David L. Wolper, 82, entertainment genius who brought 'Roots' to screen, dies

David Wolper's career was richly varied.
David Wolper's career was richly varied. (Mark Terrill - AP)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2010

David L. Wolper, 82, a Hollywood impresario who produced an astonishing range of documentary films, big-screen movies and TV shows and who helped establish the popular miniseries form with his adaptations of "Roots" and "The Thorn Birds," died Aug. 10 at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He had congestive heart disease and Parkinson's disease.

Mr. Wolper, one of the great entrepreneurs of television, was a persistent and persuasive salesman with an unfailing gift to spot the commercial potential in the most unlikely of subject matter.

In 1966, Mr. Wolper's company produced the National Geographic special "The World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau," which launched the little-known French oceanographer to a mass audience. "I knew fish would be great on television because the tube would look like a fish tank," he later said.

His career was sprawling and in many ways uncategorizable. As a young man, he packaged old movies to the burgeoning television market and helped usher in the era of "late show" programming. He transitioned from salesman to producer when he bought up Russian space footage and transformed it into an Academy Award-nominated documentary, "The Race for Space" (1959).

He continued to prosper as a documentarian, notably when he persuaded Pulitzer Prize-winning author Theodore H. White to sell him the rights to his book "The Making of the President, 1960." The resulting collaboration led to an Emmy Award-winning television adaptation in 1963.

Mr. Wolper's production company later made the compelling and elegiac "Four Days in November" (1964), about the days leading up to President John F. Kennedy's assassination, as well as rousing historical films ("Victory at Entebbe" 1976) and fascinating but obscure documentaries including "The Hellstrom Chronicle" (1971), an Oscar winner about the insect world.

In a career spanning six decades, Mr. Wolper produced feature films including "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (1971) and "L.A. Confidential" (1997). He produced extravaganzas including the 1986 celebration in New York of the Statue of Liberty centennial and the 1984 Olympic Games ceremonies in Los Angeles, which required a masterful orchestration of marching bands, grand pianos, drill teams and high-stepping dancers.

His work in television included popular 1970s sitcoms "Chico and the Man" and "Welcome Back, Kotter," and intensely forgettable fare such as "Get Christie Love!" (1974), a blackspoitation police drama about a sexy supercop, and a short-lived 1983 series based on the film classic "Casablanca."

By most accounts, Mr. Wolper's greatest legacy was bringing "Roots" to television. Alex Haley's best-selling novel, which won a special Pulitzer Prize citation in 1977, traced a black family across seven generations from its origins in Africa to America. The subsequent miniseries ran an unprecedented eight nights in 1977 on ABC and was seen by an estimated 130 million people, making it the highest-rated entertainment program in television history.

Robert J. Thompson, a scholar of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, said "Roots" dominated the national discussion for weeks and months and swept the Emmy Awards. He said the show was also crucial from an artistic perspective in allowing a rare and very public dramatic outlet for leading and promising black actors of the day, including LeVar Burton, John Amos, Cicely Tyson and Ben Vereen.

Mr. Wolper said his greatest challenge was making "Roots" -- and any project -- palatable to the largest possible audience. He said the struggle with "Roots" was how to capture the full scale of the drama without alienating white viewers. He used black and white performers with long track records on stage and television because they would be most familiar to TV watchers.

Mr. Wolper and producer Stan Margulies shared Emmys in the category of Outstanding Limited Series for "Roots" and the sequel "Roots: The Next Generations" (1979). They later were nominated for Emmys for their production of "The Thorn Birds" (1983), another expansive series that attracted a devoted following.

Of "The Thorn Birds," Mr. Wolper later said, "I had to take that novel, which was basically a soap opera, and make the media perceive it as classy." He said he achieved that by casting respected actors such as Christopher Plummer, Jean Simmons and Richard Kiley for major roles.

Mr. Wolper went on to produce the historical miniseries "North and South" (1985) and two sequels, all of which drew critical derision and huge ratings.

His ability to marshal epic series led to his work staging the opening and closing ceremonies of 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games, which garnered Mr. Wolper a special Emmy award and the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

"The minute I went into business I was a success, and I've done well ever since," Mr. Wolper told People magazine at the time. "I can possibly say I have entertained and educated more people than anyone else in the world."

David Lloyd Wolper was born in New York on Jan. 11, 1928. He was the only child of a commercial real-estate broker, whose financial condition ebbed and flowed during the Depression. He was 18 when his mother died from a ruptured appendix.

He enjoyed hustling from a young age, partnering with a classmate to start a band of New York high school musicians. He worked on the margins of the film industry while attending the University of Southern California, where one of his classmates was Art Buchwald.

Mr. Wolper managed Buchwald's college humor magazine and promoted the future columnist's college varsity show, "No Love Atoll." "He always had a tremendous amount of chutzpah," Buchwald told People magazine. "His greatest stunt was crashing the Academy Awards with a man in a gorilla suit and a sign saying, 'If you think this is good, wait till you see 'No Love Atoll.' They were able to walk up and down the aisles for 10 minutes before they were thrown out."

Mr. Wolper left college in 1949 and helped start a business to sell old Flash Gordon serials and other fare to television stations that needed to fill airtime cheaply.

Mr. Wolper was married three times, first to a showgirl he never identified. His second marriage, to actress Dawn Richard, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, the former Gloria Hill; three children from his second marriage; and 10 grandchildren.

Mr. Wolper said the one concession he made to his wealth and stature was collecting Picassos. Otherwise, he enjoyed the anonymity of the producer's life.

"I make the money and I don't have to take the abuse some of the stars do, opening up their personal life,' he told the Associated Press in 1999. "I can go into a restaurant, sit down and have a nice meal without being harassed. Arnold Schwarzenegger can't do that."

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