Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Television Producer David L. Wolper R.I.P.

David L. Wolper, perhaps best known for producing the historic mini-series Roots, passed yesterday at the age of 82. The causes were congestive heart disease and complications from Parkinson's disease.

David L. Wolper was born on January 11, 1928 in New York City. He attended the University of Southern California where he majored in journalism and cinema. He was the business manager of the campus humour magazine. The editor was Art Buchwald, with whom he became a lifelong friend. In 1949 he dropped out of college and joined childhood friend and future movie producer James B. Harris to sell older, short travel films Mr. Wolper's father had tried to market to schools. Wolper travelled the country trying to sell the films, along with old movie shorts, animated cartoons, serials, and B-movies, to television stations. It was in 1951 that Flamingo Films, as Mr. Wolper and his partner's firm was now called, bought the rights to Superman and produced 24 episodes of The Adventures of Superman before selling it to Kellogg's. Mr. Wolper left Flamingo Films in 1954.

It was in 1958 that David L. Wolper formed his own production company. He produced the documentary The Race for Space in 1959. When all three television networks rejected the documentary, he sold it to 108 television stations across the nation. It aired in 1960. The Race for Space was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary, Feature and won the Best Documentary, Feature award at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Mr. Wolper went onto produce such documentaries as The Rafer Johnson Story (1961), Hollywood: The Golden Years (1961), D-Day: June 6, 1944 (1962), Hollywood: The Fabulous Era (1962). From 1961 to 1963 Mr. Wolper produced the syndicated, documentary television series Biography. Mr. Wolper produced the documentaries Americans on Everest (1963), Holllywood: the Great Stars (1963), Escape to Freedom (1963), Project: Man in Space (1963), The Making of the President 1960 (1963), and A Thousand Days: A Tribute to John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1964), From 1963 to 1964 he produced the documentary series Hollywood and the Stars.  From 1965 to 1976 he produced 28 different National Geographic Specials.

For the remainder of the Sixties David L. Wolper produced the documentaries The Incredible World of James Bond (1965), The Big Land (1967), A Nation of Immigrants (1967), The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1968), Hemingway's Spain: A Love Affair (1969), and The Unfinished Journey of Robert Kennedy (1970). In 1968 Mr. Wolper entered feature film production with The Devil's Brigade. He would serve as a producer on the feature film If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969) and The Bridge at Remagen (1970).

In the Seventies David L. Wolper produced the feature films Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), King, Queen, Knave (1972), Two is a Happy Number (1972), and Wattstax (1973). He produced more documentaries, including the critically acclaimed feature The Hellstrom Chronicle, as well as the television documentaries The Crucifixion of Jesus, Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?,  and The Legendary Curse of the Hope Diamond. He also produced such television movies as The 500 Pound Jerk, Collision Course: Truman vs. MacArthur, The Honourable Sam Houston, Victory at Entebbe, This Year's Blonde, and The Scarlett O' Hara War. He produced the TV series Appointment with Destiny and Get Christie Love. It was in the Seventies that Mr. Wolper also expanded into producing mini-series, including Lincoln and the historic mini-series Roots. Ran for eight days straight, Roots became the most watched programme up to that time and started a cycle towards mini-series that lasted into the Eighties. He also produced the sequels to Roots: the TV movie Roots One Year Later and the mini-series Roots: the Next Generation.

In the Eighties Mr.Wolper produced the mini-series The Thorn Birds, North and South, North and South Book II, and Napoleon and Josephine: a Love Story. He produced the TV movies This is Elvis, Murder is Easy, The Mystic Warrior, His Mistress, Liberty Weekend, The Plot to Kill Hitler, and Murder in Mississippi. He produced the TV series Casablanca. He also continued to produce documentaries including The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, Hollywood: The Gift of Laughter, and Imagine: John Lennon. He also produced the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

From the Nineties into the Naughts David L. Wolper produced Heaven and Hell: North and South Book III. He produced the TV movies Dillinger, Bed of Lies, Without Warning To Serve and Protect, and The Mists of Avalon. He continued to produce documentaries, including a series of documentaries on sports figures under the umbrella title of Heroes of the Game, Golf: The Greatest Game, Legends, Icons and Superstars of the 20th Century, and Roots: Celebrating 25 Years. He also produced the feature films Murder in the First, Surviving Picasso, and L.A. Confidential.

Even if David L. Wolper had never produced Roots, he would have left a large mark on television history. Indeed, in many ways his documentaries were every bit as important as Roots in television history. Documentaries such as The Race for Space, The Making of the President 1960, and Imagine: John Lennon, not to mention his many National Geographic Specials, set new standards for quality with regards to television documentaries, often surpassing similar material produced by the networks' news organisations. The fact that Mr. Wolper's documentaries often covered historical individuals and events make him in some ways a forefather of the History Channel. The fact that he produced Roots in addition to his many documentaries made David L. Wolper all the more remarkable. Roots opened American television up for the mini-series, which would prosper throughout the Eighties. It also proved that there was an interest in the American public in African American history and even sparked new discussions on race. David L. Wolper left a large mark in television history, through both his documentaries and his mini-series. He will not be forgotten.

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