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Overview for David L. Wolper
David L. Wolper

David L. Wolper



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Also Known As: David Lloyd Wolper Died: August 10, 2010
Born: January 11, 1928 Cause of Death: Heart disease, Parkinson's disease
Birth Place: New York City, New York, USA Profession: Producer ... producer executive


An incredibly prolific producer and executive producer of mainly small screen fare, David L. Wolper created the standard for television documentaries in the 1960s, produced popular sitcoms in the 1970s, and went on to secure his place in history as the ground-breaking producer of "Roots" (ABC, 1977) and "The Thorn Birds" (ABC, 1983), the two most watched miniseries of all time. Once dubbed "Mr. Documentary" by Time magazine, Wolper established himself as a successful business executive before moving over to the creative side with acclaimed documentaries like "The Making of the President" (ABC, 1960) and the National Geographic specials. Having found some success in features with "The Devil's Brigade" (1968) and "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" (1971), he introduced the world to Freddie Prinze and John Travolta through "Chico and the Man" (NBC, 1974-78) and "Welcome Back, Kotter" (ABC, 1975-79) respectively. Wolper next made television history with the adaptation of Alex Haley's "Roots," which ran for eight consecutive nights in early 1977 and became the most acclaimed miniseries ever made, a success he rivaled in the next decade with "The Thorn Birds." Meanwhile, his lavish production for the Opening Ceremonies at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles set a trend for all others to follow. Though the high-energy produced took several steps back in his later years, emerging only to produce films like "Murder in the First" (1995) and "L.A. Confidential" (1997), there was no doubt that Wolper remained an unparalleled television icon.

Born on Jan. 11, 1928 to Irvin and Anna, Wolper broke into show business in the money and sales end, serving as vice president and treasurer of Flamingo Films from 1948-50. Eventually he became vice president in charge of West Coast operations (1950-54), where he excelled in sales to the television networks and syndicated markets. In 1958, Wolper opened his own production company and two years later made his presence known producing the documentary "The Making of the President" (ABC, 1960). In 1964 and 1968, he repeated the same concept with two films for CBS. But by that time, Wolper's organization - with its staff that included Stan Margulies, Robert Guenette, Alan Landsburg, Andrew Solt, and Mel Stuart - was churning out documentary programming ranging from the famed "Biography" series narrated by Mike Wallace (Syndicated, 1962-63) to "The March of Time" (1965-66). Wolper also shepherded "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" (1966-68), "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" (1967-68), "Appointment With Destiny" (1971-73), and a host of other documentary classics, including The National Geographic specials from 1965-75.

Wolper served as vice president of Metromedia, to whom he had sold his company, from 1965 to 1968, when he created a new organization under his own banner. During this period, his television work included the ABC documentary "The Unfinished Business of Robert Kennedy" (1969) and the short-lived action series "Get Christie Love!" (ABC, 1974-75). He also produced the sitcoms "Chico and the Man" (NBC, 1974-78), which made the late Freddie Prinze a star, and "Welcome Back, Kotter" (ABC, 1975-79), which did the same for a young John Travolta. By 1976, Wolper's organization has been merged with his partner on the latter series, Warner Bros., and his banner on the corner of Third Street and La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles had closed its doors. But Wolper's greatest small screen successes were to come. ABC, Warner Bros. and Wolper joined forces to produce "Roots," an adaptation of Alex Haley's novel that told the story of several generations of an African American family from its roots in Africa to being sold into slavery to eventual freedom. A landmark miniseries, its January 1977 airing over eight consecutive nights was a national phenomenon and made ratings history, while earning that season's Emmy Award as Outstanding Limited Series.

As a follow-up, Wolper had a hand in the sequel "Roots: The Next Generations" (ABC, 1979), which took the Haley family from Reconstruction to modern times, while tapping Haley's family twice more for with "Roots: The Gift" (ABC, 1988), which tied Kunte Kinte (LeVar Burton), the original African member of the Haley family, to a Christmas story, and "Queen" (CBS, 1993), which told the story of Haley's paternal side. As a producer, Wolper also oversaw the "Moviola" (NBC, 1980), based on Garson Kanin's tales of Hollywood, "North and South" (ABC, 1985) and "North and South, Book II" (ABC, 1986), adapted from John Jakes' Civil War-era novels. He had another huge success with "The Thorn Birds" (ABC, 1983), a sweeping romance based on Colleen McCullough's tale of love and lust in the Outback of Australia between a Catholic priest (Richard Chamberlain) and the daughter of a large family (Rachel Ward). The miniseries became the second-most watched of all-time behind "Roots." Additionally, he was the guiding force behind such acclaimed made-for-television films as "Victory at Entebbe" (ABC, 1976) and the biopic "The Betty Ford Story" (ABC, 1987), which was one of the first television movies to delve deeply into recovery programs for substance abusers.

Wolper had less heralded success in feature films, but his track record was hardly insignificant. Following two war epics, "The Devil's Brigade" (1968) and "The Bridge at Remagen" (1969), he produced the documentary "The Hellstrom Chronicle" (1971). In fact, his films were an eclectic bunch running the gamut from the tourist romp "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium" (1969) to the classic children's tale, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (1971), starring Gene Wilder as the enigmatic candy maker. Following the biopic "This Is Elvis" (1981), Wolper took a number of years off from features until returning with the courtroom drama "Murder in the First" (1995). Following "The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years" (ABC, 1996), he had a hand in "Surviving Picasso" (1996), starring Anthony Hopkins as the iconic artist, and the Oscar-winning adaptation of James Ellroy's "L.A. Confidential" (1997). In the 1990s, his son, Mark Wolper, joined his organization and began taking a leading role in the company's production slate. During the later part of his career, Wolper was far less active in the business, making his last contribution as an interviewee for a 25-year retrospective on "Roots." Then on Aug. 10, 2010, Wolper passed away in his Beverly Hills home from congestive heart disease and complications of Parkinson's disease. He was 82.

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