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David L. Wolper dies at 82; producer of 'Roots,' 1984 L.A. Olympics opening ceremonies

The miniseries was a turning point for television. Wolper also produced many well-regarded documentaries.

August 12, 2010|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times

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."

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