David's Devotees: Remembrances from Alumni of Wolper U.
By Tom White
David Wolper, whose Wolper Organization was a pioneering force in documentary production during the first three decades of American television, passed away August 10 at his home in Beverly Hills.
With almost all of the news and documentary work being produced in New York in the 1950s, Wolper set up shop in Los Angeles and lured filmmakers like Mel Stuart and Jack Haley Jr. to work with him. Over the next decades, the Wolper team produced such works as The Race for Space, D-Day, The Making of the President series, the Jacques Cousteau television specials and hundreds more. He and his team would go on to earn nine Academy Award nominations and one Oscar (for The Hellstrom Chronicle), two Peabodys and 100 other awards.
Wolper was a true pioneer in helping to define the television documentary, beginning in the late 1950s, when TV was still a toddler, and everything was wide open for test-driving new ideas. While news and documentaries really started on the East Coast with Fred Friendly, Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, Wolper helped define the West Coast school, and was able to get docs on every network. In its heyday, The Wolper Organizaiton/Wolper Productions produced about 500 documentaries for TV between 1958 and 1977. And they were seen by millions of people.
Wolper also gave back, having nurtured the careers of hundreds of filmmakers, and, closer to home, was one of the founding members and early supporters of IDA.
What follows are thoughts and reflections from some of the many filmmakers whose lives and careers Wolper touched and impacted.
Looking back on David Wolper's documentary career, I think his two major achievements were that he helped popularized the documentary for the television audience and brought the documentary to Hollywood, opening opportunities for a host of filmmakers. As to how he enabled this to happen, allow me to relate a moment in my own career.
Fifty years ago, I was an independent film researcher, working out of a tiny office in New York, when David appeared one afternoon. He was looking for footage for a documentary he was making called The Race for Space. I signed up for the job, and after it was finished I received an offer to come to California with my family to work for The Wolper Organization at the princely sum of $200 a week. I accepted and worked as film researcher on another documentary he had sold called Hollywood: The Golden Years.
When that was completed, I wondered what was going to happen next. Then Dave told me that he had sold an idea to Schlitz Beer for a documentary about Willie Davis of the Los Angeles Dodgers called Biography of a Rookie. He asked me who should direct it. I said, "I will." Then he asked me who should produce it, and I replied, "I will." He agreed to the idea, but told me that since I had never directed or produced a film, we needed a cameraman that would put Schlitz at ease. We came up with James Wong Howe, a major cinematographer who had earned Academy Awards for his work on The Rose Tattoo and Hud. Somehow, David found Howe's phone number, and this is how the conversation went:
"Hello, Mr. Howe, this is David Wolper."
"Wolper...Wolper...I don't know any Wolper."
"Mr. Howe, I'm a producer of documentaries."
"Documentaries! Documentaries are shit. I do features, features for major studios. I get top salary."
"How much do you make, Mr. Howe?"
"I make $2,000 a week."
(Pause) "I'll pay you $3,000."
(Pause) "I'll do the documentary."
So my career as a director began with the leading Hollywood cinematographer as my cameraman. How David came up with the idea of the documentary, how he thought of pitching it to Schlitz, how he made the deal, and why he trusted me to direct it is all part of his legend.
There were three reasons for the success of The Wolper Organization. In the early 1960s, there was no major programming venue for documentaries except for the three predominant networks. This was before cable, PBS, videocassettes, DVDs and the Internet. As a general rule, independent documentary producers could not concern themselves with "news" issues. This was the province of the network news departments and commentators like Ed Murrow and David Brinkley. However, David realized that if you presented the networks with historical subject matter, biographies of famous people, nature specials or retrospectives on Hollywood and the movies, there was a fair chance you could find a time slot--if you could pick up a sponsor. In addition, if the networks would not pick up a program, Dave would create a network himself out of a group of independent stations across the nation. In a sense, The Wolper Organization was the Discovery and History Channels of the '60s and early '70s.
Secondly, Dave strove to create programming of the highest quality and, as a consequence, the highest sales potential. He realized, for instance, that it is one thing to try and sell a program about the US Presidential campaign of 1960, but it's much easier to find a sponsor for one based on The Making of the President by Theodore White. This mindset followed in other directions. One could present the networks with a nature series, but Dave realized it would be far easier to walk in with National Geographic. The world beneath the sea is an interesting place to visit, but it's easier to sell with Jacques Cousteau. Dave also understood that a series concept could find a home either on the networks or in syndication. Thus, the original Biography and Hollywood and the Stars series were created.
