David L. Wolper (1928-2010)

David Wolper, who produced Roots for ABC in 1977, has passed away at the age of 82. According to the Associated Press he died last night while watching television. According to his Internet Movie Database entry, Wolper has almost 120 credits to his name, the bulk of them television specials, made-for-TV movies or miniseries. The Museum of Broadcast Communications, in its Encyclopedia of Television (1st edition) called him “arguably the most successful independent documentary producer to have ever worked in television.” Wolper’s television career began in the late 1940s, working with cartoons and serials. In the late 1950s he formed his own production company and turned to documentaries. He was forced to sell “The Race for Space” to individual stations after the networks turned the special down. More than 100 stations aired the special.

Throughout the 1960s Wolper produced a variety of documentary specials, including more than two dozen National Geographic specials, as well as documentary series, including Biography and Hollywood and the Stars. He also dabbled in scripted television, helping produce Welcome, Back Kotter, Get Christy Love! and Chico and the Man. But his greatest claim to fame came in January of 1977 when ABC broadcast Roots over the course of eight days. The era of the epic, and expensive, television miniseries had begun. Wolper later produced Roots: The Next Generations (1979), The Thorn Birds (1983) and North and South (1985).

Wolper was responsible for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and Liberty Weekend, broadcast in July of 1986. He continued producing throughout the 1990s; a rare non-television work was the film L.A. Confidential in 1997. His last producing credit is “Roots: Celebrating 25 Years,” broadcast in November of 2002. Wolper sat down for a lengthy interview with the Archive of American Television in May of 1998; the first chapter can be seen below:

Wolper’s official website can be found here. His papers, scripts, tapes and other material are archived at the University of Southern California where the David L. Wolper Center For Study of the Documentary is located, although the “>website for the center is unavailable at the moment. Obituaries can be found at the Associated Press (via Yahoo! News), The Los Angeles Times and The Hollywood Reporter.


2 Comments

  • W.B. says:

    Wolper had two production companies. The first was the one responsible for the likes of the original “Biography,” “Hollywood and the Stars” and the National Geographic specials, and was later sold to Metromedia Inc. which, in 1968, renamed the company Metromedia Producers Corporation. It was Wolper’s second production concern that brought us the likes of “Roots,” “Chico and the Man,” “Welcome Back, Kotter” and “The Thorn Birds.”

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    There was also Wolper Television Sales, which acquired “CRUSADER RABBIT’ {both the original 1949-’51 edition produced by Jay Ward & Alex Anderson for Jerry Fairbanks, and the 1957-’58 color series by Shull Bonsall} from Shull Bonsall in 1965, which Metromedia acquired when they bought Wolper out by 1966 [the color episodes were seen on Metromedia’s New York station, WNEW-TV, on and off, from 1966 through ’73], as well as the Larry Harmon-produced “LAUREL & HARDY” cartoons (featuring the voices of Jim MacGeorge & Harmon, with animation by Hanna-Barbera) in the 1966-’67 season [Channel 5 in New York built a daily half-hour around those, with Chuck McCann as host and occcasionally appearing on camera as “Ollie” (he was also a co-founder of “The Sons of the Desert”, the international Laurel & Hardy “society”)]. W.T.S. also had the rights to syndicate “MY FAVORITE MARTIAN” off-network after 1966 {which, naturally, appeared on WNEW-TV in New York}, until Telepictures got the rights in the late ’70s, then merged with Lorimar, and was eventually bought out by Warner Bros., who currently has those rights…

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