A documentary filmmaker, Wolper oversaw more than 300 films, including National Geographic specials and multiple episodes of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. In 1962 Time magazine declared that “the three largest producers of documentary films for television are NBC, CBS and David Wolper.” What really put him on the map, though, was a made-for-TV miniseries: Roots. Wolper was so impressed with the book that he optioned it before Alex Haley finished writing it, and even though he was advised it was an awfully risky bet. It was the early 1970s, and “a show where the white people are the villains [didn’t] seem like a good idea,” Wolper said later.
But the bet paid off: the series was nominated for 36 Emmy Awards, and won nine — plus a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award — and was the highest-rated U.S. network TV program ever (33 years later, it still holds the #3 spot). Wolper could do live events, too: he produced the opening and closing ceremonies for the Los Angeles-based Olympics in 1984. “He wanted to be sure to give everyone goose bumps — and [he] did,” said Peter Ueberroth, president of the Los Angeles Organizing Committee. “Not until the Beijing Games in 2008 has anybody rivaled what he did as a volunteer and with a low budget.” Wolper died August 10 at home from congestive heart failure and Parkinson’s. He was 82.