Legendary producer (and Archive of American Television co-founder) David L. Wolper is 80 years old today. Wolper’s name is most associated with documentaries, such as Race for Space and The Making of a President as well as miniseries such as Roots. He also produced such feature films as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; sitcoms Welcome Back, Kotter and Chico and the Man; and special events such as the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games. Wolper was interviewed by the Archive about his life and career in 1998.
Soundbites from the interview.
On his philosophy of filmmaking:
I [devised] my philosophy of filmmaking, making the Race For Space and I never changed it from that first show. I want to entertain and inform, not just inform and not just entertain. I want to do both in the same piece. Because I remember, I saw a film in school once. And I came home and told my father. You know I saw this film in school, it was terrific. And my father said well you probably didn’t learn anything. I said no dad, I learned more today because it was terrific. I enjoyed it, I did learn a lot. He said how can you learn a lot just watching film? That sort of reminded me. And when I did the Race For Space I wanted to get that entertainment.
On Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory:
Roald Dahl had a book. Mel Stewart, who has worked for my company, said his son read a book and really liked it called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I thought it was terrific. About that time, Quaker Oats was sponsoring one of my shows. And Quaker Oats was coming out with a candy and they said maybe it’s a good idea if we do a television thing on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And I said well why don’t you do a feature film, why don’t you do a theatrical picture and get it out all over the theaters and the time you release the candy is the same time the movie comes out. So they put up the money to make the movie. They changed it to Willy Wonka because the name of the candy was going to be Willy Wonka. They changed it to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. We made the movie. It’s a big hit. And the candy melts on the counter, they had the wrong formula and all the candy, they had to recall back all the candy.
On selling Welcome Back, Kotter:
We’re going to New York and it’s the selling season. Everybody goes to New York to sell the shows as a program. Everybody is trying to see the heads of the network, you know, this and this and this. So I [thought] I wonder when Fred Pierce is flying back to New York, the head of ABC, one of the top people. So I knew his secretary because I had done a lot of business with ABC. I said when is Freddy flying back. She said well he’s flying back Wednesday. What flight is it? You know the seat number? Yes. Thank you. I called up the airline and I said I have to have this seat, this flight. Well somebody’s there. Move him to another seat, I want seat 6 on flight 225. Just think, I’m going to be all the way to New York with Freddy Pierce sitting next to me and I’m going to sell him Welcome Back Kotter. And we get on the plane and I say oh Freddy, isn’t that a coincidence. So I sit down. I talk about Welcome Back, Kotter subtly, you know. …And “Welcome Back, Kotter,” blah, blah, blah. By the time we got to New York I knew in my heart that they were going to buy Welcome Back, Kotter. And everybody is hustling, how do we get that guy? I need two minutes of your time Freddy. And I had four hours of him on the way to New York.
On meeting Roots author Alex Haley:
I negotiated the deal and bought the property from Alex Haley. The book had not been written. I hadn’t met Alex Haley. So Alex Haley comes out to California. We have a little luncheon. Myself and some of the people in my company and in about ten minutes we’re the table was won over. This man mesmerized us in a ten to twenty minute conversation, we were [mouth agape]. I went home from the lunch and said my god, this man is unbelievable.
On his favorite shows:
Well my favorite shows, they all have something to do with turning points in my life [A] favorite [documentary] was The Making of the President in 1960. I was once called “Mr. Documentary.” Then I was in the miniseries and my favorite obviously is Roots. So now all of sudden I’m “Mr. Miniseries.” Then I do the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games that… it was even worldwide. So everybody thinks I’m [Mr.] outdoor spectaculars, you know. But really, you know, my real love is the documentary.
David Wolper was interviewed for nearly five-and-a-half hours in Los Angeles, CA. Wolper talked about forming his first company, Flamingo Films, with father and son friends Joe and Jim Harris. He discussed many of his documentaries, including the Race For Space, Hollywood: The Golden Years, and The Making of a President, among others. Wolper fondly recalled working with his long time friend Mike Wallace, as well meeting and working with oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau. He talked about two classic sitcoms, Chico and the Man and Welcome Back, Kotter, as well as the many television movies and specials he produced. Wolper also discussed in great detail his three highly acclaimed ABC mini-series, Roots, The Thorn Birds, and North and South. The interview was conducted by Morrie Gelman on May 12, 1998.