Best known for 'Roots,' docus, Cousteau specials

David L. Wolper’s long career in showbiz ranged from selling old movies and serials to program-hungry stations in the early days of television broadcasting to the heights of “Roots” and “The Thorn Birds” in the heyday of network TV “event” programming.

Wolper, who died Tuesday at age 82, proved a master at staging live-event spectaculars with his productions of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 summer Olympics in L.A. and the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. But the producer’s greatest contributions came in the TV and film documentary form, where he proved an innovator in producing, distributing and marketing docu material.

Through such efforts as “The Race for Space,” “The Making of the President 1960,” “A Thousand Days: A Tribute to John Fitzgerald Kennedy” and “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” specials, he redefined and broadened the docu form and helped bring prestige fare to the small screen.

“He had this belief that people should be entertained, but he also thought they should be enlightened as well,” said Brandon Stoddard, the former ABC Entertainment president

who oversaw the development of projects such as “Roots” and “The Thorn Birds.” “I wish every producer were David Wolper. TV would be a better place.”

Perhaps it was fitting that Wolper’s death from heart failure and complications of Parkinson’s disease came while he was watching TV Tuesday evening at his Beverly Hills home with his wife of 36 years, Gloria.

Son Mark Wolper, who took the helm of the producer’s Warner Bros.-based Wolper Organization banner in the 1990s, said his father had deep affection for the entertainment biz.

“He was an incredible father first, a great filmmaker and businessman and a great lover of Hollywood and the medium,” Mark said.

In a 1999 interview with the Los Angeles Times, David Wolper talked about the importance of “event” television — and how network executives often lacked the stomach to take such oversized gambles. “They won’t do it because they’re afraid,” he said. “You have to have balls. You have to say, ‘We think it’s going to work. Let’s go with it.’ Either you’re going to kill the world, or you’re going to fall on your rear end.”

Among his many accolades were the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and a feature docu Oscar; four Emmys and a few Peabody Awards.

Warner Bros. chairman-CEO Barry Meyer called Wolper “a true giant who elevated and shaped our industry with his vision and spirit. David’s sense of honor and goodwill will never be forgotten by those fortunate enough to have known him.”

Born David Lloyd Wolper in New York, he attended Columbia Grammar School, where he met and befriended his first producing partner, Jim Harris, and future Warner Bros. topper Steve Ross.

After trying to make it on Broadway, Wolper went to college, first at Iowa’s Drake U. and then USC, where he majored in film. At USC, Wolper and classmate Art Buchwald took over the school humor magazine, Wampus, and turned it into a profitable operation. As a publicist for the school play he had a student in a gorilla costume crash the 1948 Academy Awards wearing a sign saying “U.S.C. Varsity show No Love Atoll,” which was photographed and published by the Los Angeles Times.

Less successful was his and Harris’ attempt to create a foreign-film distribution business. Their first effort, “The Miracle at Monte Cassino,” was a flop.

It was this setback in film that prompted Wolper and Harris to turn to television. Their production company, Flamingo Films, acquired old films, serials, short subjects and cartoons and sold them to stations around the country at a time when there were only about 50 local outlets on the air.

In 1957, Wolper took a detour to become exec VP of Continental Industrial Bank but returned to TV a year later, forming Wolper Prods. His first production, “The Race for Space,” touched a contemporary nerve. With footage of the Soviet space program reportedly obtained from a Soviet agent and help from NASA, the docu narrated by future “60 Minutes” stalwart Mike Wallace detailed America’s budding efforts to build a space exploration program. It was the first TV program nominated for an Oscar and spawned a sequel, “Project: Man in Space.”

But “Race for Space” was a tough sell to the Big Three networks. Wolper got around that problem by syndicating the docu to more than 100 stations across the country, leaning on the contacts he’d made in the Flamingo Films era.

Next, he enlisted the major studios and the MPAA for a docu series on Hollywood and, with Jack Haley Jr., produced “Hollywood: The Golden Years,” which was broadcast by NBC and sponsored by Proctor and Gamble.

Besides history and film, Wolper loved sports, and his next docus were “The Rafer Johnson Story” and “Biography of a Rookie.” Different and daring in form, they led to a series called “The Story of …,” which profiled great figures in recent history such as President Franklin Roosevelt and George Bernard Shaw.

As Wolper’s company grew, so did its output, most historically with an adaptation of Theodore White’s “The Making of the President 1960.” Broadcast on ABC, it was later shown in 40 countries around the world and won four Emmys, including program of the year.

He met famed oceanic explorer Cousteau while producing a special for National Geographic in 1966. They teamed for a series of color specials, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.”

