Interviews

 

David Wolper

Producer/ Documentarian

David Wolper on the success, criticism, and impact of Roots

07:55

I got my philosophy of filmmaking from making 'The Race For Space' and I never changed it from that first show. I want to entertain and inform, not just inform and not just entertain. I want to do both in the same piece.

About this interview

In his nearly five-and-a-half hour Archive interview, Producer David Wolper (1928 - 2010) talks about forming his first company, Flamingo Films, with father and son friends Joe and Jim Harris.  He discusses many of his documentaries, including the "Race For Space," "Hollywood: The Golden Years," and "The Making of a President," among others. Wolper fondly recalls working with his long time friend Mike Wallace, as well meeting and working with oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau. He talks 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 discusses in great detail his three highly acclaimed ABC mini-series, Roots, The Thorn Birds, and North and South. Morrie Gelman conducted the interview in Los Angeles, CA on May 12, 1998.

I got my philosophy of filmmaking from making 'The Race For Space' and I never changed it from that first show. I want to entertain and inform, not just inform and not just entertain. I want to do both in the same piece.

Interview Highlights

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David Wolper on the success, criticism, and impact of Roots

07:55
Embedded thumbnail for David Wolper on the genesis and production of The Race for Space

David Wolper on the genesis and production of The Race for Space

05:15
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David Wolper on fighting for key scenes in Roots

02:15
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David Wolper on why he thinks Roots was right for the time it came out, and its impact

04:10
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Producer David Wolper on the development of The Thorn Birds

09:21

Related Content

From the Museum of Broadcast Communications Encyclopedia of Television:

David Wolper

David L. Wolper is arguably the most successful independent documentary producer to have ever worked in television. Through a career span of nearly fifty years, this prolific filmmaker has left his imprint with documentary specials, documentary series, dramatic miniseries, movies made for theatrical release, movies made for television, television sitcoms, entertainment specials and entertainment special events.

Wolper began his career in the late 1940s by selling B-movies, English dubbed Soviet cartoons and film serials, including Superman, to television stations. Interested in producing television documentaries, in 1958 he established Wolper Productions. Working with exclusive Russian space program footage and NASA cinematography of American missile launches, within two years, his first film, The Race for Space, was completed and had attracted a sponsor. Wolper offered the film to all three networks but an unofficial rule of the time dictated that only news programs and documentaries produced by network personnel were allowed on the air. Not to be discouraged, the young producer fell back on his sales experience and syndicated the film to 104 local stations across the United States--the overwhelming majority of these stations network affiliates willing to preempt other programming for the Wolper show. For the first time in television history a non-network documentary special achieved near-national audience coverage. Having been released to theaters prior to television, The Race for Space also received an Academy Award nomination in the best documentary category--another first for a television film.

Wolper's notoriety helped to launch a significant number of documentary projects that found their way to network time slots. Utilizing a basic compilation technique, these early films consisted of editing photo stills and film clips to narration and music, with occasional recreations of footage, minimal editorial viewpoint and high-information, high-entertainment value. Increasingly successful, within four years of establishing Wolper Productions, Wolper's method would place him on a level with NBC and CBS as one of the three largest producers of television documentaries and documentary specials.

A major turning point in Wolper's career occurred in 1960 when he bought the rights to Theodore H. White's book, The Making of the President. Aired on ABC, Wolper's potentially controversial film presented an incisive look at the American political process, won four Emmy Awards including 1963 Program of the Year and guaranteed Wolper's celebrity.

In 1964, Wolper sold his documentary production unit to Metromedia but stayed on as the company's chief of operations. With this media giant's backing, Wolper's projects grew in scope and substance. He became a regular supplier of documentary programs to all three commercial networks creating such memorable series as The March of Time, in association with Time, Inc., and a series of nature specials in collaboration with the National Geographic Society. For the latter, he introduced American audiences to French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. This in turn led to the first ever documentary spin-off, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.

Breaking away from Metromedia in 1967, Wolper continued his documentary work but also tried his hand at theatrical release motion pictures. He created a number of unexceptional films including The Bridge at Remagen (1968), If It's Tuesday, This Must be Belgium (1969) and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). In fiction television, he found more success with regularly scheduled television series that included Get Christie Love! (1974-75), featuring the first black policewoman character in television history, Chico and the Man (1974-78) and Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-79).

Perhaps Wolper's most significant accomplishment was his developmental work with the television non-fiction drama miniseries. In the mid-1970s, after bypass heart surgery and sale of his company to Warner Brothers, he helped to invent the docudrama genre with his award-winning production of Alex Haley's acclaimed family saga, Roots. Reconstructing history in an unprecedented twelve hour film, the series was broadcast in one- and two-hour segments over an eight-day period in January 1977. Contrary to initial concerns over the high risk nature of the venture, the series brought ABC a 44.9 rating and 66% share of audience to set viewership records that place it among the most watched programs in the history of television.

In 1984, Wolper stepped out of his usual role as film producer to orchestrate the opening and closing ceremonies for the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The first ever to be staged by a private group, the ceremonies received a 55% share of audience outranking all other Olympic coverage. For his efforts, Wolper was rewarded with a special Emmy and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscar ceremony in 1985. The following year he was recruited to produce the Liberty Weekend hundredth anniversary celebration for the Statue of Liberty. The four day event was viewed by 1.5 billion people worldwide.

As a producer, filmmaker, entrepreneur, historian and visionary, David Wolper's career has been one of taking risks and continually breaking new ground. Most importantly, through his more than six hundred films his innovative and creative spirit has educated and entertained millions.

