An Appreciation: David L. Wolper transformed TV landscape
David L. Wolper, who died Tuesday at the age of 82, was television’s first marquee producer, a personally embodied brand who in the 1960s and ‘70s was synonymous with seriousness and quality and scope, though not everything he produced actually fit that description. He was most famously associated with the 1977 miniseries “Roots,” but Wolper was already well known by then, his name attached to Jacques Cousteau, whose “Undersea World” specials he produced, and to the National Geographic Society, whose specials he also produced, and all manner of award-winning historical and contemporary documentaries.
That even as a child I knew his name means he was not shy about putting it out there. Wolper dropped out of the USC film school in 1949 to go wildcatting in the television business, just as the medium was making the jump from neat gizmo to household necessity, and a certain cheeky entrepreneurial showmanship marked his whole career. (While at USC, he crashed the Academy Awards in a gorilla suit to publicize a school musical.) Beginning as a distributor of filmic scraps, including “Flash Gordon” serials, to fledgling TV stations, he moved into production in 1959, building “The Race for Space” around footage acquired from Soviet sources. When networks turned it down, he sold the program directly to 108 stations. As a successful independent producer, he was an insider and outsider at once.
Wolper’s ascendancy in television was roughly conterminous with my own evolving consciousness of the medium and the world, and — without knowing anything of his actual politics — it seemed to me then and now that he stood for a particular progressive vision not unrelated to Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society. Taken as a whole, his body of work — almost comically wide-ranging, it includes the soul-Woodstock documentary “Wattstax,” cult classic “Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Fatory,” the Olympics documentary “Visions of Eight,” “The Thorn Birds,” “The Betty Ford Story” and “Get Christie Love!,” which I am pretty sure remains the only network detective series built around a black female lead — reflects a social optimism that seems unrealistic, or at any rate, unfashionable, in our much disappointed, protectively ironic times.
This hopefulness was expressed no less in the sitcoms Wolper eventually produced — James Komack’s “Chico and the Man” and “Welcome Back, Kotter,” with its “a Jew, an Italian, a Puerto Rican and an African American walk into a schoolroom” cast — than it was in “Roots,” based on Alex Haley’s historical novel tracing his ancestors from Africa, through slavery and beyond. If “Roots,” the rights to which Wolper purchased before the manuscript was finished, can seem dated now — given its mid-'70s TV production qualities and a cast that included sitcom stars such as Sandy Duncan and Robert Reed — it was an important thing in its time; and to think of it even now is a reminder that American television remains a medium devoted to the joys and tribulations of white people.
The sum total of his endeavor was a kind of American quilt whose many parts are reflected in the unlikely range of organizations that honored Wolper, including the Boy Scouts of America, the Daughters of the American Revolution, Norman Lear’s People for the American Way and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center. It’s no surprise that Wolper was hired to consult on bicentennial events and engaged to stage the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics (massed grand pianos playing “Rhapsody in Blue”) and the centennial of the Statue of Liberty (tall ships, fireworks and the Boston Pops).
It doesn’t belittle his accomplishments to note that Wolper’s remarkable eminence was due in part to a difference in scale. In the three-network world in which he did his most notable work, there was a lot less competition: Any given program occupied more psychic real estate than any program can now, when there are whole channels individually devoted to nature documentaries, history documentaries and biographical documentaries; the docudrama, which Wolper pioneered, is ubiquitous. Much of this is worthwhile, but to feed the maw of the 500-headed beast that is contemporary TV requires that people who have never done anything meaningful be considered important; that notoriety is confused with accomplishment; and that anything that happens can be considered an “event.”
It’s a cluttered world we live in now. Wolper survived into the 21st century, even worked in it a little, but he was constitutionally a man of the last one, which he industriously packaged for your enlightenment and entertainment.