David L. Wolper, who made television history with the productions of "Roots" and won international acclaim as a major event producer with the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles and the July 4th, l986, Liberty Weekend celebration of the relighting of the Statue of Liberty, died quietly in his Beverly Hills home on Tuesday evening of congestive heart disease and complications of Parkinson's disease. He was 82-years-old and, appropriately, as one of the major producers in the history of the medium, was watching television with his wife of 36 years, Gloria.
In 1999, TV Guide chose David L. Wolper as one of the people who made a difference in television history, writing "a true original whose vision and innovation shaped the medium. As one of television's top creative forces, his many contributions to broadcast history have embedded themselves in the American psyche."
Wolper and his company, in his over 50 years in show business, have made in excess of 300 films which have won more than 150 awards including Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, Peabody's and recognition through retrospectives at the world's great film festivals. He has received the entertainment industry's two most prestigious honors: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences "Oscar," the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and induction into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Television Hall of Fame.
Born January 11, 1928, in New York City, Wolper attended Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and the University of Southern California, where he studied Cinema and Journalism. At USC, he was business manager of the humor magazine, "Wampus." The editor was Art Buchwald, later a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist. As a publicist for the school play, Wolper's most remembered stunt was dressing a student in a gorilla outfit and crashing the 1948 Academy Awards with a sign on it's back "U.S.C. Varsity show No Love Atoll" It worked! On March 20th, 1948, the L. A. Times carried a story about it with a photo. Wolper left school early in 1949 to go into that new medium called television.
In 1949, upon leaving USC, Wolper, with his high school buddy Jim Harris and others, set up their own television distribution company, Flamingo Films. Wolper crisscrossed the country selling old films to the only 50 television stations on the air The films included old movie serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, various old shorts and the first feature film on television, "The Adventures of Martin Eden". He personally attended the opening of over 30 T.V. stations the day they went on the air. In 1951 Flamingo Films licensed the exclusive television rights to Superman. Jim Harris was President and Wolper treasurer and both just 23 years old. Later Wolper arranged for the Kellogg Company to sponsor the newly produced 90 Superman episodes.
In 1955 he decided to go into production. From a Soviet agent, he acquired exclusive never before seen Russian space footage. Dr W.H Pickering director of JPL, wrote to Wolper after viewing it: "The extensive collection we have viewed has revealed many details which were hitherto unavailable to the western world, a study which is an important factor in the security of our country". The film became a major part of Wolper's first documentary The Race for Space about the Soviet and American space race narrated by Mike Wallace. When it was completed it was immediately sold to a sponsor, Shulton, the makers of Old Spice. However, the three networks refused to place it, claiming a policy prohibiting the broadcast of outside independent
documentaries. Because of his personal relations with stations throughout the U.S., Wolper was able to line up 108 individual stations to carry the film the same week. On Monday, March 31, 1960, The New York Times on it's front page announced " Fourth T.V. Network Assembled To Show a Film Others Barred". A critical hit, "Race for Space" received an Oscar nomination and honors in many festivals throughout the world.
One of the unique talents of David L. Wolper was his diversity, his ability to produce successfully in a wide range of different areas of the world of entertainment: documentaries, mini-series, comedy TV series, TV movies, and outdoor spectaculars.
His company became a major force in documentary films with 9 Oscar documentary nominations 4 in a row and one win, 2 Peabody's and just over 100 other awards. He broke the network hold against independent documentaries when his documentary based on Theodore H. White's Pulitzer Prize winning book, Making of The President 1960, was shown on ABC in 1963 and won the 4 Emmys including Television Program of the Year. Time magazine labeled him Mr. Documentary.
For some of his television documentaries, he formed an association with six of America's most distinguished organizations to produce television specials: Smithsonian Institution, American Heritage Magazine, Time Magazine, Readers Digest, United States Golf Association, and the very popular National Geographic Society Specials.
"I will never forget what you did to start my career," wrote Jacques Cousteau in a letter to Wolper after he introduced Cousteau to television in 1967 with the Jacques Cousteau Specials. Wolper also did the first Biography series on TV in 1962.
In 1960, Wolper signed an exclusive television contract with America's 50 Astronauts for a series of specials on the space program. In the 1970's, he optioned the rights to Betty Friedan's ground-breaking book, The Feminine Mystique, the roots of the Women's Movement in America. Not a single advertiser or network would broadcast the controversial book. He did TV documentaries on many other books, including William L. Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and John F. Kennedy's A Nation of Immigrants. His CBS series of specials Appointment With Destiny was the origin of the T.V. docudrama.
In 1972, he produced the documentary feature film Visions of Eight, the official film of the 1972 Munich Olympics. He was able to sign up eight internationally renowned directors and each did a segment. Participating were Milos Forman, (Czechoslovakia) Claude Lelouch, (France) Arthur Penn, (United States) John Schlesinger, (England), Kon Ichikawa, (Japan) Mai Zetterling, (Sweden),Michael Pfleghar, (Germany) and Juri Ozerov, (Soviet Union).
In 1972, Wolper's theatrical film, Hellstrom Chronicle, won the best Documentary "Oscar."
