David L Wolper: Film and television producer who pioneered the mini-series and docudrama formats

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The Independent Online

David L Wolper's successful career as a producer was built around his talent as an impresario, particularly an ability to imbue his productions with the touch of class which made him first arguably America's best-known documentary film maker, and then the producer of the most-watched programme of its time, the television adaptation of Alex Haley's bestseller Roots. Wolper understood the business of television and its audiences and was a major shaper of the medium. He popularised the mini-series format in the US and virtually created the docudrama.

When Roots aired in 1977, it was seen by an estimated 130 million viewers, shown in eight parts on consecutive nights; the final episode drew a then unheard-of rating of 51.1 per cent of the households in the US. The family saga about American slaves might have been an unlikely hit, but Wolper nearly matched it six years later with The Thorn Birds, based on the romantic Australian novel by Colleen McCullough. He was expert at making dramatic spectacle from the widest spectrum of sources, often dressing it up with big names, such as Jean Simmons in The Thorn Birds, or popular ones like Tom Hulce and Jennifer Grey in 1990's Murder in Mississippi, about the same killing of civil-rights workers told, with some liberties taken, in Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning two years earlier.

David Wolper (he added the L to distinguish himself from an uncle) was born in New York, where his father sold real estate. After a year at Drake University in Des Moines he transferred to the University of Southern California. He became the business manager of the student humour magazine Wampus, edited by the future columnist Art Buchwald. In 1948 Buchwald wrote a variety show, No Love Atoll; Wolper publicised it by crashing the Oscars with a student dressed in a gorilla suit and sandwich boards.

Wolper left USC before graduating, convinced he could make money in television. With a high school friend, James B Harris, who later produced Stanley Kubrick's films, he provided fledgling stations with travel films that Harris's father had marketed to schools. Soon Flamingo Films was distributing old serials and a feature, The Adventures of Martin Eden. The success of the Flash Gordon serials convinced Wolper of the strength of the baby-boom children's market, and he bought the TV rights to the Superman comics. The show broadcast 90 episodes before its star, George Reeves, killed himself.

The launch of the Sputnik satellites created a panic in the US. Wolper bought Russian footage and put together a documentary, The Race for Space, again bringing in a sponsor, Old Spice. But when no network wanted the package, Wolper, used to syndication, assembled an ad-hoc network of 108 stations. The Race for Space wound up being nominated for an Oscar.

Wolper would frequently revisit the themes of his next three projects, The Rafer Johnson Story (1961), about the black Olympic decathlon champion, Hollywood: the Golden Years and D-Day (both 1962). He then launched a syndicated series, Biography, which ran for four years before being revived in the 1980s by the A&E cable network, spawning The Biography Channel.

He became associated with some of TV's biggest prestige projects, including an adaptation of Theodore White's The Making of the President (1963), The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1968) and a series of Jacques Cousteau underwater specials. In the early 1970s his CBS series Appointment with Destiny followed that network's You Are There in establishing the docu-drama as a viable genre. The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971), a mix of sci-fi footage and science, foretelling the takeover of the world by insects, won an Academy Award for best documentary.

Wolper branched into features with mixed results, although The Bridge at Remagen, whose crew fled Czechoslovakia during the Soviet invasion of 1968, is an underrated war film, and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) remains the best adaptation of Roald Dahl. He launched two successful TV series, the ethnic comedies Chico and the Man and Welcome Back Kotter, and in 1973 released two major documentaries. Wattstax was the film of Los Angeles's legendary soul concert, and Visions of Eight, which attempted to reclaim the legacy of the 1972 Munich Olympics, featured footage shot by eight leading directors, including Arthur Penn, John Schlesinger, Mai Zetterling, and Milos Forman.

His six-part Lincoln (1974), based on Carl Sandburg's biography and starring Hal Holbrook, is often cited as the first American "mini-series", but criticism of his penchant for taking historical liberties increased, particularly after Collision Course (1976), which dramatised the conflict between Henry Fonda's General Douglas MacArthur and EG Marshall's President Harry Truman with a furious face-to-face confrontation that never took place.

Still, after Roots, its sequel, The Thorn Birds, and finally multiple adaptations of John Jakes' sprawling, pulpy North and South saga, Wolper's position as America's chronicler was cemented. He mounted the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics; the opening, with its 84 pianos and flying rocketman, raised the bar for sporting spectaculars.

His last decade of productions followed his formula of contemporary and controversial history, celebrities and sport, summed up by 2000's Legends, Icons & Superstars of the 20th Century. He had a fine run of feature films, including Murder in the First, Surviving Picasso and the Oscar-winning LA Confidential. In 2001 he was executive producer of an ambitious attempt to adapt Marion Zimmer Bradley's fantasy The Mists of Avalon, and the following year saw his last production, Roots: Celebrating 25 Years.

Michael Carlson

David L Wolper, television and film producer: born New York 11 January 1928; married three times (two sons, one daughter); died Beverly Hills 10 August 2010.

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