updated 08/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 08/06/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT
So what is this titan like? Color him beige. At 56, Wolper is physically the quintessence of ordinary. Neither short nor tall, tubby nor sleek, he speaks in a numbing monotone broken only by occasional cackles of laughter. Early in his career colleagues referred to him in his absence as "the green olive," for the oval shape and seasick pallor of his face. And as a fashion statement his wardrobe is mute. Nevertheless Wolper could sell tentacles to an octopus—and probably would. "David is a very low-key guy who always gets what he wants," says Art Buchwald, an old friend and USC classmate. Wolper managed Buchwald's college humor magazine and also promoted the columnist's USC Varsity show, No Love Atoll. "He always had a tremendous amount of chutzpah," says Buchwald. "His greatest stunt was crashing the Academy Awards with a man in a gorilla suit and a sign saying 'If you think this is good, wait till you see No Love Atoll.' They were able to walk up and down the aisles for 10 minutes before they were thrown out."
In 1958 the unquenchable Wolper approached Mike Wallace to narrate the producer's first documentary, The Race for Space. "Into my office came this pale, not especially formidable-looking fellow," Wallace remembers. "He had something to sell, and nothing was going to stand in his way. With David you quickly forget the exterior and are drawn by his exuberance. Everything he has set his mind to he has done. Can you imagine someone taking a story called Roots and persuading a network to pour millions into it?"
Wolper, for one, can imagine it. "Sometimes," he says, "if you tell me what a story is about in just a few sentences, I can tell you if it's going to be a success." Roots was a case in point. Wolper heard about Alex Haley's then-unfinished manuscript over a dinner with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. "Ruby gave me the perfect capsule description," says Wolper. "A story tracing an African family through seven generations to the present." Wolper tried immediately to option the project, but learned that Columbia Pictures had bought it. In 1974, at lunch with a friend in New York, he met Haley's secretary and discovered that Columbia was no longer interested. Wolper left the table, called Haley's lawyer and negotiated the TV rights on the spot.
Until a few years ago a fervid collector of Lincoln memorabilia (a passion that led him to produce Sandburg's Lincoln), Wolper is susceptible to consuming obsessions. Six years ago, when he decided to put a fountain in his Bel Air, Calif. backyard, his landscaper suggested a piece of sculpture instead. In a matter of months Wolper was captivated; Picasso sculptures became his grail. He bought every book he could on the subject, toured all the great museums of Europe for the first time and bought pieces from the artist's estate. "Some psychiatrist told me I was interested in sculpture because I dealt in flat surfaces and needed something with dimension," he says. "I said, 'Wouldn't it be more interesting if it were something sexual?' " He now owns 22 Picasso pieces and pronounces himself "one of the leading experts on the subject." The Wolper Picassos will be exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum in October.
Wolper's entire professional life, in fact, has been lived vividly in pursuit of his passions. The only child of a commercial-real-estate broker and a mother who died of a ruptured appendix when her son was 18, Wolper excelled at two things while growing up in Manhattan: athletics and hustling. At 15, he and a classmate, Jimmy Harris, tried to launch their first business, an all-star band of city high school musicians. Later he sold records, was an instructor at an Arthur Murray dance studio and worked as a waiter in the Catskills. An irrepressible Sinatra fan, he wasn't too shy to approach the singer at a New York nightclub after asking a photographer to snap their picture together. "It was fame by proxy," says Harris. "We loved the glamour."
Through Harris' father, a film financier, the boys, while still teenagers, acquired an Italian B-movie, The Miracle at Monte Cassino, renamed it Fear No Evil and invited the New York critics to Harris' apartment for lunch and a screening. The film was eventually booked into a theater, where the audience would barely have filled a large phone booth. Still, the boys were in the movies, and they knew that movies meant girls. "We were always looking for action," Harris recalls with a smile. "Somehow David talked his father into getting him a '37 Ford. Oh the dates we had in that car! The windows would get all fogged up."
Wolper eventually enrolled at NYU, but cut more classes than he attended and moved on to Drake University, in Iowa, before transferring to USC to attend its film school. In 1949 he quit college to form Flamingo Films with Harris, whose father wanted them to sell his movies to television. Diligently David began driving through the Midwest from station to station, peddling cartoons, Flash Gordon serials, Westerns and travelogues. The next year, at 20, he married a show girl, who turned out to be a tall, blond—and fleeting—mistake. A few years after the divorce Wolper made the jump from salesman to producer through his contact with a Soviet cartoon distributor who wanted to unload some Russian space film. David bought it all for $5,000. "It was just after the quiz-show scandals," he says, "and I thought there would be more interest in documentaries."
Next Wolper went to Washington to get footage of the U.S. space program, signed on Jack Haley Jr. and enlisted Mike Wallace as host. When ail three networks rejected The Race for Space because it came from an outsider, Wolper found a sponsor and sold the show to his friends at local stations all over the country. In 1959 the hour-long documentary became the first TV film ever nominated for an Oscar.
