David L. Wolper, 1928–2010
The producer who created TV’s Roots
ABC executives knew they were taking a chance in 1977 when they agreed to broadcast David Wolper’s Roots, a 12-hour miniseries tracing a black family from its origins in Africa to a tumultuous life in America. To diminish its impact on the monthly ratings competition in case it turned off viewers, they broadcast it on eight consecutive nights. To their surprise, Roots became, for a time, the most-watched series in U.S. history. It went on to win a record nine Emmy awards.
Wolper enjoyed a career that was “sprawling and in many ways uncategorizable,” said The Washington Post. Born in New York City to a real estate broker and his wife, Wolper headed west—to the University of Southern California and “the margins of the film industry”—when he was 18. In 1951, he started a company that sold old movie serials, like Flash Gordon, to TV stations “that needed to fill airtime cheaply.”
With his first documentary, The Race for Space, about the U.S.-Soviet space race, Wolper established himself as “a master of events that could touch the country collectively,” said the Los Angeles Times. In the 1960s alone, he produced more than 50 documentary TV specials. He also produced nonfiction series and sitcoms, including The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and Welcome Back, Kotter.
Aside from Roots, he’s probably best remembered for staging the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, which featured an astronaut flying a jet-pack and 84 pianists dressed in white tuxedos playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.