By Lynn Elber
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – David L. Wolper, whose 1977 miniseries ‘Roots‘ — a generational saga of an American family — became a landmark in television history, has died. He was 82.
Wolper’s spokesman, Dale Olson, said Wolper died peacefully in his Beverly Hills home Tuesday evening while watching television with his wife Gloria. Olson said Wolper died of congestive heart disease and complications of Parkinson’s disease.
During a long career, Wolper also produced the children’s classic ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.’ But his TV work remained his best-known accomplishment, particularly ‘Roots,’ based on the best seller by Alex Haley. The ABC series was seen in whole or part by 130 million people — more than half the country — when it ran for eight nights in 1977.
“I make it happen,” Wolper said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. “Who bought Alex Haley’s book ‘Roots’ for TV? Me. I hired the director, hired the writer. I put them all together. I’m like the chef. If I mix all the ingredients right, it’s going to taste terrific. If I don’t, it’s not going to come out good.”
The miniseries chronicling of Kunta Kinte, enslaved as a teenager in 18th-century West Africa to be sold in America, and his descendants represented a different kind of family story, one told from the black perspective. It was based on Haley’s novel, a Pulitzer Prize-winner that mixed accounts of his own ancestors with fiction.
Among the large cast were John Amos, Ben Vereen, Leslie Uggams, Cicely Tyson, Olivia Cole, Madge Sinclair and Richard Roundtree. Newcomer LeVar Burton, who played Kinte as a youth, became an instant star. The series won a slew of honors including nine Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award.
In 2002, he produced a 25th-anniversary special on the impact of ‘Roots,’ which aired on NBC after ABC turned down the idea.
“I think it was an important milestone in the history of television,” NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker said at the time. “It introduced the miniseries. It showed what you could do if you had the courage of your convictions to put something on like that.”
Before becoming a titan in the miniseries genre, Wolper had a series of highly successful TV documentaries, including the Emmy-winning ‘The Making of the President 1960.’
At the 1964 Emmy Awards, ‘The Making of the President 1960’ received four trophies including program of the year, which was then the top award. “What a moment for me,” Wolper said.
He also produced the National Geographic special ‘The World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau,’ which opened up the ocean depths for television viewers. He recalled Cousteau as “exactly as he appeared to be on the screen, a brave man who believed, passionately, in what he was doing and loved the oceans of the Earth.”
Always game for something new, Wolper branched out into docudramas such as ‘The Trial of Lt. Calley,’ sitcom hits ‘Welcome Back, Kotter‘ and ‘Chico and the Man,’ and films including the Academy Award-winning ‘L.A. Confidential.’
He produced the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, featuring a spaceship floating mysteriously above the Coliseum (it was hitched to a blacked-out Army helicopter), and New York’s 1986 extravaganza celebrating the centennial of the Statue of Liberty.
Wolper called his 2003 memoir simply, ‘Producer.’
In it, he reminisced about the 1971 ‘Willy Wonka.’ He said it was his only work specifically for children, though he “always hoped kids would learn from and enjoy my documentaries.”
For the title role, he said Gene Wilder was perfect casting for a character with “a magical quality about him, the joy of a child in a man’s body. … The role fit him tighter than one of Cousteau’s wet suits.”
Wolper’s producer roots go back to the 1950s, when he turned footage of the Soviet space program — which he bought out from under the TV networks’ noses — into ‘The Race for Space.’ The film was a hit in syndication and an Oscar nominee.
Before that, he first entered the entertainment industry by selling old movies to TV stations.
He said he welcomed the relative anonymity that came from staying behind the scenes.
“I make the money and I don’t have to take the abuse some of the stars do, opening up their personal life. I can go into a restaurant, sit down and have a nice meal without being harassed.
“Arnold Schwarzenegger can’t do that,” he said.
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