Haley continued to work with Wolper during the '60s. "Documentaries were the province of the networks in those days," Haley says. "We were at the bottom of the pole, but David encouraged us to entertain as well as inform, and we became inordinately successful because we were better than they were." Moreover, Wolper hadn't lost a step as a salesman. "We would go out selling a show that was an apple," Haley says, "and as David perceived the sponsors wanted an orange, he would suddenly be selling an orange. Afterward I would say, 'David, you know that show is not an orange.' He'd tell me, 'We're gonna give 'em an apple. They won't know the difference.' "
Haley and Wolper collaborated on several more documentaries, among them, in 1960, the first of their movie-clip specials, Hollywood: The Golden Years. Two years later Wolper began producing Biography, and when Mike Wallace's wife, Lorraine, came up with a title for another series, Story of..., he rewarded her with a gleaming green Jaguar. (Though Wolper can be generous, he is nobody's patsy. In 1976, while filming the Wolper docudrama Victory at Entebbe!, Elizabeth Taylor made it known that she was accustomed to receiving a little present—say, a Lincoln Continental—from her grateful producers. "After the shoot her agent inquired when delivery might be expected," says Entebbe producer Robert Guenette. "David replied by mail that he could not remember having made such a promise, but as a man of his word he made sure a Lincoln was enclosed." And so it was, a tiny Matchbox toy Lincoln, too small even for the new-model Liz.)
Not only was Wolper getting rich, he was also winning awards. Says Theodore White, whose The Making of the President: 1960 was adapted for TV by Wolper, "When the show won four Emmys, David actually cried." Later he introduced The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau ("I knew fish would be great on television because the tube would look like a fish tank") and Appointment With Destiny, a series of historical docudramas. He won an Oscar for his 1971 feature-film documentary, The Hellstrom Chronicle, and later delivered two successful sitcoms, Chico and the Man and Welcome Back, Kotter. But his two multimegaton hits, co-produced with Stan Margulies, were Roots and The Thorn Birds. "There is nothing more fun than a mini-series," says Wolper. "You can play out the story in its fullness, develop all the juicy characters and then end it. You never have to keep it to three hours or go on making up new stories until you're 130 years old."
While Wolper was thriving professionally his 10-year marriage to actress Dawn Richard collapsed. In 1969 she moved to Greece with their children, Mark, now 23, Michael, 22, and Leslie, 17, while Wolper kept on working nonstop. He has never been an easy man to deflect. "You can't succeed in a competitive world by being compassionate," says a friend. "David was very tough. He went after what he wanted, and he never feared rejection. To get what you want you have to have a thick skin. You can develop hard edges."
It fell to his third wife, Gloria, to soften them. Wolper met her in 1968 after admiring her from his office window and slipping into an elevator to introduce himself. "I was 28 and a very unimportant actress," says Gloria, now 43, who had previously been married to a professional wrestler. "When I mentioned to my agent that I had met a Mr. Wolper, I heard a thud on the floor. She said, 'Do you know who he is?' Within six months I was hooked." David, however, kept her on the line for six years. "I was patient because I knew I would never find another man like him," says Gloria. "We had lived together for four years and one morning David woke up and said, 'How would you like to get engaged?' After I fell out of bed I said, 'That's a step in the right direction.' " Two years later they were married in Hawaii, at sunset, with David's children playing best man, ring bearer and flower girl.
"At first David used to scare me," says Gloria. "He was very wary of people. I knew he had a gentle heart, but he didn't know how to show it. When his children visited he would give 100 percent, but if anything went wrong he was too harsh. I told him, 'You can't talk to a child as you would to someone who ruined your $20 million film project.' " Says Wolper, "Gloria has made me a mellower person, more understanding of other people."
Each year Wolper writes "Big G" (a sparkling six-footer, Gloria is slightly taller than David) a birthday poem (sample title: Thirty-nine and Still Divine), which she hangs in her cavernous closet. After a heart bypass operation nine years ago, Wolper became more of a family man, selling his company to Warner Bros. and cutting down on his hours until the Olympics brought him back to a six-and-a-half-day workweek. His children visit often at his fortified French-Regency-style home, and the affection is obviously mutual. "I didn't take enough time with them when they were young," says David. "It was hard to relate to babies."
Lately Wolper has taken a step back from his dreams and finds them fulfilled. "I wanted to be in show business and make big bucks," he says. "I fantasized about living in Bel Air. My kids turned out all right. I have a wife, a home and a good job." Following a Mediterranean vacation in August Wolper will return to oversee production of an 18-hour miniseries based on John Jakes' North and South, scheduled to be telecast by ABC in 1985, another on Napoleon and Josephine and a third, Ulysses, adapted from The Odyssey. These, plus his pet project, The Life of Picasso, should take him into 1987. And then? "Maybe when David is 120 years old," says Gloria, "he will do only two projects a year." That, of course, would leave him only 64 more years of prime Wolper time.