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What I Really Want To Do Is… Produce

By Kathleen Fairweather

David Wolper, an older white man with glasses, looks back 50 years to the future.

David Wolper will be the first to tell you that he has absolutely no interest in writing or directing. “I am a producer,” he proclaims modestly. That seems like an understatement from a man who has produced no less than 700 films, garnering 150 awards including two Oscars, 50 Emmys, seven Golden Globes and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. He has also been inducted in to the Television Hall of Fame, presented with the French National Legion of Honor, and is the recipient of the first IDA Mentor Achievement Award.

What is Wolper’s definition of a producer? He sums it up succinctly: “I make it happen. I am a man with a dream, who makes those dreams come true.” Wolper sees himself much like the conductor of an orchestra. “I bring in all of the players: the writer, director, actors, editor, composer, costume designer—anyone involved with the project. I make sure they are the best in their profession, and then I orchestrate the whole.” Wolper makes it all sound so simple today, but that wasn’t always the case.

In 1949, while a student at USC, Wolper met and teamed up with Jimmy Harris, the son of a family friend. Harris’ father had some old educational short subjects that he was unable to sell, so Wolper and Harris formed their own distribution company, Flamingo Films and sold these programs and more to the television buyers—including their first motion picture, The Adventures of Martin Eden. Wolper acquired the rights to Superman, which he had made into a long-running half-hour television series, and, at the age of 23, Wolper was on his way—or so he thought.

Despite his initial success, those early years also saw Wolper knocking on television network doors that would ultimately be slammed in his face. “We don’t take documentaries from outside producers,” was the refrain that echoed in his ears. But the “father of the independent television documentary” persisted on his own—without the network’s help or blessing.

A 1956 business trip to New York, had led to a chance encounter with a Soviet cartoon distributor Wolper had worked with earlier. The distributor told him he had some Russian space footage that the network buyers were interested in purchasing. Wolper jumped on the opportunity to acquire the never-before-seen footage, which he incorporated into his first documentary film, The Race for Space. Armed with support from NASA and sponsorship from the Shulton Company, the makers of Old Spice, Wolper approached the three networks with this incredible documentary package…and, was turned down flat.

Angry but undaunted, Wolper pressed on. A $100,000 investment was at stake, but Wolper had worked hard during those early years in distribution, and had laid the groundwork to form his own coalition of television programmers. This would ultimately be referred to on the front page of The New York Times as “the fourth TV Network.”

In an ironic twist, Wolper, in his former incarnation as a television program distributor, had contacted and made friends with almost every independent television production company in the US. This resulted in an unprecedented 108 TV stations running The Race for Space. Wolper beat the networks in the ratings, received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, and finally launched his career as an independent television producer.

Wolper says of this experience, “It was very frustrating watching an incredible show and a $100,000 investment go down the drain. I just couldn’t give up. My most valuable skill as a producer was being a salesman—especially in those days. I had to sell my programs twice: once to the sponsors and then again to the networks. It’s much different today—you only have to sell the networks.”

In addition, Wolper cites the plethora of cable outlets as a boon to the documentary filmmaker. “I had to compete with the in-house production companies back then. Today, there are a lot more options and doors open to filmmakers.”

Wolper went on to produce more documentary series, including Story of.., Biography, Men in Crisis, and two groundbreaking programs on black American athletes Willie Davis and Rafer Johnson. This was followed by Hollywood the Golden Years, and Hollywood the Stars for NBC, which became the first documentary series for prime time viewing produced by an independent company.

Wolper cautions that although he makes it look so easy, every production had its own set of problems. Rights, clearances, archival clips and music were the biggest challenges. “Clearances are a nightmare, even for me and my production company. It’s becoming even more difficult today to get clearances. There is a law before the assembly that would give rights to celebrities who have passed away. If this law passes, it will be a nightmare for documentary filmmakers and archival clearances—particularly in the history of cinema. If it was up to the legislators, you would need a release from Hitler’s relatives. This will protect the right of the dead at the expense of the living.

Best-selling nonfiction books also appealed to Wolper, and he set about acquiring the rights to The Making of the President 1960, by author Theodore H. White, whom Wolper regards as the greatest documentary writer of all time. “In fact,” Wolper says with a smile, “White was so good that the other writers would dig through his wastebasket in search of some of the great words that White had thrown away.” Despite this arsenal of talent, and a Xerox sponsor, Wolper was again turned away by the “Big Three.” Fortunately, ABC executive Leonard Goldenson had the foresight to override news department head John Daly, who subsequently quit ABC.

The Making of the President 1960 went on the air and were validated for their collaborative achievements by four Emmy Awards and the Television Academy’s highest honor: Television Program of the Year. The film also won in the Best Documentary, Best Editing (William Cartright) and Best Music (Elmer Bernstein) catagories. Wolper followed this up with 30 more historical specials from 1962 to 1968, including D-Day, which, according to Time Magazine, “made Hollywood war movies look like so much stage-craft.”

