David L. Wolper dies at 82; producer of ‘Roots,’ 1984 L.A. Olympics opening ceremonies
David L. Wolper, the award-winning television documentary producer best known for the blockbuster TV miniseries “Roots” and for the spectacular opening and closing ceremonies he created for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, has died. He was 82.
Wolper died Tuesday at his Beverly Hills home of congestive heart disease and complications of Parkinson’s disease, said Dale Olson, his longtime publicist.
FOR THE RECORD:The obituary of TV documentary producer David L. Wolper in Thursday’s Section A said that the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles that Wolper staged included 84 pianists in white tuxedos playing “Rhapsody in Blue.” The pianists wore baby blue topcoats with tails.
The lavish production that Wolper staged for the Los Angeles Olympics is credited with setting new standards for host cities. Opening flourishes included an “astronaut” powered by a jet-pack who soared into the Coliseum and a card stunt involving the entire arena that displayed flags of every competing nation.
“Not until the Beijing Games in 2008 has anybody rivaled what he did as a volunteer and with a low budget,” Peter Ueberroth, president of the Los Angeles Organizing Committee for the 1984 Games, told The Times. “For the opening ceremony, he wanted to be sure to give everyone goose bumps — and it did.”
During his long career, Wolper oversaw the production of more than 300 films that have won more than 150 awards, including two Oscars, 50 Emmys and five Peabody Awards.
In 1998, TV Guide named him one of the “45 People Who Made a Difference” in shaping the medium of television. As one of TV’s top creative forces, Wolper’s “many contributions to broadcast history have embedded themselves in the American psyche,” the magazine said.
Before Alex Haley had even finished writing his 1976 bestselling saga tracing his family’s African heritage through seven generations to the present, Wolper purchased the TV rights.
When there were few faces of color on TV, “a show where the white people are the villains” didn’t “seem like a good idea,” Wolper later said. “But it was a family story, and you start rooting for them.”
Unsure whether the 12-hour 1977 miniseries would attract an audience beyond black America, ABC decided to air it over eight consecutive nights — a first for a TV program — to lessen the impact should it fail to pull in the ratings.
When “Roots” debuted on Sunday, Jan. 23, 1977, it turned into a nationwide cultural phenomenon.
To many, it felt like the entire nation was staying home to watch the series. At the time, “Roots” was the most-watched program in television history.
TV historian Tim Brooks called the miniseries “one of the turning points of American television.”
“Up until the time it aired, American television was fairly narrow in terms of storytelling. There was nothing that was told on a grand scale or with that kind of social meaning,” Brooks told The Times.
The groundbreaking show “touched many Americans on a personal level and provoked a public discussion about race,” he said. “It caused people to look up their own roots. And it gave rise to a whole new era of programming that was broader and more sweeping in its storytelling.”
The week the miniseries aired “was the most thrilling week of my career,” Wolper wrote in “Producer,” his 2003 memoir.
“We had made a program of which we were extremely proud, in many ways, the ultimate docudrama; we had told an intelligent, educationally important story — and the nation had responded,” Wolper said.
“Roots” went on to win nine Emmy Awards, then a record for a TV miniseries.
Ron Simon, curator for television and radio at the Paley Center for the Media, called “Roots” a “crowning achievement” for Wolper, a producer who was “the master of events” that could touch the country collectively.
Wolper was executive producer of another highly rated miniseries, 1983’s “The Thorn Birds.” He also produced such feature films as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971) and “L.A. Confidential” (1997),but he remained a prolific maker of documentaries that included “The Hellstrom Chronicle” (1971), a feature-length production about the world of insects that won an Academy Award.
Born Jan. 11, 1928, in New York City, Wolper was an only child whose father sold commercial real estate. Wolper’s homemaker mother died of a ruptured appendix in her late 30s.
At USC, he studied cinema and journalism. He was business manager for the campus humor magazine and became a lifelong friend of one of its editors, Art Buchwald.
“David is a very low-key guy who always gets what he wants,” Buchwald told People magazine in 1984. “He always had a tremendous amount of chutzpah.”
To promote a musical comedy that Buchwald had co-written, “No Love Atoll,” Wolper showed up at the Academy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium with a student wearing a gorilla suit and a sign on his back promoting “No Love Atoll.” He got his promotional payoff when newspapers ran photos of the pair being escorted out of the ceremony.
In 1949, Wolper dropped out of USC to team up with his childhood friend, future movie producer James B. Harris, and others to market older short travel films that Harris’ father, Joe, had tried to sell to schools.
Wolper spent two years on the road selling the travel films, along with old B-movies, serials, shorts and cartoons, to the TV stations that were cropping up across the country and were desperate for product.
In 1951, he and his colleagues, operating under the banner of Flamingo Films, bought the TV rights to “ Superman” and produced 26 episodes before selling the show to the Kellogg’s cereal company, which syndicated it. When Wolper left the distribution business in 1954, Flamingo Films was one of the biggest distributors in television.
After forming his own production company in 1958, Wolper launched his documentary career with a timely subject: “The Race for Space,” an award-winning documentary about the competing U.S. and Soviet space programs featuring exclusive government footage.
When CBS, NBC and ABC refused to air his independently produced documentary, Wolper lined up at least 108 TV stations around the country who televised “The Race for Space” in 1960.
The program’s success helped Wolper launch a stream of other television documentaries that would be shown on all three major networks.
By 1962, he was heading a 200-employee corporation, Wolper Productions, on Sunset Boulevard, with 40 editing rooms. Time magazine dubbed him “Mr. Documentary” and reported that “the three largest producers of documentary films for television are NBC, CBS and David Wolper.”
His company produced nearly 50 other entertaining and informative documentary specials in the 1960s alone, including “The Making of the President: 1960.” He also made “National Geographic Specials” and “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.”
Asked to produce the official documentary film of the 1972 Munich Olympics, Wolper took a novel approach: “Visions of Eight,” in which eight internationally known directors, including Milos Forman, Arthur Penn and John Schlesinger, interpreted different aspects of the Games.
A decade later, Wolper produced the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. He called the result “the biggest, most original, most tasteful, most emotionally evocative show ever done.”
The opening ceremony was a four-hour musical extravaganza that is especially remembered for the 84 pianists in white tuxedoes who played “Rhapsody in Blue” on white grand pianos while 300 dance corps members performed.
For his volunteer work producing the Olympic ceremonies, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gave Wolper the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
In 1986, the man Newsweek magazine hailed as the “Svengali of spectacle” produced Liberty Weekend, a celebration of the 100th anniversary and restoration of the Statue of Liberty. The four-day extravaganza included thousands of fireworks, 265 tall ships and more than 20,000 performers.
Wolper was a devoted golfer and an avid collector of Lincoln memorabilia and Picasso sculptures.
He did not have a middle name and used the middle initial “L” to distinguish himself from an uncle with the same name.
Wolper was divorced twice.
He is survived by his third wife, Gloria, whom he married in 1974, along with three children from his marriage to actress Dawn Richard — Mark, Michael and Leslie — and 10 grandchildren.
Times staff writers Valerie J. Nelson, Claire Noland and Greg Braxton contributed to this report.
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