David L. Wolper, known for 'Roots' and other spectacular productions, dies at 82
David L. Wolper, the award-winning television documentary producer best known for executive producing the blockbuster TV miniseries "Roots" and for orchestrating the spectacular opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, has died. He was 82.
Wolper died Tuesday at his Beverly Hills home of congestive heart disease and complications of Parkinson’s disease, said Dale Olson, his longtime publicist.
During his long career, Wolper oversaw the production of more than 700 films that have won more than 150 awards, including two Oscars, 50 Emmys, seven Golden Globes and five Peabody Awards.
Recognized by TV Guide in 1998 as one of the "45 People Who Made a Difference" in shaping the medium of television — and one of TV’s top eight creative forces — Wolper was described as a producer whose "many contributions to broadcast history have embedded themselves in the American psyche."
Among Wolper's documentary series and series of specials were "The Story of," "Biography," "Hollywood and the Stars," "The March of Time," "Appointment With Destiny," the "National Geographic Specials" and "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau."
Broadening his scope in the mid-1960s to producing feature films while continuing his prolific documentary output, Wolper produced theatrical motion pictures such as "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (1971) and "L.A. Confidential" (1997).
Wolper Productions also produced "The Hellstrom Chronicle," a 1971 feature-length documentary about the world of insects that won an Academy Award for feature documentary.
Then there were the miniseries, including "North and South" (Books I and II) and two of the highest-rated miniseries of all time: "Roots" and "The Thorn Birds."
Wolper had purchased the TV rights to "Roots" before Alex Haley had even finished writing his 1976 bestselling saga tracing his family's African heritage through seven generations to the present.
Despite the book's bestseller status, ABC was not sure whether Wolper's 12-hour 1977 miniseries would attract a wider audience beyond black America.
ABC originally planned to broadcast "Roots" one night a week for eight weeks. But to lessen the impact should the miniseries fail to be a ratings success, the network instead broadcast it over eight consecutive nights — a first for a TV program — beginning on Sunday, Jan. 23, 1977.
The first night, "Roots" was the sixth-most-watched program in television history, earning a 40.5 rating with a 61 share. By the final night, it had a 51.1 rating with a 71 share.
"Roots" was a nationwide cultural phenomenon: Thirty-three U.S. mayors proclaimed the week of the broadcast "Roots Week." And restaurant owners, theater managers and taxi drivers reported that business tanked while the show aired. "Roots" even knocked basketball off bar TV screens.
"For me, that was the most thrilling week of my career," Wolper wrote in "Producer," his 2003 memoir.
"After I got the [ratings] numbers each morning, I would call Alex and we would just scream in excitement at each other on the phone," Wolper recalled. "We had made a program of which we were extremely proud, in many ways, the ultimate docudrama; we had told an intelligent, educationally important story — and the nation had responded."
"Roots" won nine Emmy Awards.
A full obituary will follow at www.latimes.com/obits.
-- Dennis McLellan
Photo: David L. Wolper in 1987. Credit: Associated Press