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DAVID WOLPER: Documenting a Talented Past

October 21, 1990|Susan King

Every Monday for the next two years, the Arts & Entertainment Network will air "David L. Wolper Presents," a series of documentaries produced by the Oscar-and Emmy-winning David L. Wolper.

The series will feature historical, scientific, environmental and entertainment documentaries that Wolper made in the 1950's, '60's and '70's for all three major networks, with new introductory remarks by Wolper.

"Project: Man in Space," produced in 1959 and hosted by Mike Wallace, airs Monday. Some of the documentaries featured during the remainder of 1990 are "The Making of the President: 1964" (Nov. 5); "Ten Seconds That Shook the World" (Nov. 19); "December 7th: The Day of Infamy" (Dec. 3).

Wolper, who has produced such award-winning miniseries as "Roots," "The Thorn Birds" and "North and South" and served as commissioner and producer of the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, discussed his documentary career with SusanKing.

Does "David L. Wolper Presents" mark the first time your documentaries have been seen since they initially aired?

A lot of them haven't been run for 15 years or so. There were a whole series of circumstances affecting who owned them and how they went from company to company, but I finally got them all back and under my control. There are 75 of them. I am very happy they are in one place and under one roof. A lot of people have tried to buy them separately in piecemeal, but I wanted to do it all in one place. When I told A & E I had them available they just came right to me and made arrangements for it. It worked out pretty fast.

Commercial television seems to have stopped airing documentaries.

They used to (air documentaries), but I got out of the business because they don't run as many anymore.

Why is that?

A lot of my documentaries did get a lot of ratings. When NBC and CBS were always No. 1 and 2 and ABC was always third, (the networks) were willing to take more chances. The minute ABC became first, no one wanted to be third. they were not even going to take a chance on a documentary, not even their own. They are afraid of losing one night because the competition is so hot now, so that's why they abandoned them totally. There used to be good stuff like "CBS Reports" and "See It Now'."

When you produced your first documentary "The Race for Space" more than 30 years ago, were there a lot of documentaries on TV?

There were documentaries, but they were all done by the networks themselves. I was the first independent to walk in with a documentary. I had it sold, as a matter of fact, to a sponsor. It just happens that with "The Race for Space" (the networks) didn't put it on the air. The networks said they wouldn't put it on because they didn't air public-affairs programming produced by independent producers.

How did you get it aired?

Fortunately, before 1958 I had been in the business of selling films for TV I knew the owners of all these TV stations around the country. I called them up and they all put it on in the same week, station by station.

I set up a fourth network basically for "The Race for Space." That was a big success and it was nominated for an Academy Award. Some advertising agencies in New York saw it and wanted me to make films for them. I was just producing away.

We did our documentaries in a very dramatic way. With "Ten Seconds That Shook the World" (about the origins of the atomic bomb) we did the whole story behind the bomb and the dropping of it and how even mistakes were made. The bomb was the biggest secret in the history of the world. Nobody knew about until it was done. To think that there were thousands and thousands of people working on a project and nobody knew what it was. Even Vice President Truman didn't know.

My philosophy as a filmmaker is to inform and entertain at the same time. And when I went away from documentaries into miniseries like "Roots," I did the reverse. Instead of just entertaining, I want to inform at the same time.

Did you ever find footage that no one knew existed?

All the time. We found pictures of Roosevelt and Churchill in the desert eating sandwiches in a car. We were real excited because no one knew there were cameras there when they were meeting. We always found jewels here and there.

Did you get cooperation from the presidential candidates when you made "Making of the President: 1960" and "Making of the President: 1964"?

In 1964 we did, because of Teddy White (author Theodore White). We didn't in 1960 because White didn't write the book until after the election, so we didn't know we were going to make the film. But in 1964 Teddy White arranged for us to go film the candidates in different places. We were able to do our own filming. In 1960, we just used film that was already in existence.

I also made the film about Kennedy they showed at the 1964 Democratic Convention called "A Thousand Days'." It was a very moving film and everyone (at the convention) was crying.

Do you miss making documentaries?

I am away from it. I am into dramatic areas now. Although I did two documentaries for the theaters with one of my old associates. We did "Imagine John Lennon" and "This Is Elvis" about three years earlier. It's harder to find the money to do them now.

"David L. Wolper Presents" airs Mondays at 5 and 9 p.m. on the Arts & Entertainment Network.

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