David L. Wolper

Producer/ Documentarian


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

02:26

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About
About this interview

In his nearly five-and-a-half-hour interview, producer David L. Wolper (1928-2010) talks about forming his first company, Flamingo Films, with father and son friends Joe and Jim Harris. He discusses many of his documentaries, including The Race for Space, Hollywood: The Golden Years, and The Making of a President, among others. Wolper fondly recalls working with his long-time friend Mike Wallace, as well meeting and working with oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. He talks about producing two classic sitcoms, Chico and the Man and Welcome Back, Kotter, as well as the many television movies and specials he produced. Wolper also discusses in great detail his three highly acclaimed ABC miniseries: Roots, The Thorn Birds, and North and South. Morrie Gelman conducted the interview on May 12, 1998 in Los Angeles, CA.

All views expressed by interviewees are theirs alone and not necessarily those of the Television Academy.

"I got my philosophy of filmmaking from 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."

People Talking About ...
Highlights
David L. Wolper on producing The Race for Space and on the network news departments refusing to buy it
02:39
David L. Wolper on casting Roots, including LeVar Burton as "Kunta Kinte"
03:40
David L. Wolper on The Making of the President: 1964
05:57
David L. Wolper on producing The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau
03:12
David Wolper on fighting for key scenes in Roots
02:15
David L. Wolper on the huge success of Roots when it aired in January of 1977
03:57
Full Interview

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Chapter 1

On his early years and influences; on radio he listened to while growing up; on seeing television at the 1939 World's Fair; on his family's first television set
On moving to Los Angeles and befriending future writer Art Buchwald at USC; on forming a company to sell educational films to television stations; on the experience of traveling the country selling educational and feature films to local television stations

Chapter 2

On buying the rights to feature films to syndicate to local television stations; on a typical television station in the late '40s and early '50s, and on how stations operated; on his early competition as "film peddlers": Fredric Ziv
On the business of television syndication early on; on his early syndication company Flamingo Films being merged into Motion Pictures for Television; on working on the syndication and sponsorship of Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves
On how the business of syndication worked in the early days of television; on the syndicated series Divorce Hearing; on the genesis and production of The Race for Space

Chapter 3

On producing The Race for Space and on the network news departments refusing to buy it; on selling The Race for Space to independent television stations; on critical reaction to The Race for Space and on the show being a turning point in his career
On the the role of the producer and director in a documentary; on producing a documentary on the history of Hollywood called Hollywood: The Golden Years; on producing Biography
On The Race for Space holding up over time; on his style of making documentaries; on forming his own production company

Chapter 4

On Irving "Swifty" Lazar; on The Making of the President: 1964; on getting involved in National Geographic Specials
On producing The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau; on winning an Emmy for The Making of the Presidency ; on making a deal with ABC to air 24 of his series
On his production company in the late '60s; on selling his production company to John Kluge's Metromedia; on producing feature films

Chapter 5

On doing convention films in 1964 for Lyndon B. Johnson; on making convention films in 1972 for Richard M. Nixon; on producing Let My People Go and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
On making the switch to color for his documentaries; on doing documentaries about Adolf Hitler; on producing a series of specials titled Appointment with Destiny; on the controversial practice of docudramas using newly shot "recreations"
On the declining popularity of the documentary in the early '70s; on producing the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; on producing The First Woman President, directed by Delbert Mann

Chapter 6

On the importance of casting: on producing Sandburg's Lincoln
On executive producing Chico and the Man and Welcome Back, Kotter; on working with stars Freddie Prinze and John Travolta; on how he first heard about Roots

Chapter 7

On acquiring the rights to Roots and on meeting Alex Haley; on why he knew Roots would work; on convincing ABC, headed by Brandon Stoddard, to air the show; on Roots producer Stan Margulies
On the screenplay for Roots being written as the book was being written and on making it a miniseries; on casting Roots including LeVar Burton as "Kunta Kinte"; on the huge success of Roots when it aired in January of 1977
On the economics of producing Roots; on the decision for Roots to have more than one director; on choosing the writers; on creating characters for Roots that were not in Alex Haley's book
On Roots winning Emmys; on executive producing Roots: The Next Generations

Chapter 8

On the huge success of Roots; on dealing with network Standards and Practices with Roots; on why Roots came along at the right time; on the impact of Roots
On executive producing Roots: The Next Generations; on Marlon Brando playing "George Lincoln Rockwell" in Roots: The Next Generations; on the public reaction to Roots: The Next Generations
On producing and casting The Thorn Birds; on producing North and South