Third, Dave understood that if he created a unit of dedicated and imaginative documentary filmmakers and gave them the freedom to work in an unfettered environment, he could achieve a high standard of programming. Wolper Productions (a division of The Wolper Organization) became a mecca for an extremely talented group of directors, writers, producers and editors who preferred working in this unstructured environment. There was no sense of rivalry or one-upsmanship, since everyone had his own program to produce while Dave ran interference with the networks and sponsors--and he had a special talent for allaying their concerns.
In a sense, Dave was a music-maker, a dreamer of dreams. In the process, he helped create a body of work that is an essential part of the chronicles of our time.
David Wolper always had the most amazing ability to recognize a good idea. Proof of that talent abounds, namely in his ability to convince networks to air his impressive list of pioneering series, including the National Geographic series and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.
So it wasn't surprising to me that when I called the first meeting of IDA in February 1982 by putting a small ad in the trades announcing the formation of a new group to represent documentary filmmakers, David showed up, along with 75 others. Many people had told me that IDA wouldn't work because getting notoriously independent documentarians together would be an impossibility. But David always thrived on making improbable things happen, and he could always recognize an idea--even a seemingly improbable one--whose time had come.
Founder, IDA; Director of Research, Wolper Productions
I've never worked for a better boss than David. Actually, "boss" was what he wasn't. Rather, he worked hard to generate and sell innovative and exciting projects--and then gave us, his people, a remarkably free hand to be creative, to do our best.
I remember David returning from New York and calling a meeting. "Animals," he said. "I sold a show on dogs. Then we could do cats. And if those work, there's, well, monkeys and maybe sharks. Sharks are scary; sharks would be good." Reaction was muted. At the time, we were making historical documentaries--the Biography series--and experimenting with everyday life--The Story of... series. In any case, animals were next on the docket, and so began television's long-running fascination with the natural world.
David was forever breaking new ground, and challenging-inspiring--his people to follow through. Time magazine called him "Mr. Documentary," and that he was. And to think, that was just part of what he accomplished in his long and colorful career.
I first met David Wolper in 1968 when Philippe [Cousteau, son of Jacques] and I first went to Los Angeles to prepare our Baja expedition to film the gray whales. My first impression of David was of a man who possessed an absolute clarity of how to produce the very best documentary series. I would sit in on some of the meetings between David, Jacques, Philippe and Bud Rifkin, and their ideas for this series were so unique, so exciting, so revolutionary that we couldn't wait to get started.
I was very grateful to David for a totally personal reason: His assistant, Julian Ludwig, during the negotiations between Wolper, Cousteau and various television networks, had introduced me to Philippe, and we were married less than a year later. I became a part of Philippe's team and accompanied him on 22 expeditions during the next 12 years until his death in 1979.
The Cousteau legacy continues on--a legacy that was created 45 years ago by two men who believed in an idea and in each other, and created a series that has never been duplicated or forgotten in the minds of those who lived, through television, the adventures of Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau and the men of Calypso. It was David Wolper who put him there.
The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau
In the early days of IDA, the Board was constantly looking for new ways to promote our new organization, giving documentary films and filmmakers greater visibility and trying to make a difference on a very meager and often non-existent budget. Our first IDA Awards, in 1985, were a resounding success. As an adjunct professor teaching documentary film at USC and Art Center College of Design, I thought it would be great if we could present a special award to honor student-made documentaries--but it would have meant more money. Mel Stuart and I took this idea to David Wolper, who, after listening to us, immediately wrote a check for $1,000, and the IDA/David L. Wolper Student Documentary Achievement Awards were born. In the 23 years since then, entries have come in from around the world, and David often came to the IDA Awards to present the student award himself. His generosity and interest in future generations of documentary makers live on in the IDA/David L. Wolper Student Documentary Achievement Awards.
Working at Wolper Productions was like getting paid to go to film school, except David never paid very much. Nevertheless, I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
At the University of Wolper, you learned very fast that a good idea could make a good show--but it had to be an idea that David could sell. Fortunately he was a salesman as well as a leader, but then you had to take that idea and make the show as good as his sales pitch.
I don't think I've ever learned so much, been influenced by so many talented people, or had so much fun as the btime I spent with David Wolper. Under him, people like Walon Green, Mel Stuart, Jack Haley Jr., David Seltzer and Nick Noxon reshaped the art of nonfiction storytelling. You understood how to make documentaries that won a mass audience because they were entertaining as well as informative.
Several years after David sold his company to Warner Bros., my former partner Andrew Solt and I went to see our ex-boss with one of those ideas that can change your life. David liked the idea--which became the feature documentary This Is Elvis.
What I learned from David Wolper enabled me to start my own company and make my own shows. Nothing survives like ideas.