When he went into mini-series, Wolper transformed three best selling books into 3 of T.V.'s highest rated miniseries, Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds, John Jakes' North and South and one of the highest rated and most critically acclaimed television programs of all time, Alex Haley's Roots. Wolper's Carl Sandburg's Lincoln, broadcast in l974, was television's first mini-series. But it was the success of "Roots" that started the network miniseries craze.
Next, Wolper tried comedy TV series. The first time out, his company, in association with James Komack, had two hit shows: Chico and the Man and Welcome Back Kotter.
When Wolper turned to dramatic movies for television, he concentrated primarily on dramas based on fact. With Stanley Kramer he made The Court Martial of Lt. William Calley and. The Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Other films included Collision Course (Truman firing McArthur), The Betty Ford Story, Fatal Deception (Life of Mrs. Lee Harvey Oswald), I Will Fight No More, Forever (the story of Chief Joseph), Murder in Mississippi, (the killing of the three youngsters during the civil rights movement) and many others.
Adding theatrical motion pictures to his arenas, he produced the cult classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and the 1997 Oscar nominee as best motion picture of the year, LA
Confidential. Some other Wolper films include, If It's Tuesday This Must Be Belgium, This is Elvis, Wattstax, Bridge at Remagan, Imagine John Lennon, and Victory at Entebbe.
Mr. Wolper participated in three major Americana outdoor spectacular events in the second half of the 20th Century.
In the late1960's he was appointed by President Gerald Ford as Chairman of the President's Council of the American Revolutionary Bicentennial Administration overseeing and coordinating all the celebrations of the 200th Anniversary of the United States.
In the late 70's Mr. Wolper was appointed by Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley to the seven-man committee that successfully brought the 1984 Olympic Games to Los Angeles. He served as Vice Chairman of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, a member of its Executive Committee and Chairman of the Television and Ceremonies Committee. He was Producer of the acclaimed Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
For the 100th Anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, the weekend of July 4th, 1986, Lee Iacocca, head of the committee, asked Wolper to create and oversee a celebratory event. Wolper became Chairman, Executive Producer and creator of Liberty Weekend, the four-day celebration, in New York, to commemorate the 100th anniversary and the completion of the restoration of the Statue of Liberty.
As the end of the twentieth century Wolper returned to documentaries when he produced three, 10-hour documentary series summing up the 20th Century. Legends, Icons, and Superstars, biographies of the 50 most influential people of the 20th Century, was chosen by a committee of Time Magazine editors and telecast on CBS Cable, Heroes of the Game, biographies of the greatest golfers of all time, was produced in association with the United States Golf Association for their 100th anniversary, and Celebrate the Century, telecast on CNN, was produced in collaboration with the United States Postal Service's special issue of 20th Century stamps, and summed up the great events of the 20th Century. .
The theme of the 1999 Tournament of Roses was "Echoes of the Century." Because of his many films documenting the 20th century, Wolper was honored by being chosen as a Grand Marshall of that year's 99th Tournament of Roses Parade.
Located in the Doheny Library at the University of Southern California is the David L Wolper Center. It contains Wolper's 50 year collection of papers, photographs, contracts, scripts, budgets, tapes and other memorabilia available for students, researchers, publications and the public. The Center also presents exhibitions. Some major exhibits have included Frank Sinatra,
Willy Wonka, John Wayne, The Presidents, The Barrymore's, Marilyn Monroe, and the 1984 Olympics.
Among Mr. Wolpers personal Awards are:
2 "Oscars", 2 Peabodys, 4 Emmys, 3 Golden Globes, and 2 NAACP Image awards.
He's been Inducted into 4 Halls of Fame: Television (1989), Boys and Girls Club (1993), Broadcast (2000), and Events (2002).
He has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from 7 organizations: TV Guide, (1985) Producers Guild of America, (1990) International Documentary Association, (1989) NATAS International Council, (1998), The Thalians, (1995) Black Filmmakers, (1990) and NATPE Educational Foundation (1998).
Other personal honors include:
- Republic Of France-National Order of the Legion of Honor, 1990
Mr. Wolper was on the founding boards of KCET Los Angeles, The Thalians, L.A. 84, (He is Chairman Emeritus) the International Documentary Association, the USC School of Cinema-Television Cinema Circulus, the International Volleyball Association, (he also served as Commissioner) and the American Center For Wine, Food and the Arts.
In addition, he served on the boards of the American Film Institute, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the National Board of the Boys and Girls Club of America, the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, the United States Golf Association Foundation, the D-Day 50th Anniversary Commission, the Martin Luther King Federal Holiday Corporation, and the Museum of Television and Radio.
A confirmed family man, a devotee of the arts, entertainment and sports, especially golf, Wolper and his artist wife, Gloria, live in Beverly Hills CA. Wolper has three children with a former wife: sons Mark, who is President of The Wolper Organization, and Michael, and daughter, Leslie w, who are business executives, and 10 grandchildren.
Private services will be held at Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills, with a public memorial to be arranged. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to P.A.T.H. and Angels Flight West, found online.
NOTE: David did not have a middle name, but used the L to avoid confusion with an uncle, who was also named David Wolper.
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