If there was a “Rosebud” experience in David Wolper’s life, it may have occurred one day after school. “When I was a kid,'’ Wolper remembers, “I told my father we had seen a film in school, and he said, ‘Well, you probably didn’t learn anything.’ But it was just the opposite. We had a good time, and I learned the most that day. So it came to me: If you enjoy the experience, you can really learn a lot from it. That has been my philosophy my whole life: entertain and inform. I still believe that.”
Best known as the producer of Roots, The Thorn Birds, the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics at Los Angeles, and the four-day TV spectacular celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, Wolper is also the producer of more than 500 films; the winner of two Oscars, scores of Emmys, several Golden Globes and Peabody Awards; and the recipient of hundreds of other awards.
Born in midtown Manhattan in 1928 and raised on East 52nd street, Wolper says he has always been attracted to show business. “I have wanted to be in the entertainment business ever since I was a kid,” he told Emmy Magazine in 1986. “If I had grown up in Iowa, I probably would not have had the same motivation.”
In 1949, Wolper left the University of Southern California to go into the television business. After an early failure in foreign-film distribution, Wolper took to the road, selling feature films to the more than 200 fledgling television stations opening up across the country. In many cases, he attended the actual openings of these stations. New York’s WCBS was among the stations that bought the films and broadcast them as The Late Show.
Wolper’s Roots and Thorn Birds partner, Stan Margulies says, “David is a great salesman: low-key, but effective. He is what is known as a closer. If there is a deal to be made, he knows how to wrap up the last three strands and walk out with a deal. I say this as a joke — and I mean it only in the context of a joke — but Wolper can sell anything, even if it is good.”
In 1958, a Soviet film distributor from whom Wolper had bought the American TV rights to Russian films told him about exclusive footage from his country’s space program that was for sale. The networks had seen the film, but were slow to make a decision. Wolper made a deal on the spot and combined that film with NASA footage of the American space program. The result was a documentary called Race for Space. The networks, however, had rules prohibiting them from picking up independently produced hard-news documentaries.
“I knew the business,” Wolper says, “and I knew I could get Race for Space on. I called my friends at all the stations I had visited years earlier and said, ‘I am going to drop a lot of money unless you put it on your stations.’ They agreed to put it on in the same week, preempting network shows. The very networks that wouldn't put me on were all preempted by the local stations, which were very happy because they made more money.”
In 1959, the highly rated Race for Space became the first television program to be nominated for an Oscar.
With the network ban applying only to hard-news subjects, Wolper and associate Jack Haley, Jr., soon compiled the documentary Hollywood: The Golden Years, which was broadcast on NBC and became the first independently produced prime-time network documentary. In 1962, the syndicated series Biography won Wolper his first George Foster Peabody Award, and the following year his documentary The Making of the President 1960, based on the Theodore H. White best-seller, won him three Emmys, including one for program of the year. Wolper pioneered nature and animal films on network television with his National Geographic series. The Wolper-produced memorial A Thousand Days: A Tribute to John Fitzgerald Kennedy, televised from the 1964 Democratic National Convention, reportedly was seen by more people at one time than any other documentary in history.
Wolper's inspiration for the four Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau specials broadcast in 1968 typifies his unique vision. “I came up with [the idea]," he says, “because I thought a television set looked like a fishbowl. So if you see fish swimming in a television set it looks like fish swimming in a fishbowl. It looks real."
In 1968, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, based on William L. Shirer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, was shown for an hour on three consecutive nights and became the forerunner of Wolper’s later miniseries successes. The final episode of Roots and three of the four episodes of The Thorn Birds are among the 10 highest-rated television programs.
Roots was a product of perseverance. Having failed twice before in getting a multigenerational television deal set, Wolper approached ABC with Alex Haley's book-inprogress. “Part of what this business is about,” Margulies says, "is patience and determination. David is also properly impatient. If he wants something badly enough, he will wait and persist and hold onto the thought. … That book and the miniseries format was a marriage made in heaven."
Wolper is also a sports fanatic. “If he is crazy about history, I do not know how to describe his interest in sports,” Margulies says. "He is one of the greatest rooters of all time.”
A member of the seven-man committee appointed by Mayor Bradley that brought the 1984 Summer Olympics to Los Angeles, Wolper lists the opening and closing ceremonies among his greatest achievements. “I am very proud of the Olympics,” he says. "I had a lot of pressure on me [because I was] sort of representing Los Angeles and Hollywood. It had to be good, otherwise they would say the people out there do not know what the hell they are doing; the center of entertainment does a lousy job.”
Los Angeles Olympic President Peter Ueberroth says, “David understood that the opening ceremonies could be the largest television event in the history of mankind. He has the uncanny ability to picture any event through the eye of a TV camera. He designed a program that would appeal to anyone whether he was in the People’s Republic of China or Central Europe.
“I cannot say enough about his skills, ability, and friendship. He is a loyal friend, and he is blatantly honest in opinion and in action. He cares creatively about everything he does. Though he is incredibly demanding, David also cares for each performer. He does not want to be associated with anything that is not as good as it can be.”
At present, Wolper is working on four miniseries, 10 TV movies, and four theatrical features. How does he manage so many projects. personal interests, and volunteer activities simultaneously? “If you want something done,” Wolper replies, “give it to a busy man.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating David L. Wolper's induction in 1988.