Wolper found himself under attack, as the ever-sensitive Hollywood community did not take kindly to this criticism from Time. Darryl Zanuck who was preparing his own film, The Longest Day, notified the press that Wolper’s film was “a fake.” Zanuck accused Wolper of cheating the public with library stock and claimed that there was no real actual footage shot of the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Producer and director Mel Stuart, a top film researcher, discovered the actual D-Day footage that included a hand-lettered clapboard sign reading “Invasion on the beach 6/6/44.” Wolper took out an ad in the trades refuting Zanuck’s claim.

The following Wolper production years included Let My People Go, which documented Israel’s 2,000-year-old struggle to statehood. This film resulted in another controversy for Wolper as longtime sponsor Xerox was barred from doing business in Arab countries for many years. Despite these controversies, Wolper continued to produce more human-interest documentaries, including Four Days in November, The Legend of Marilyn Monroe and The Unfinished Journey of Robert F. Kennedy. Wolper also went on to form a political films division and produce films about both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.

Docudrama for television was another innovation from Wolper; his company produced such re-creations of historical events as The Crucifixion of Jesus, Surrender at Appomattox, The Last Day of John Dillinger and The Plot to Murder Hitler. Wolper also stepped up to the plate with the National Geographic Specials, which ran for nine years; American Heritage, Primal Man, Smithsonian Specials and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau—another long-running series.

This work alone would be a lifetime of glory for most men—but not Wolper, who made his first foray into the world of feature films with The Devil’s Brigade. This was followed in 1968 by The Bridge at Remagen, which became an international incident in which Wolper was actually accused by the Soviet Union of being a spy for the CIA. Wolper had rented numerous tanks and war equipment to film the story, which happened to coincide with the 1968 Czech uprising against Communist domination. The Soviets were convinced that Wolper was a threat to Communist security. Shooting of the film was interrupted when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia on August 21, 1968, which resulted in an emergency cast-and-crew evacuation, and relocation of the shoot to Hamburg, West Germany, and parts of southern Italy.

This dramatic episode in Wolper’s career was followed by more lighthearted fare, including If it’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, the concert film/documentary Wattstax, and Visions of Eight, the official film of the 1972 Olympics—which resulted in Wolper being caught again in the spotlight of world events with the terrorist attack that left 11 Israeli athletes dead.

Wolper forged ahead and collected his first Oscar for The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971). Wolper notes with a wry chuckle that, despite the Oscar, the film everybody remembers most was Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, which was based on Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Wolper teamed up again with director Mel Stuart to produce this children’s cult classic. “I still am amazed that with all of my work, Willy Wonka to this day always receives the biggest response,” Wolper admits.

The television mini-series became another first for Wolper with his 1967 program The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which played on ABC for three consecutive nights. This three-hour documentary was based on William Shirer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book by the same name. Wolper followed this with another mini-series—the six-hour dramatization of the Pulitzer Prize-winner Sandburg’s Lincoln, which was a biographical tome penned by Carl Sandburg himself. This six-hour saga received much acclaim, and won actor Hal Holbrook an Emmy for his powerful portrayal of President Abraham Lincoln.

Television movies became the next Wolper Production opus as 30 pictures played across television screens from 1973 to 1998. Comedy series also fell under Wolpers’s domain with two hits: Chico & the Man and Welcome Back Kotter. But the best was still to come.

Wolper had met the actress Ruby Dee at the Moscow Film Festival in what would become yet another serendipitous encounter. Dee and her husband, Ossie Davis, were later invited to the Wolpers’ house for dinner. Between courses, Wolper shared his fascination with family sagas that unfolded over the years through the course of many generations. Dee revealed to Wolper that a friend of hers, the little-known writer Alex Hailey, was writing his own family history that reconstructed the journey of his ancestors from Africa, through slavery in the US over the course of eight generations. Wolper was fascinated by the scope and humanity of this historical epic, and immediately procured the movie rights from Hailey—before the book was even completed.

Wolper vividly recalls pitching Roots to the ABC network heads in 1977, and bracing himself for rejection: “It’s a story of slavery where the black people are the heroes and the whites are the villains.” Not exactly the classic Middle American fare of the day. Clearly, the network was taking a risk.

Later, Wolper, ABC and the largest African-American TV production cast and crew in the TV business, watched as Roots made television history with nine Emmys, the highest ratings share of the season, and, the highest ratings in television still to this day. The Roots phenomenon continued two years later with Roots: The Next Generation, which achieved the second highest-rated week in television history—after Roots. This was followed with a Wolper produced documentary on the life of author Alex Hailey called Roots: One Year Later.

More network movies and mini-seriesfollowed, including another generational epic, the acclaimed Thorn Birds, and, a sequel called The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years. The John Jakes book North and South became a 24-hour miniseries—which was made in between Wolpers’ production of the four-hour 1984 Olympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies (which included working under a nerve-shattering bomb threat) and the Liberty Weekend extravaganza, which in 1986 celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.

