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Farewell to The Mini-Series Master

August 12, 2010

David L. Wolper is a name that may not be that well known to viewers of  the current crop of Television programming, but back in the day, when teevee had only three major networks, he not only kept ABC relevant through the mid 1970s and into the 1980s, he helped to make history.

Wolper had been executive producing documentaries for the small screen as far back as the 1950s, and was one of the driving forces on the document anthology “Biography,” which was hosted to staccato like perfection by newsman Mike Wallace. Clearly Wolper was a fan of history and this would become important later in his career.

In the meanwhile, he made some history of his own, by giving television its first black female detective, in the wake of the fierce Pam Grier, doing her thing in the movie houses and Angie Dickinson on rival NBC, Wolper and star Teresa Graves gave ABC and the world “Get Christie Love!” which began as a tv movie pilot, but became an full fledged cop show that only lasted 23 episodes total. Still, the program and its lack of success back in 1975 seemed to suggest that the phrase“mini-series” would become  Wolper’s watchword.

Roots: The Saga of an American Family became a number one bestseller for author Alex Haley the following year, and the decision was made to bring his book to the screen. Wolper made certain that the audience would have a very real sense of what the text of Haley’s book conveyed regarding the nature of how Negroes were treated in the United States throughout time, and was not going to sugar coat the story for viewers.  The resulting project was a brutally powerful document that featured nearly every African American actor that was working during that era, from O.J. Simpson to Cicely Tyson, from Leslie Uggams to James Earl Jones!

According to the legend, ABC was fearful that people would not come back to see the episodes week after week, so they aired the series in January 1977 (considered an “unimportant” time frame for Nielsen ratings) over eight consecutive days, just in case people weren’t interested, they could get back to their regular programming in a hurry. Little did the Alphabet know, they had the biggest event in television history, and it was actually made more gigantic by that programming decision as everyone was focused on that massive story throughout that single week.

With an all-star cast telling the tale of slavery in America, by way of the narrative of Haley’s book, and just beyond the country’s 200th birthday, “Roots” was a step towards healing a nation that really only just got past Jim Crow a mere thirteen years before! It was the very definition of epic. Once ABC saw that two of every three television sets in the United States were tuned to see this “Novel for Television,” one thing was very clear: there would be more.

And, in fact, Wolper was connected with the most iconic and most identifiable of these miniseries throughout that era. The follow-up to it, “Roots: The Next Generations” also garnered incredible ratings as the story continued, in 1979.

Wolper then turned his attention to Colleen McCullough’s bestseller, The Thorn Birds and exec produced the tale of the Australian Parish Priest attempting to come to terms with his personal ambitions in the Catholic Church and his equally powerful Love and Lust of one particular woman. We have one of Barbara Stanwyck’s most memorable scenery chewing performances thanks to this production.

And Wolper went back to the motif of US History for the three miniseries billed “North and South.” Patrick Swayze, PRE-“Dirty Dancing,” played an South Carolina Army officer fresh from West Point and on the brink of the Civil War and negotiating the fallout for Dixie as the events of that conflict took place. Yet another celebrity packed sweeping tale of love, hate, heartbreak and characters on the verge of life and death; yet another ratings champion.

Notable about those two miniseries is that in “The Thorn Birds,” stars Bryan Brown (the only actual Australian who had a speaking part in the program) and Rachel Ward met and got married, and in “North and South,” Jonathan Frakes and Genie Francis also met and wed, and both of those couples are still together, proof that Wolper knew a thing or two about casting as well as producing!

When it came to motion pictures, Wolper also had a hand, where he was producer for another book turned screenplay: “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” The Gene Wilder vehicle has become a perennial children’s favorite and even Tim Burton’s attempt to reimagine the tale couldn’t overshadow Wolper’s classic Candy Man.

In later years, Wolper’s interest in biography continued, as he went on to produce programs about Rock Legends Elvis Presley and John Lennon and artist Pablo Picasso, and then served as Exec Producer again for TNT’s wonderful retelling of the Camelot legend: “The Mists of Avalon.” But more recently he had been forced to retire from producing, another victim of Parkinson’s Disease.

Wolper’s true contributions extended far beyond that of a media man. The bold choices that he made, which seem like no-brainers to our 21st Century eyes, were eyebrow raisers back then and someone with a lack of courage or more accurately, a lack of vision might not have dared make those decisions. But David L. Wolper always had a sense of history on his side, and that is why he will always be remembered for the historic tales he helped to bring to us all.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. La Mommie permalink
    August 12, 2010 7:29 am

    Thank you NYCPenpusher. I have enjoyed much of Wolper’s work but did not know his name.
    LaMommie

  2. August 12, 2010 11:28 am

    Roots was truly “event” TV, I remember watching it every night. Fabulous cast, great storytelling and the start of a brilliant career for LeVar Burton. And two thirds of all TV sets! It’s sad in a way to think that nothing like that will ever happen again.

  3. August 12, 2010 1:47 pm

    Thornbirds and Roots are iconic pieces of television. I remember watching North & South in my social studies class in 8th grade.

  4. August 13, 2010 4:32 pm

    This was excellent, Dean. I really had no idea about this man, how much of an imprint he has had on TV and even an impressionable young poplife!

  5. evmaroon permalink
    August 14, 2010 10:49 am

    This was a really wonderful, loving tribute, penpusher. I loved it so much I read it a few times. I remember watching Roots as a kid, and the discussions that people were having about it, including the women in my school cafeteria in New Jersey. It was almost incalculable at the time, the effect it had on starting long-overdue conversations among people. Thanks for noting his loss in such a generous way.

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