-Joel Sternberg

DAVID LLOYD WOLPER. Born in New York City, New York, U.S.A., 11 January 1928. Studied at Drake University, 1946; University of Southern California, 1948. Married: 1) Margaret Davis Richard, 1958 (divorced, 1969); one daughter and two sons; 2) Gloria Diane Hill, 1974. Began career as vice president, then treasurer of Flamingo Films, TV sales company, 1948-50; vice president, West Coast Operations, 1954-58; chair and president, Wolper Productions, Los Angeles, since 1958; president, Fountainhead International, since 1960; president, Wolper TV Sales Co., since 1964; vice president, Metromedia, Inc., 1965-68; president and chair, Wolper Pictures Limited, since 1968; consultant and executive producer, Warner Brothers, Inc., since 1976. Member: U.S. Olympic Team Benefit Committee; advisory committee, National Center for Jewish Film; Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Producers Guild of America; Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors. Trustee: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1984; American Film Institute; Los Angeles Thoracic & Cardiovascular Foundation. Board of directors: Amateur Athletic Association of Los Angeles, 1984; Los Angeles Heart Institute; Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games, 1977; Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation, 1983; University of Southern California Cinema/Television Department. Recipient: Award for documentaries, San Francisco International Film Festival, 1960; Distinguished Service Award, U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce; Monte Carlo International Film Festival Award, 1964; Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix for TV Programs, 1964; Oscar Award: Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, 1985; named to TV Hall of Fame, 1988; Medal of Chevalier, French National Legion of Honor, 1990; Lifetime Achievement Award, Producers Guild of America, 1991; 8 Globe Awards; 5 Peabody Awards; 40 Emmy Awards; numerous other awards.

TELEVISION SERIES (selection)

1961-64; 1979 Biography
1962-65 Story of . . .
1963-64 Hollywood and the Stars
1965-66 March of Time
1965-76 National Geographic
1968-76 The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau
1971-73 Appointment with Destiny
1972-73 Explorers
1974-78 Chico and the Man
1974-75 Get Christie Love
1975-79 Welcome Back, Kotter

TELEVISION MINISERIES (selection)

1976 Victory at Entebbe
1977 Roots
1979 Roots: The Next Generations
1983 The Thorn Birds
1985 North and South Book I
1986 North and South Book II
1987 Napoleon and Josephine

 

 

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES (selection)

1973 500 Pound Jerk
1974 Men of the Dragon
1974 Unwed Father
1974 The Morning After
1974 Get Christie Love
1976 Brenda Starr
1982 Agatha Christie Movie: Murder Is Easy
1983 Agatha Christie Movie: Sparkling Cyanide
1984 Agatha Christie Movie: Caribbean Mystery
1989 The Plot to Kill Hitler
1989 Murder in Mississippi
1990 Dillinger
1990 When You Remember Me
1991 Bed of Lies
1992 Fatal Deception: Mrs. Lee Harvey Oswald
1993 The Flood: Who Will Save our Children?
1994 Without Warning

TELEVISION SPECIALS (selection)

1958 Race for Space
1959 Project: Man in Space
1960 Hollywood: The Golden Years
1960, 1964, 1968 Making of the President
1961 Biography of a Rookie
1961 The Rafer Johnson Story
1962 D-Day
1962 Hollywood: The Great Stars
1963 Hollywood: The Fabulous Era
1963 Escape to Freedom
1963 The Passing Years
1963 Ten Seconds That Shook the World
1963 Krebiozen and Cancer
1963 December 7: Day of Infamy
1963 The American Woman in the 20th Century
1964 The Legend of Marilyn Monroe
1964 The Yanks Are Coming
1964 Berlin: Kaiser to Khrushchev
1964 The Rise and Fall of American Communism
1964 The Battle of Britain
1964 Trial at Nuremberg
1965 France: Conquest to Liberation
1965 Korea: The 38th Parallel
1965 Prelude to War
1965 Japan: A new Dawn Over Asia
1965 007: The Incredible World of James Bond
1965 Let my People Go
1965 October Madness: The World Series
1965 Race for the Moon
1965 The Bold Men
1965 The General
1965 The Teenage Revolution
1965 The Way Out Men
1965 In Search of Man
1965 Mayhem on a Sunday Afternoon
1966 The Thin Blue Line
1966 Wall Street: Where the Money Is
1966 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White         House
1967 China: Roots of Madness
1967 A Nation of Immigrants
1967 Do Blondes Have More Fun
1968 The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
1968 On the Trail of Stanley and Livingstone
1970 The Unfinished Journey of Robert F. Kennedy
1970-72 George Plimpton
1971 Say Goodbye
1971 They've Killed President Lincoln
1971-73 Appointment With Destiny
1972 They've Killed President Lincoln
1973-74 American Heritage
1973-75 Primal Man
1974 Judgment
1974 The First Woman President
1974-75 Smithsonian
1975-76 Sandburg's Lincoln
1976 Collision Course
1980 Moviola
1984 Opening and Closing Ceremonies,
1984 Olympic Games
1986 Liberty Weekend
1987 The Betty Ford Story
1988 What Price Victory
1988 Roots: The Gift

FILMS

Four Days in November, 1964; Devil's Brigade, 1967; The Bridge at Remagen, 1968; If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, 1968; I Love my Wife, 1970; The Helstrom Chronicle, 1971; Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, 1971; King, Queen, Knave!, 1972; One Is a Lonely Number, 1972; Wattstax, 1973; Visions of Eight, 1973; Birds Do It...Bees Do It..., 1974; The Animal within, 1974; Victory at Entebbe, 1976; The Man who Saw Tomorrow, 1980; This is Elvis, 1981; Imagine: John Lennon, 1988; Murder in the First, 1994; Surviving Picasso, 1996.

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