August 11, 2010

David L. Wolper, Iconic Producer of Roots and Other Enduring Television Programs, Dies

The three-time Primetime Emmy winner — and 10-time nominee — influenced generations of viewers with his work.

Producer David L. Wolper, whose 1977 miniseries Roots captivated the nation with its saga of an American family descended from an African slave, died August 10, 2010, at his Beverly Hills home from congestive heart disease and complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 82.

Wolper was born in New York City on January 11, 1928, and studied at Drake University in Iowa, and the University of Southern California.

He left school in 1949 and, with some friends, established Flamingo Films, a television distribution company. Wolper traveled the country selling old movies to television stations.

He segued into production with The Race for Space, a documentary created from Soviet space footage that he had obtained. The film earned a 1960 Academy Award nomination.

The production helped to establish Wolper as a prolific documentarian with films such as The Making of the President 1960.

He also produced the National Geographic special The World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, which introduced Cousteau to a widespread audience.

His greatest acclaim came with Roots. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Alex Haley, the ABC series, which ran for eight nights, was seen in whole or part by 130 million people — at the time, more than half the country.

The miniseries, with a cast that included then-newcomer LeVar Burton as well as John Amos, Ben Vereen, Leslie Uggams, Cicely Tyson, Olivia Cole, Madge Sinclair and Richard Roundtree, won nine Primetime Emmys and a Peabody Award, among other distinctions.

Wolper’s other miniseries included the 1979 sequel Roots: The Next Generations, as well as The Thorn Birds and North and South.

He also produced the telefilm The Trial of Lt. Calley, the sitcoms Welcome Back, Kotter and Chico and the Man and such films as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and L.A. Confidential.

The versatile Wolper also mounted auspicious live events such as the 1986 celebration of the Statue of Liberty’s centennial in New York City and the 1984 Olympic Games ceremonies in Los Angeles.

Wolper was a co-founder of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation's Archive of American Television, which launched in 1997. Today the Archive includes more than 600 long-form videotaped interviews with the pioneers of television. These interviews chronicle the birth and growth of American television history.

He is survived by his wife, Gloria, three children by a previous marriage and 10 grandchildren.

In addition to co-founding the Archive of American Television, Wolper was interviewed about his storied career. Wolper, who was interviewed for nearly five-and-a-half hours in Los Angeles, began by talking about forming his first company, Flamingo Films, with father and son friends Joe and Jim Harris. He discussed many of his documentaries, including The Race For Space, Hollywood: The Golden Years and The Making of a President, among others. Wolper fondly recalled working with his longtime friend Mike Wallace, as well meeting and working with oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. He talked about two classic sitcoms, Chico and the Man and Welcome Back, Kotter, as well as the many television movies and specials he produced. Wolper also discussed in great detail his three highly acclaimed ABC miniseries — Roots, The Thorn Birds and North and South. The interview was conducted by Morrie Gelman on May 12, 1998.

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