Wolper also tackled the theatrical documentary, which included the Elvis Presley special This Is Elvis and the John Lennon music documentary Imagine. Then it was back to feature films with Surviving Picasso, starring Anthony Hopkins, and L.A. Confidential, which received numerous Best Picture accolades and garnered Oscars for Actress Kim Basinger, and screenwriters Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland.

In 1998, the world of cable beckoned to Wolper and resulted in his first cable television production, the 10-hour Discovery Series Legends, Icons & Superstars of the 20th Century. Wolper recalls the endless discussions and arguments over which qualified for this esteemed list as the biggest challenge he faced on that production. This was followed with a look back at the last 100 years in Celebrate The Century, a 10- hour documentary series for CNN.

What’s next on the boards for Wolper? Certainly not retirement. “I want to produce The Debate for the Bill of Rights,” he says. “What did our Founding Fathers really mean when they penned our Constitution? I would like to dramatize and re-create these discussions, and see them actually argue over the meanings.” He pauses for a beat and ponders out loud, “What was ‘freedom of the press’ back in those years? What did they mean by ‘the right to bear arms’? I’d like to document how they envisioned our Constitution, and its effects at the time they created it.”

Wolper would also like to dramatize the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book Case Closed by Gerald Posner, which Wolper believes resolves the greatest murder mystery of our time—the assassination of JFK. Case Closed uncovers where the Warren Commission erred, and demolishes the leading conspiracy theories, putting to rest the speculation about involvement of the CIA, the FBI and the Mafia, and the supposed links between Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. Wolper is intrigued by this concept and exclaims, “I’d like to bury Oliver Stone’s JFK with this. I think JFK was the biggest pile of bullshit ever made.”

Although Wolper’s career seems to carry a Midas touch, he alludes to a few tragedies, including the 1974 plane crash that killed all of the members of his Primal Man cast and crew—remembered as one of the worst accidents in the history of Hollywood. Wolper grows somber as he recalls how he himself personally phoned all of the parents, wives and loved ones to deliver the sad news. “I was first counseled on how to deliver the bad news, and was warned that the first response would be disbelief,” he recalls. “The first question from each and every person contacted was, ‘Are you sure?’ followed by the screams and tears. That night will never leave me.”

Despite this painful memory, Wolper acknowledges his many blessings and success. “I refused to give up in the face of adversity. I just couldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer. I broke many rules along the way, and found my way through the back door, if the front door was locked. I had a saying: ‘You’ve got to know your shit from shinola.’ I can spot the bullshit immediately in a documentary.”

How are times different for todays’ documentary film producers? Wolper believes that there have never been more opportunities available to documentary filmmakers as there are today. “Unfortunately, there are also more outlets for product, but less money,” he admits. “Plus, there is more competition.” What advice does Wolper have for today’s documentary filmmaker? “Know your market,” he says emphatically. “If you make something you alone are passionate about, don’t be surprised when you can’t sell it. If you want to make a film about chair stools—even if it’s the best damn film about chair stools, if no one is interested, you have just made yourself a lovely home movie.”

Despite all of his “firsts” in the world of television, Wolper has no aspiration to conquer the Internet. “That’s for the next generation,” he concludes. Wolper also dismisses the new so-called documentary trend—the in-home Web-cam placement—as not being true to the documentary form. He cites his own personal definition of the documentary as “The creative interpretation of reality.” This means that pointing a camera on a street corner all day long is simply just recording the activity—not telling a story. “Now,” he adds, “if you point the camera at pedestrians and note that only one out of four of them are smiling and discover the reasons behind this, then you have made an interpretation of that reality, and you are creating both a statement and a story.”

Wolper cites The Making of the President 1960 as his personal favorite project. “I had a first rate director, Mel Stuart, and a top notch writer, Theodore White.” He lists D-Day and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich as the biggest challenges of his career. “I started my career in documentaries and will probably end it in documentaries,” Wolper maintains. “My goal has always been to deliver entertainment and information—all at the same time.”

Was there ever a show that didn’t go? Wolper laughs at this question and recalls his setbacks. “I did a show about a family with 18 kids called The Really Big Family. I was unable to find a sponsor for this show because they bought in bulk and never bought anything that wasn’t generic. I finally ended up selling this show market by market. I had other misses, too. I just never let it affect me. It’s not like I was curing cancer: it’s just TV.” Wolper pauses for a moment and then adds that there was only one show he has still not sold to this day: The All Grandmother Orchestra. “I haven’t entirely given up on it, though. I just heard there’s going to be a senior citizens cable channel.”

Wolper seems to have saved everything from his illustrious career. In fact, he has donated his entire archive, along with $2.5 million, to create the David L. Wolper Center for the Study of the Documentary at the University of Southern California.

As Jerry Campbell, dean of university libraries, notes in a recent issue of USC’s Family Magazine, “The archive will be an unexcelled resource for scholars, historians and documentary filmmakers for years to come. It chronicles not only the major historical events of the last 50 years, but also preserves an important era of our culture.”

Kathleen Fairweather is editor of International Documentary magazine.