Wolper’s Legacy: Television Was Never Bigger

The news that David L. Wolper has died prompted more than just a tinge of nostalgia. For someone who grew up watching television in the 1970s and ’80s, it was like watching untold hours of your own life flash before your eyes.

Television was simply never bigger than in Wolper’s heyday, as he moved from an impressive documentary career — including the Jacques Cousteau specials and “The Hellstrom Chronicle,” a dazzling look at insects — into the realm of TV miniseries and movies.

The results were staggering: “Roots.” “The Thorn Birds.” “North & South.” “I Will Fight No More Forever,” a searing look at how Native-Americans were forced off their lands. Not to mention the theatrical releases “Willie Wonky & the Chocolate Factory” and much later, “L.A. Confidential,” which for my money was still the best picture released in 1997, James Cameron’s big boat epic notwithstanding.

Along the way, Wolper also lent his flair for grand showmanship to the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, which at that point raised the bar on lavish spectacle in those endeavors.

“Roots” was not only a staggering success, but an immense suprise. ABC had scheduled the program outside of sweeps and during a single week to mitigate any potential damage if it bombed.

Executives weren’t sure what to do with it — and were utterly stunned when the ratings came in. When the numbers were first reported, top brass momentarily thought that the 40.5 rating — the percentage of homes tuning in — was actually the share, which clocked in at a 61. By the final night, that had climbed to a 51.1/71. During the week, restaurants sat empty. A sequel inevitably followed.

Equally impressive, however, is that Wolper was able to produce an encore of nearly that magnitude with “The Thorn Birds,” and to a lesser degree (on almost every level) “North & South.”

In his later years, Wolper passed the reins of the Wolper Organization to his son, Mark, but he remained passionate about television and its possibilities, pitching sequels and follow-ups to his signature works, and producing a few of them. (Granted, we probably could have done without “Heaven & Hell: North & David L Wolper South, Book III” in the mid-1990s.)

Wolper donated most of his archival material to USC, which established the USC Center for the Study of the Documentary. (There’s more information on the center here.)

In 1999, I interviewed Wolper for a Los Angeles Times piece appropriately headlined  “Celebrating an Epic Career.” As I wrote then, “Wolper’s name goes with ‘big’ in the same way Woody Allen’s connotes ‘neurotic.'”

At the time, the producer of “Roots” (12 hours), “Thorn Birds” (eight hours) and “North & South” (24 hours, including both “books”) dismissed labeling a two-part, four-hour production as “miniseries.”

“Ten hours is an event,” he said. “”Four hours is not an event. I don’t care what they say. Four hours is a long movie.”

Here’s a somewhat longer excerpt from that piece, which gives a pretty good sense of Wolper’s philosophy, which boils down to this: He liked things big. And when it came to television, he walked the walk.

Wolper acknowledges that blockbuster miniseries pose a risk. No TV executive wants to check ratings the morning after a six-part miniseries opens and discover no one watched, leaving five more nights of dismal ratings looming ahead.

In Wolper’s view, it’s as simple as this: No guts, no glory.

“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.”

Sequels to “The Thorn Birds” and “North and South” a few years ago pretty much did the latter, which may have helped deter networks from such undertakings.

Costs also have skyrocketed, adding to the peril large-scale productions entail for tenuous executive careers. Wolper produced “Roots” for $7 million. Producer Robert Halmi Sr. shelled out nearly five times that on his four-hour productions of “Merlin” and the upcoming “Cleopatra.”

Yet Wolper doesn’t see failure as an excuse in a business in which the majority of everything does just that.

“They say [long] miniseries are dead because the last three didn’t work,” he noted. “I say, ‘Oh? Let’s see, how many series did you put on the air last year? Six? How many worked? One? Series don’t work, I guess.’

“Why say the form doesn’t work because people didn’t watch two or three in a row if you don’t say that about series? The form works. We just have to find the right subject matter.”

Update: There will be no shortage of tributes to Wolper, but perhaps nobody knew him better professionally than Brandon Stoddard, the former head of ABC Entertainment who oversaw the network’s longform unit when “Roots” and “The Thorn Birds” were developed.

An obituary can invariably only incorporate a quote or two, but here’s a selection of the quotable insights Stoddard shared about Wolper:

“He had this belief that people should be entertained, but he also thought they should be enlightened as well,” adding that despite their entertainment value and commercial success, Wolper’s productions “were about something.”

“David was always able to put something on the screen that everyone was proud of, most of all David.”

Stoddard described him as “an extraordinary salesman — lord knows I bought enough things from him — and a great, great showman.”

“I’m devastated by his loss. I’m sad for the television industry. I wish every producer were David Wolper. TV would be a better place. … They don’t make them like that anymore.”

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