Skip to main content

Wolper on Wolper: A Producer's Memoir

By Ray Zone

Producer, A Memoir
By David L. Wolper
With David Fisher
Introductions by Art Buchwald and Mike Wallace
A Lisa Drew/Scribner Book
368 pages, hardbound, $30.00
ISBN 0-7432-3687-4

It seems no accident that David L. Wolper and television were both born in 1928. Wolper matured to become one of the most prolific television producers; he began his career in 1949 by selling motion pictures to start-up TV stations across America. In 1958 Wolper produced his first award-winning television documentary, The Race for Space, and left the distribution business. He subsequently produced thousands of hours of TV programming, including the two highest-rated miniseries of all time (Roots and The Thorn Birds), numerous motion pictures and landmark spectacles such as the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Now Wolper has produced a memoir that tells the whole story. It is peopled with just about every celebrity of the late 20th century. Divided into seven sections chronologically covering his career, Wolper's memoir is highly entertaining and helps to define just what a producer of TV and film documentaries does.

"It was David who first led me to understand the meaning of the word ‘producer,'" says Mike Wallace in his introduction to the book. "He didn't write, he did little of the film direction, he didn't supervise the research or butt excessively into the work of the men and women he hired to do those things. He had a vision, he organized, he was there from conception to delivery, every time." After initially turning Wolper down, Wallace succumbed to the producer's blandishments and worked on The Race for Space and subsequent hour-long documentaries for Wolper's Biography series.

Wolper himself defines what he does in the first chapter of his book. "I'm a producer," he says. "I do whatever is necessary to turn an idea into a finished product. That means at different times I've been a salesman, director, film editor, casting director, creative consultant—I've even driven the bus. The only role I haven't played is actor."

One of the primary roles that drives Wolper is that of salesman, a gift perhaps he received from his father, Irving Wolper. "Perhaps the best way to describe my father is to acknowledge that Donald Trump referred to him in his book as 'one of the greatest bullshit artists I'd ever met,'" Wolper said, adding, "I suspect both Donald and I learned from my father the value of bravado."

From an early age Wolper decided to go into show business. "I couldn't sing, dance or act," he writes. "But I could dream. And I could talk.  And I could sell; I could always sell. It was obvious I was going to be a director, an agent or a producer."

There is a simple and direct candor in Wolper's memoir that drives his narrative along. In the late 1940s, for example, Wolper was hired by a sports talent agency to escort its clients around to various personal appearances. "Among them was Florence Chadwick, the first person to swim the English Channel both ways, an incredible feat," relates Wolper. "When she appeared on the Jackie Gleason Show, I traveled with her to Florida. While there, we had a brief affair. Everything I'd dreamed about show business was coming true."

Wolper's contribution to television documentary is significant. He has produced 58 documentary TV specials and 347 episodes for 20 different documentary series on TV, as well as 26 political and corporate documentaries. His 1963 documentary TV special based on Theodore White's nonfiction bestseller The Making of the President, 1960 marked a real watershed in his career.

When Wolper approached White's agent, Swifty Lazar, for television rights to his book, he was told it would cost $250,000. "I can't pay that, Mr. Lazar," responded Wolper. "This is a documentary. I only have $25,000 for the rights."

"Mr. Wolper, you have a deal," Lazar responded.

Wolper subsequently hired White to write the script for the documentary and began collecting what amounted to 500 hours of film from every conceivable source, including network news departments. He looked at more than a million feet of film, knowing that he would use only 2,500 feet.

Wolper had $475,000 invested in the 90-minute documentary when he attempted to sell it to CBS and NBC, who declined to buy it. After initial rejection from John Daly, president of ABC News, the documentary was shown to Leonard Goldenson, president of ABC, who overruled Daly. The documentary was scheduled to run in February 1964. Elmer Bernstein was recording the score when Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.  The airdate was moved up to December 29, 1963, and The Making of the President received rave reviews.

Several months later, Wolper received an Emmy for his efforts. "It was a great moment for me," he writes. "For the first time in history an independent documentary producer had beaten the networks. What sweet revenge."  

Wolper's candid style makes his memoir a fast-paced and entertaining read. The book also has a nice photo section, a complete list of his productions and an index.