Celebrating his 50th year of myth-making, David L. Wolper is the man behind an extraordinary number of “firsts” in the entertainment industry.
e’s already doge of the documentary, absolute monarch of the miniseries and high priest of the public spectacle. So who better, in the twilight of the millennium, to distill the essence of an era?
Certainly when CNN, Turner Broadcasting and Warner Bros. wanted a 10-hour documentary about the defining events of the 20th century, only one name came to mind: producer David L. Wolper, a man whose own career mirrors the evolution of American culture for half that century.

Wolper clowns around with Wampus editor Art Buchwald, circa 1948. The two Trojans – one now a Pulitzer Prize winner, the other a two-time Oscar winner – have remained lifelong friends.

Last year, TV Guide singled Wolper out as one of 45 television pioneers, calling him “a true original whose vision and innovation shaped the medium.” The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences agrees: in 1988, that distinguished body inducted Wolper into its Hall of Fame, alongside TV greats Red Skelton, David Brinkley and George Burns.
With “Celebrate the Century” (which aired on CNN over five weekends in May and June), Wolper was in his element. This, after all, was the man responsible for The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Four Days in November, Roots, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” the spellbinding Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics and the 1986 Liberty Weekend celebration, along with sit-coms like “Welcome Back, Kotter”and feature films like L.A. Confidential.
Last spring, celebrating his 50th anniversary in entertainment, the 71-year-old Wolper handed over his entire personal and professional archive – a vast collection of scripts, awards and business records – to his alma mater. The new David L. Wolper Center for the Study of the Documentary, based in USC’s Doheny Memorial Library, is an invaluable resource for School of Cinema-Television scholars. But documents aside, the life of this consummate deal-maker is a lesson in itself.
Sitting behind his wide desk, Wolper leans back and reflects on a phenomenal career.
“I saw the first television set,” he recalls. “My parents took me to the 1939 World’s Fair on Long Island, and [there] it was at the RCA exhibit.”
The 11-year-old Wolper was mesmerized by the tiny reflection of a live demonstrator flickering on the black-and-white screen. “The box was as big as this desk, but the screen was only this big,” he says, making a square between his thumbs and index fingers. Wolper recalls peering at the screen through a stationary magnifying glass, sensing he’d found his destiny.
Show business filled his New York childhood. Decorating his bedroom was a three-foot cut-out of Frank Sinatra’s head (salvaged from a discarded sign over New York’s Paramount Theater). As a teenager in the early ’40s, Wolper honed his entrepreneurial skills rounding up the Big Apple’s best big-bands and marketing their acts to theaters. He booked Ted Lewis’s orchestra for his own senior prom. Other odd jobs included teaching rumba at an Arthur Murray dance studio, ushering at Broadway’s glitzy Astor Theater, waiting tables at the elegant Birchwoods Hotel in the Catskills, and seating guests at New York’s Stage Door Canteen.
Though the entertainment business clearly beckoned, at his parents’ urging he dutifully applied to colleges in the midwest. But after a year at Drake University in Iowa, the young man found he couldn’t wait to go West. He transferred to USC – at the time the country’s only film school.
Wolper recalls classes in 1947 and ’48 held in a “ricky-ticky old cinema building that looked like an outhouse.” He recalls playing Trojan baseball under coach Rod Dedeaux, working as a photographer for the Daily Trojan and joining forces with fellow iconoclast Art Buchwald on USC’s popular humor magazine, Wampus.
Longtime friends, Wolper and the Pulitzer Prize-winning satirist still reminisce about sharing an office in the Student Union. (When Wolper told Buchwald he was going to make his career in television, the student-humorist mocked: “You’re crazy. It’s just a fad. You’ll never make a go of it.”)

Wolper poses with an early astronaut. His Race for Space received an Oscar nomination – a television first.