With the acquisition of Paramount News’ “The Eyes and Ears of the World” and contractual commitments from newsreel libraries around the world, he produced 12 historical television specials, depicting significant 20th century events including the creation of the atom bomb, the Nuremberg trials and America in World War I. It was followed by the equally intriguing syndicated series “Men in Crisis,” 32 programs dealing with historic conflicts such as that between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan.

Over the years, Wolper inadvertently became a chronicler of the Kennedy/Johnson years through the “Making Of” specials that aired in 1960 and 1965, as well as “A Thousand Days” and “Four Days in November,” which detailed John Kennedy’s first 1,000 days in office and his assassination. He later filmed “The Unfinished Journey of Robert Kennedy,” after the senator’s assassination in 1968.

In 1965, Wolper sold his company to John Kluge’s Metromedia, only to buy it back three years later. He pacted with Time-Life to bring “The March of Time” series to television and with National Geographic Society to bring the magazine to TV life.Though he made sporadic forays into feature films — such as 1971′s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “L.A. Confidential” (1997) — Wolper’s greatest contribution in features came through his work in the documentary form.

In 1967, he presented a three-part TV version of William L. Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” Though he never set out to court controversy, such documentaries as 1971′s “Say Goodbye,” a plea for the plight of endangered species, caused a firestorm of opposition from gun lobbyists and hunters.

Not long after, he created another hybrid-documentary form, the docu-drama, restaging famous events, combining actors and historical materials. The first of these was “They’ve Killed President Lincoln.” It led to “Appointment With Destiny” specials that spanned events such as the attempted assassination of Hitler to the race for the North Pole.

After nine Oscar nominations, Wolper’s 1971 docu/sci-fi hybrid about the world of insects, “The Hellstrom Chronicle,” brought him his first win. The following year, he teamed with producer Stan Margulies to bring together directors from around the world, including Milos Forman and Arthur Penn, to record “Visions of Eight,” about the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

By the mid-1970s, ratings concerns made it harder to fund and produce TV documentaries. Wolper turned to fiction with TV movies and miniseries. He produced two successful sitcoms, “Chico and the Man” and “Welcome Back, Kotter,” and the short-lived drama “Get Christie Love,” about a black undercover police officer.

Wolper’s scripted TV efforts reached a pinnacle, of course, with “Roots,” co-produced with Margulies. The ABC mega-mini that ran over eight nights in January 1977 broke every record imaginable for a TV show and was seen at least in part by an estimated 130 million viewers. The final installment brought in 98,226,000 viewers — roughly half the U.S. population at the time.

ABC executives were so unsure about the project that they scheduled it outside the rating sweeps, and all during a single week in case it flopped in the ratings. When the first numbers poured in, top brass momentarily thought that the 40.5 rating — the percentage of homes tuning in — was actually the audience share, which clocked in at a 61 (meaning six out of 10 homes watching TV at that time were tuned to ABC). By the final night, that had climbed to a 51.1 rating/71 share. During the week, restaurants sat empty. A sequel inevitably followed, “Roots: The Next Generation.”

Wolper’s many other miniseries productions included “Moviola,” “The Mystic Warrior” and “Hanta Yo,” were a warmup for another ABC ratings blockbuster, “The Thorn Birds” (with ratings peak of 43.1/62) in 1983. It was followed by the Civil War multiparter “North and South,” which ran in 1985 and 1986. His later made-fors included “Murder in Mississippi” (1990); “Dillinger” (1991); “Queen” (1993), also based on an Alex Haley novel; and “The Mists of Avalon” (2001), the latter produced with his son, Mark, who was named prexy of the Wolper Organization in 1993.

Ever out to top himself, Wolper was drafted to produce the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, which required the coordination of 20,000 people, including 9,000 athletes. At the behest of L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, Wolper also served on the committee that lobbied to bring the Olympics to the city.

In 1986, Wolper exec produced the “Liberty Weekend” celebration that marked the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.

In recognition for these accomplishments, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gave him its highest honor, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. His outside activities included being a trustee of the American Film Institute and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as well as the Los Angeles Heart Institute and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.In 1999, he donated his voluminous personal archives to the USC Doheny Library, which established the Wolper Center to house his papers and host exhibitions.

Wolper recalled his many years in showbiz in the 2003 book “Producer: A Memoir.” The Producers Guild of America honored Wolper’s legacy by establishing the David L. Wolper Producer of the Year kudo for longform TV in 2001.

Survivors include his wife of 36 years, Gloria, and three children from a previous marriage: sons Mark and Michael and daughter Leslie.

Private services will be held at Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills, with a public memorial to be arranged. The family requests that donations be made to global health organization PATH and to Angels Flight West.

(Brian Lowry and Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)

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