It was always "Wolper." Not "Mr. Wolper." Not "David."
As I advanced from assistant/researcher to producer/writer at Wolper Productions, I tried to refer to him as "David," but it just didn't seem right. He was unique. He was Wolper.
Wolper had style. Wolper had class. He knew how to sell, and he knew how to get big budgets for documentaries that also had style and class--and were commercially successful.
It may be apocryphal, but this is the story I heard about his pitch to Quaker Oats for a CBS documentary on endangered species: "You are looking at the last baby panda, whooping crane chick, red wolf pup in existence. And someone smashes his fist down on it."
The budget he got for Say Goodbye would be the envy of many filmmakers today.
I was the associate producer of that documentary. Producer/writer David Vowell was the brilliant filmmaker, but I saw how Wolper insured that the final product would be as dramatic as his first sales pitch. You couldn't watch two baby polar bears alone on the ice and not have a tear in your eye. Sure, Say Goodbye was controversial, but it helped promote legislation in Alaska to help threatened wildlife...and it was nominated for an Academy Award.
Working at Wolper Productions during the late '60s and early '70s meant being a part of a special group, a select fraternity. It was better than any film school.
Because you worked for Wolper.
In the early '60s, I produced and directed five films for David Wolper and was always impressed with him as a man of few, but very effective, words.
When we were falling behind schedule on the weekly series Story of..., and struggling to find ways to catch up, David called everyone into his office and explained how to do it: "The way to catch up," he told us, "is to catch up." There was no further discussion--problem solved.
David later offered me the episode on Westerns in Hollywood and the Stars. He gave me just two notes: the show had to be titled "They Went That-a-way," and it had to "end with the cavalry coming to the rescue." They were terrific notes and right on the money. They Went That-a-way went on to win the 1963 Western Heritage Award for Best Nonfiction Television Special.
One of the high points, and most hilarious, of my time at Wolper came while I was making The Legend of Marilyn Monroe. Toward the end of the editing process, as often seemed to happen at Wolper Productions, a creative dilemma arose. We had a seemingly insolvable script problem--a real crisis. Mel Stuart, Jack Haley Jr. and I sat quietly in David's office with furrowed brows, straining to come up with an answer. Finally, David's face lit up. "I have it," he said. "Why not tell the truth?"
My relationship with David Wolper began when I was a teenager driving down the Sunset Strip around 1965. I remember an eye-catching sign with a W logo and a swirl: Wolper Productions.
I realized that was where they made those documentary specials I loved so much--Biography, National Geographic, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and many more.
After I graduated from UCLA's journalism school, I really wanted to work at Wolper. That was my dream, and fortunately it came true.
I attended what we liked to call Wolper U; I was a member of the class of the '70s. What an exciting place it was! David was the Hollywood mogul in the corner office who made the magic. He was brilliant, tenacious and very hard-working. He was also a lot of fun to be with--a man who passionately loved life. I learned much from David; he taught me what it was to be a producer, and he influenced my career and my life.
It is remarkable that one human being could achieve so much--and produce such an incredible body of work--in a lifetime. In so doing, David rubbed elbows with the most important figures of the 20th century--presidents, poets, authors and athletes-and he especially loved that.
But what David treasured most was his family: his beloved wife, Gloria; his three wonderful children, Mark, Michael and Leslie; and his ten grandchildren. They were his greatest joy.
We have lost a giant, a good friend and an amazing man who brought light into our lives and made us better for knowing him.
I remember David Wolper as someone who gave me a chance to shoot films that were significant and of high quality at a time when this meant a great deal to me.
In the late'50s, I was a refugee from communist Hungary. I'd found my way to Los Angeles seeking a job in the movie industry. Though I had a degree from the Budapest film school, the only work I could find without connections or local experience was working in a photo lab and doing freelance baby photography. I also did some work on graduate films for UCLA students, and one of them hired me to shoot a film for Wolper Productions titled Larry, about the life of a blind student. I got paid $2.50 an hour (to compensate for my lost wages at the photo lab).
Larry became a segment of the television series The Story of....Each segment examined an individual's life--his work, family, etc.--and everything was shot on black-and-white 16mm film.
After seeing Larry, Wolper hired me as an assistant to Wilis Lapenieks, an immigrant cinematographer from Latvia. I also worked on second or third camera for The Story of a Basketball Coach.
This was a lucky start for me. I was thrilled to finally work on interesting and creative projects, even if it was for television. I will always remember David Wolper as an innovator who wasn't afraid to try new ideas and include new talent.
Wolper's documentaries advanced the quality of television in the '60s. He was a pioneer and he helped advance the careers of an entire generation of documentary photographers in Hollywood.