Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Belated R.I.P. to Producer David Wolper

We apologize for the delay in paying our respects to David L. Wolper, one of television's most accomplished producers, who passed away this last Wednesday. Wolper was a NYC kid who ended up attending USC in sunny Los Angeles, where he was bitten by the show business bug and ended up making television history. Anybody who grew up watching TV couldn't avoid being pleasantly influenced and entertained by Wolper's prodigious output.

In his early TV days he specialized in documentaries such as 1959's Race for Space, for which he had to cobble together an ad-hoc network of stations to air the special when the Big Three refused to run an independently-produced special, and which subsequently picked up an Oscar nomination. Many more followed throughout his long career -- docs about Hollywood, politics, history -- and Wolper was also busy trying his hand at features films like the daffy sightseeing comedy If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (even if people haven't seen it they seem to know the title), The Bridge at Remagen, the insect documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle, and a film that has become a bonafide classic, 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder.

More documentaries followed, and also more dramas, including the six-part Lincoln starring Hal Holbrook as the Man from Illinois, and the butt-kickin' private eye series featuring Teresa Graves as a stereotype-busting private eye in Get Christie Love!. Next came a batch of classic National Geographic specials which we all remember, including the one which introduced most of us to Jane Goodall, but it was in 1977 that Wolper indelibly changed television forever.

In 1977 David Wolper produced Roots, the epic 12-hour mini-series (one of the first, in fact Wolper basically birthed the form) taken from Alex Haley's best-selling novel. The young LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte brought home to all Americans the shame of slavery and opened the hearts and minds of everyone who watched. It was a television game-changer -- incredibly timely, amazingly entertaining, and yet searing and intelligent enough to truly affect the audience in a very real way. Unforgettable, Roots had an all-star cast consisting of well-liked TV names alongside lesser known talents, a combination that helped ensure big ratings yet never got in the way of the honest storytelling that is the heart of the production. Roots ended up getting a record 37 Emmy nominations and spawned a sequel.

So many other triumphs followed, including the stupendously popular and unforgettably steamy mini The Thorn Birds in 1983, which won veteran actress Barbara Stanwyck a much-deserved Emmy for her role opposite Richard Chamberlain, and introduced us to Australian newcomer Rachel Ward. The Civil War romance North and South followed -- cast also with veterans and new talent like young leading man Patrick Swayze -- and many other memorable productions (such as sequels to The Thorn Birds and North and South) including the astonishing Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. Wolper could do anything.

But now he is gone, but most certainly not forgotten. His television work will live on, and what isn't on DVD now the studios holding it need to dig in and release it. We highly recommend that you read some of the wonderful articles that were written about David L. Wolper last week, including this remembrance from his long-time publicist Dale Olsen at The Huffington Post, this appreciation from Los Angeles Times TV critic Robert Lloyd, his interview at the Television Academy's Archive of American Television (which he helped found), this charming article by The Daily Breeze writer John Bogert about a day long ago when he spent a day with Wolper during his preparations for the 1984 Olympics, this excellent obituary from The Hollywood Reporter by Duane Byrge, and others that you can find online. (I have a thick commemorative publication from one of the trades from many years ago at my Nova Scotia house; I'll try to bring it back here and scan some material and post -- it was great and I've kept it all these years. Wolper also wrote his autobiography in 2002.)

David L. Wolper was a giant of television. The Flaming Nose salutes him and wishes his family and friends well at this difficult time.

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