake.

But Wapner's decades on the bench have left their mark. He admits he was disappointed when syndicator Warner Bros. relaunched The People's Court in 1997 with former New York City mayor Ed Koch. Although he wasn't in the running for the part, "that was upsetting," Wapner says. The "circus aspect" of the O.J. Simpson trial also irked him, he adds. Though "some people thought I was too tough," he says, many others started telling him, "I wish you'd been trying the O.J. case."

So when the fledgling Animal Planet channel came calling, Wapner happily unpacked his robes. Always a proponent of legal precedent, he plans no Dr. Dolittle antics: "The animals," he says, "will not be sworn in." His People's Court sidekick and real-life pal Rusty Burrell, 72, will again serve as bailiff. Wapner, says Burrell, "is one of the most moral, ethical people I've ever met."

And one cut out for the law. The son of a lawyer and homemaker, Wapner—who dated a young Lana Turner during his days at Hollywood High—collected a Bronze Star and Purple Heart during combat in the South Pacific in World War II. The day after he left the Army, he enrolled in law school at the University of Southern California, where he met and wed then-journalist Mickey in 1946.

After nearly 10 years in private practice, Wapner headed to the other side of the bench in L.A. Municipal Court, then Superior Court, where in 1969 he became presiding judge, supervising more than 200 other judges. When he retired at age 60, he began conducting private arbitrations—and in 1981 was tapped for The People's Court, then an untested premise. "You had all these millions of people looking at you," he says. "If you made a mistake legally, somebody was going to jump on it." But his jurisprudence was impeccable, and by 1983, 12 million viewers were tuning in daily.

Wapner took his newfound celebrity in stride, but his wife, who had quit her job as an executive assistant at UCLA, found it hard to handle. In 1990 she suffered a heart attack she blames on the stress of the spotlight. Now recovered, she says she is mentally prepared for the new show. "It's a joy to see him having such a good time," she adds.

Wapner's once-a-week taping schedule leaves plenty of time for tennis—and for his three children and four grandchildren. Daughter Sarah, 39, who lives in L.A., is a teacher's assistant; son David, 47, is an environmental consultant in Israel. And Fred Wapner, 48, is following in his dad's footsteps. Last year he was elected to L.A.'s Superior Court—winning handily, since no one ventured to run against him. Might the family name have helped? The senior Wapner grins: "You be the judge."

Samantha Miller
Stanley Young in Los Angeles

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