While attending USC, Wolper made his first – albeit uninvited – trip to the Academy Awards. Crashing the Oscars was the culmination of a relentless publicity campaign to promote Buchwald’s play No Love Atoll – a comedy set in Micronesia. Wolper had already persuaded the football team to don loin cloths outside Doheny Library; he’d faked parking tickets advertising the play. What was there left to do? He came up with the gimmick of Ngaya, a wild Micronesian woman to be displayed on campus. Crowds gathered at the appointed hour to see the captured Ngaya, but what they got instead was a gorilla-suited huckster wearing a placard promoting Buchwald’s farce (Wolper prudently arranged for entertainment to assuage the deceived spectators’ wrath).
Success emboldened him to attempt one last, even more outrageous stunt. “I thought, ‘the Academy Awards are in three days,’ ” he recalls. “ ‘Maybe we can get some press...’ ”
On Hollywood’s biggest night, Wolper escorted Ngaya (wearing her “SC Varsity Show” sign) from a limousine and strolled down the red carpet into Shrine Auditorium. The odd couple made it past Lana Turner and Dorothy Lamour before the LAPD caught up with them. “People were screaming,” he says gleefully.

mpatient to cut his teeth in television, David Wolper left USC in 1949 to team up with high school chum Jimmy Harris, whose father happened to own some stodgy, 16mm short documentaries that he hoped to sell to public schools (the only venues at the time for such educational fare). When the schools didn’t bite, Wolper had a whopper of an idea: in the emerging television medium, producers were hungry for material. So why not sell the educational docs to the networks?
As bad as the documentaries were – “and they were bad,” Wolper stresses – the content-hungry TV executives were glad to get the footage.
Wolper and Harris promptly formed Flamingo Films, a New York-based distribution company financed by a winning spree in Las Vegas. Soon the partners branched out from educational documentaries to theatrical cartoons (among them, “Flash Gordon,” “Buck Rogers” and “Superman”) that had already been screened as shorts. Wolper repackaged the cartoons as serials and sold them to the networks. The partners made hay in this niche for several years before Wolper struck out on his own in Los Angeles.

Though he didn’t win an award for Race for Space, the two statuettes above – from 1972 and 1985 – are his own.

There, in 1956, he hit gold.
“I had bought some Russian cartoons to re-voice and sell to American television stations,” he recalls, “when the seller mentioned he had some space footage...”
In the ’50s, America’s space program was sadly lagging behind the Russians; and the controversial topic was anathema in network programming. Yet Wolper knew that the TV industry – still licking its wounds from the quiz show scandals – had pledged to air more documentaries. Before the three major networks could make up their minds, Wolper had snatched up all 6,000 feet of the Russian space footage.
Winning NASA’s cooperation was easy: space agency officials were gung-ho after viewing the never-before-seen footage. Next, Wolper set out to secure a respected narrator. Aiming high, he approached CBS anchor Mike Wallace. The veteran newsman hesitated at first, but later signed on.
“David Wolper sneaks up on you,” Wallace wrote in a foreword to The Man With The Dream, a pictorial tribute to Wolper published in 1999 to mark the 50-year milestone in his career. “There’s no bombast, no bells and whistles. He’s quiet, logical, credible and before you realize it you are his co-conspirator.”
Wolper completed Race for Space in nine months. Now all he had to do was sell it.
To his dismay, the novice producer found he could make no headway. It was unheard-of for networks to air public affairs documentaries brought in by
outside producers.
Frustrated, Wolper decided to circumvent the networks altogether. Thanks to his Flamingo Films experiences, he had contacts at more than 100 TV stations around the country. Using these connections, Wolper sold Race for Space market-by-market across the country. When 150 stations broadcast the documentary in April 1960, Wolper became the first independent producer to bump network shows off the air with non-network programming.
Race for Space won critical acclaim and went on to earn Wolper an Academy Award nomination – the first television program to be so honored. The bold documentary made history in several other ways: it threw the space issue into the national spotlight, it established a new relationship between networks and affiliates, and it launched David Wolper as the hot documentary producer.


After half a century of making (and breaking) the rules in show biz, mega producer David L. Wolper is flying higher than ever.

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Banner photograph by David Strick / Historical photos courtesy of David L. Wolper Center / Photo of Oscars by Rick Szczechowski

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