By Mike Wallace

David L. Wolper with Mike Wallace

Back in May of 1958, a rather unimposing, blondish, slight and pale young man came into my newsroom office at Channel 13 in New York City to tell me he had exclusive rights to some Soviet space footage that had never before been seen in the United States. What he had in mind, he said, was to make a documentary he intended to call "The Race For Space” detailing the long and previously little known history of space exploration; he intended to focus especially, he said, on the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States for primacy in space. He wondered if I might be interested in reporting the story, doing the interviews and narrating the film.

I was skeptical that he did in fact hold the exclusive rights he mentioned. If they were available, the television news networks would surely have them. I was further put off when he let slip that his first choice for the chore he was now offering me had been either Chet Huntley of NBC or Walter Cronkite of cbs, who'd been told by their respective employers that they couldn't work with an "outsider” in doing a documentary that could better and more responsibly be undertaken by their own news divisions.

But as we talked and he began to elaborate on his vision, I found him more persuasive. David Wolper sneaks up on you; there's no bombast, no bells and whistle. He is quiet, logical, credible and before you realize it you are his co-conspirator. I've known him almost 40 years now and I don't remember him ever raising his voice, or making extravagant promises, or going back on his word.

Following "The Race For Space" I worked with him on a series of hour-long documentaries, biographies of various sports figures mostly, out of which grew the original Wolper "Biography" series, a new version is now a popular staple on A&E. Back then, we profiled all manner of public figures from FDR to Stalin, Hitler to Mao Tse-tung, Babe Ruth to Mark Twain, Fiorello La Guardia to Thomas Alva Edison. This was the early 60s and the profiles were syndicated on 400 TV stations around the world.

It was David who first led me to understand the meaning of the word Producer. He didn't write, he did little of the film direction, didn't supervise the research or butt excessively into the work of the men and women he hired to do those things. He had a vision, he organized, he was there from conception to delivery, every time. It was his clairvoyance, his engagement, his encouragement that made a Wolper production a joy to work on. Once he'd hired you, he let you do your job, encouraged your comments and contributions, gave you a sense of collaboration that has to be at the root of every successful enterprise. And I marvel at the variety of enterprises that have borne the David L. Wolper name, undertakings of quality, prestige, compassion, and distinction.

He deserves to celebrate his half-century of magnificent accomplishment.

David L. Wolper Center at USC
David L. Wolper Center at USC
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