The most engaging aspect of David L. Wolper’s entertaining, exceedingly informative memoir is the fun he seems to have had during almost every moment of his long and successful career. His enjoyment is infectious, whether he’s describing selling educational films “so boring no (school) would buy them” to fledgling TV stations in 1949 (“quality didn’t matter … they were desperate for product”) or explaining in language any civilian can understand the amorphous nature of his chosen profession: “I’m a producer. I do whatever is necessary to turn an idea into a finished product. That means that at different times I’ve been a salesman, director, film editor, casting director, creative consultant–I’ve even driven the bus.”
Wolper is as uninterested in genre boundaries as he is in a clear-cut job description. He’s produced television documentaries (“The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau”), miniseries (“The Thorn Birds”), sitcoms (“Welcome Back, Kotter”), feature films (“L.A. Confidential”), live spectaculars (the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles), even corporate films (including GM’s response to Ralph Nader, “Destination Safety”).
Throughout, he’s remained a convinced capitalist populist. “The first questions I asked myself about any idea were, can I sell it, can I get a sponsor for it, and can I get it on the air?” he writes of his TV projects. “I never saw the value of investing considerable time, money, and passion on a film that few people would ever see.”
When all three networks turned down his 1960 documentary about the competing U.S.-Soviet space programs, he sold it individually to 109 stations (99 of them network affiliates). His one-shot “fourth network” got front-page coverage, and “The Race for Space” was the first television documentary to be nominated for an Academy Award.
Wolper disdained as stodgy the networks’ objections to documentaries with music (even when it was by Oscar-winner Elmer Bernstein) and dramatic re-enactments of historic events. He defined his company’s niche as “nonfiction entertainment,” and he makes a spirited defense of his programs’ essential accuracy against carping critics like the New York Times’ John O’Connor, one of the few people portrayed here with real distaste.
When he moved on to miniseries, Wolper displayed the same belief that “commercial” does not equal “trash.” He didn’t mind that “Roots” met the cynical definition of a successful program as something that can be described in one sentence in TV Guide. “Seven generations of a black family from Africa to today … I didn’t have to (know the story). The concept was there … an emotional television program that would both inform and entertain the audience.”
He deliberately cast popular white TV series stars to broaden the show’s appeal, and in later miniseries he happily paid movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor big bucks for small roles because “those actors would attract would attract people to television who did not normally watch it … To be successful, a miniseries had to be a special moment in television, an event.”
Shrewd comments like that appear on almost every page of “Producer,” spiced with just enough zingers to keep things interesting. The rhapsodic account of the L.A. Olympics is a bit much (like the ceremonies themselves), but it’s leavened by the considerably harder-edged chronicle of the festivities he produced to celebrate the Statue of Liberty’s 1986 centennial in New York. The latter event reminded Wolper that his hometown’s reputation for toughness was deserved — as was his idol Frank Sinatra’s for outrageous displays of temperament.
Despite cursory references to his wife, three kids, and seven grandchildren, as well as a slightly more extended tribute to the glories of golf, Wolper’s canny and appealing memoir reveals a man who found his work more interesting and fulfilling than anything else. Maybe that’s the best description of what a producer is.