'Roots' producer David Wolper dies at 82

Also worked on 'Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory'

David L. Wolper, the groundbreaking producer who made television history with the miniseries "Roots" and worked on the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, died Tuesday at his home Beverly Hills of congestive heart disease and complications of Parkinson's disease. He was 82.

Wolper won outstanding miniseries Emmys for 1977's "Roots" and its 1979 "Roots: The Next Generations," which were based on Alex Haley's novel about his African-American ancestors and pioneered the docudrama genre. Broadcast in one- and two-hour segments over an eight-day period in early 1977, the first series won enormous ratings, despite initial reservations that its focus on the history of African-Americans would not have wide appeal. It averaged a 44.9 Nielsen rating and garnered a 66% share of the national audience, becoming one of the most-watched programs in TV history.

He also executive produced the high-rated mid-'80s miniseries "The Thorn Birds" and "North and South."

Although he primarily turned out documentaries for TV and films, Wolper also produced several theatrical movies, including 1971's psychedelic "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" and 1997's moody neo-noir "L.A. Confidential," a best picture Oscar nominee.

A showman in the broadest sense, Wolper's TV programs won more than 50 Emmys, five Peabody Awards, eight Golden Globes and one Oscar.

A year after his orchestration of the Olympics ceremonies, he was given a Special Emmy by the Academy of TV Arts & Sciences and received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. In 1988, he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.

On the feature side, Wolper's documentaries earned nine Academy Awards nominations, and "The Hellstrom Chronicle" (1971) won the best documentary Oscar. His "Visions of Eight" (1973), for which he won a Golden Globe, presented the 1972 Munich Olympics through the cameras of eight major directors.

TV Guide selected him as one of the top 45 TV pioneers, calling him a "true original whose vision and innovation shaped the medium." "The Race for Space" (1959) was the first television program get an Academy Award nomination. The documentary, narrated by Mike Wallace, made space exploration a national focus. But when Wolper completed the project, the networks didn't want to buy a public affairs program produced by an independent producer. Frustrated, Wolper sold "Race for Space" market-by-market to 104 stations across the country, which broadcast the show, making Wolper the first independent producer to bump network programming off the air with non-network fare.

His varied television documentaries included the 10-hour "Celebrate the Century" for CNN/Turner and Warner Bros., "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," "Four Days in November," the series "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" and several docs under the banners "The Explorers" and "Heroes of the Game."

"The passing of David L. Wolper is a tremendous loss for Warner Bros. and the entire entertainment industry," Warners chief Barry Meyer said. "David was a good man, a great humanitarian and family man and simply one of the most prolific and important producers ever of film, television and live events. We were not only longtime business associates but close friends. David's sense of honor and goodwill will never be forgotten by those fortunate enough to have known him."

Wolper pioneered nature films on primetime TV with the "National Geographic Specials" and produced such specials as "The Betty Ford Story," "Sandburg's Lincoln" and "The Unfinished Journey of Robert F. Kennedy."

In 1988, the International Documentary Assn. bestowed a Career Achievement Award on the producer.

David Lloyd Wolper was born Jan. 11, 1928 in New York. He attended Drake University in Iowa but left after one year to attend USC, at the time the only college to offer film classes.

There he worked on the Daily Trojan newspaper with fellow campus prankster Art Buchwald and played baseball for legendary coach Rod Dedeaux. Along with Buchwald, Wolper was instrumental in developing a campus humor magazine, Wampus, which sponsored other activities. To promote one of their comic productions, Wolper had a student, dressed as a gorilla, crash the 1948 Academy Awards, which were then held at the nearby Shrine Auditorium, parading down the red carpet with a gorilla with a "U.S.C. Varsity Show" banner.

Following graduation, Wolper joined up with a high school friend, Jimmy Harris, to set up a distribution company, Flamingo Films, peddling old films as well as the TV series "Superman" to content-hungry television stations. However, he was not content in just the selling end and formed his own company, Wolper Prods. His maiden project, "Race for Space," was the groundbreaker that propelled him toward a career in independent production.

The David L. Wolper Center, located in the Doheny Library at USC, contains his 50-year collection of papers, photographs, contracts, scripts, budgets, tapes and other memorabilia available for students, researchers, publications and the public.

He is survived by his wife Gloria, who he married in 1974; three children from his previous marriage to Margaret Davis Richard -- Mark, who is president of the Wolper Organization, Michael and Leslie -- and 10 grandchildren.

A private service will be held at Forest Lawn in Hollywood Hills, with a public memorial to be arranged. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to PATH and Angels Flight West.