David L. Wolper: 1928-2010

The man Time Magazine once called 'Mr. Documentary' also brought the epic miniseries Roots to television.
August 12, 2010

Television and documentary pioneer David L. Wolper passed away Tuesday evening at the age of 82, of congestive heart disease and complications from Parkinson’s disease.

As a documentary producer, Wolper’s work ranged from his initial foray into the medium, 1959′s The Race for Space (which also claimed the honor of being the first TV program to be nominated for an Oscar), to the multiple Emmy Award-winning adaptation of Theodore White’s Making of the President 1960. ‘There is,’ wrote White in an essay entitled David Wolper and the Art of the Documentary, to be found at, ‘one caveat that you, the viewer, should bear in mind before watching Wolper films. If you don’t watch out, you may be so carried away by the excitement of some of them as to sit back and watch in pure enjoyment. And this, I think, may have been Wolper’s sneaky purpose all along – to make this art form enjoyable.’

Judging by the accolades, one could say ‘mission accomplished’. Over the course of a career that spanned six decades, Wolper received two Oscars (including the Best Documentary nod in 1972 for The Hellstrom Chronicle), 50 Emmys, five Peabody Awards (including honors for 1963′s original Biography series and early National Geographic specials), seven Golden Globes and numerous career achievement honors, including a lifetime achievement award from the International Documentary Association in 1989.

David L. Wolper was born in New York City in 1928. He began his television career in the late 1940s, selling films, serials and other programming to television stations. He decided to transition from distribution into production with the launch of Wolper Productions in 1958, and demonstrated his pioneering approach early on with The Race for Space. Narrated by a young Mike Wallace, Wolper combined exclusive footage from the Russian space program with material from NASA to create a compelling look at the push into the final frontier. The three broadcast networks turned it down, as at that time, they didn’t air independently-produced current affairs programming. Undeterred, Wolper syndicated the show to 108 TV stations across America, including many network affiliates that bumped in-house programming in favor of the special, making it the first independently-produced documentary program to achieve near-national coverage.

Wolper also helped usher in a new era of natural history programming, collaborating with the National Geographic Society on several specials and the series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. ‘David Wolper was instrumental in bringing to fruition our vision of telling the great stories of National Geographic magazine to television audiences,’ said National Geographic Society chairman Gilbert M. Grosvenor. In 1965, when the first four National Geographic Specials premiered, Grosvenor was an editor at National Geographic magazine, where his father, Melville Bell Grosvenor, was editor in chief. ‘He pushed to introduce Jane Goodall, Louis and Mary Leakey, Jacques Cousteau and countless others to TV viewers, creating a genre of programming enjoyed the world over.’

1971′s They’ve Killed President Lincoln combined history with entertainment value to create enthralling docu-drama. The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich, the Golden Globe-winning Visions of Eight (in which eight top directors, including Milos Forman and Arthur Penn, provided interpretations of the 1972 Olympic Games) and the John Lennon documentary Imagine are just three more of the notable achievements in the Wolper production canon. A far more detailed list can be found here.

Of course, his contribution to television and indeed to popular culture extended beyond documentary, as a producer of such scripted comedy hits as Chico & The Man and Welcome Back Kotter, and perhaps most notably with the groundbreaking miniseries Roots, adapted from Alex Haley’s historical novel. The eight-part series, which aired on ABC in 1977, is one of the most important programs in television history, with its final episode drawing close to 100 million viewers. It also brought the miniseries to new levels of prominence, and showed Wolper to be a master of the format, a reputation he built upon with The Thorn Birds in 1983.

He also produced theatrical features such as 1971′s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and 1977′s gritty L.A. Confidential. In 1984, he extended his production prowess to oversee the awesome spectacle of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. In 1987, his son Mark M. Wolper joined him in leading The Wolper Organization. Recent credits include Penn & Teller: Bulls***! on Showtime.

According to his longtime publicist, Dale Olsen, at the time of his passing, David L. Wolper was watching television with his wife Gloria. He is survived by her, three children from his previous marriage (Mark, Michael and Leslie) and 10 grandchildren.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.