Chapter 9

On executive producing North and South; on producing the 1984 summer Olympics opening ceremonies
On producing The Statue of Liberty Liberty Weekend celebrations; on producing the miniseries Alex Haley's Queen; on being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame and on then-current projects

Chapter 10

On how cable television impacted television documentaries and miniseries; on the then-current state of television; on the then-future of the independent producer on television
On his thoughts on various people he worked with in his career

Chapter 11

On his thoughts on various people he worked with in his career
Shows

Academy Awards, The

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David Wolper on befriending Art Buchwald at USC; on a prank they played at the 1948 Academy Awards
02:49

Adventures of Superman

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David L. Wolper on working on the syndication and sponsorship of Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves
01:21

Alex Haley's Queen

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David L. Wolper on producing Alex Haley's Queen
04:17

Biography (1962)

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David L. Wolper on producing Biography
04:41

Chico and the Man

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David L. Wolper on executive producing Chico and the Man; on the casting of Freddie Prinze
05:25
David L. Wolper on the cast of Chico and the Man and on the death of Freddie Prinze
02:55

Divorce Hearing

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David L. Wolper on the syndicated series Divorce Hearing
02:12

Emmy Awards, The (Primetime and Daytime)

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David L. Wolper on winning an Emmy for The Making of the President: 1964
04:28
David L. Wolper on Roots winning Emmys
00:36

First Woman President, The

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David L. Wolper on producing The First Woman President directed by Delbert Mann
02:04

Hollywood: The Golden Years

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David L. Wolper on producing a documentary on the history of Hollywood called Hollywood: The Golden Years
03:07

Making of the Presidency, The

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David L. Wolper on The Making of the President: 1964
05:57
David L. Wolper on winning an Emmy for The Making of the Presidency
04:28

National Geographic Specials

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David L. Wolper on getting involved in National Geographic Specials
01:59

North and South

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David L. Wolper on producing North and South
01:15
David L. Wolper on executive producing North and South
02:21

Olympics

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David L. Wolper on producing the 1984 summer Olympics opening ceremonies
12:22

Race for Space, The

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David L. Wolper on the genesis and production of The Race for Space
05:58
David L. Wolper on producing The Race for Space and on the network news departments refusing to buy it
02:39
David L. Wolper on selling The Race for Space to independent television stations
04:44
David L. Wolper on critical reaction to The Race for Space and on the show being a turning point in his career
06:33
David L. Wolper on The Race for Space holding up over time
02:00

Roots

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David L. Wolper on first hearing about Alex Haley's Roots
03:07
David L. Wolper on acquiring the rights to Roots and on meeting Alex Haley
04:20
David L. Wolper on why he knew Roots would work and on convincing ABC, headed by Brandon Stoddard, to air the show
02:27
David L. Wolper on Roots producer Stan Margulies
01:10
David L. Wolper on the screenplay for Roots being written as the book was being written, and on making it a miniseries
02:21
David L. Wolper on casting Roots, including LeVar Burton as "Kunta Kinte"
03:40
David L. Wolper on the huge success of Roots when it aired in January of 1977
03:57
David L. Wolper on the economics of producing Roots
03:29
David L. Wolper on the decision for Roots to have more than one director; on choosing the writers
03:10
David L. Wolper on creating characters for Roots that were not in Alex Haley's book
00:50
David L. Wolper on Roots winning Emmys
00:36
David L. Wolper on the huge success of Roots
01:25
David L. Wolper on dealing with network Standards & Practices on Roots
02:17
David L. Wolper on why Roots came along at the right time, and on the impact it had
04:11

Roots: The Next Generations

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David L. Wolper on executive producing Roots: The Next Generations
02:39
David L. Wolper on executive producing Roots: The Next Generations
03:46
David L. Wolper on Marlon Brando playing "George Lincoln Rockwell" in Roots: The Next Generations
04:06
David L. Wolper on the public reaction to Roots: The Next Generations
02:13

Sandburg's Lincoln

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David L. Wolper on producing Sandburg's Lincoln
06:54

Statue of Liberty, The

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David L. Wolper on producing The Statue of Liberty Liberty Weekend celebrations
05:23

Thorn Birds, The

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David L. Wolper on producing The Thorn Birds and on his association with Warner Bros.
04:50
David L. Wolper on casting Richard Chamberlain, Barbara Stanwyck, and others on The Thorn Birds
02:27
David L. Wolper on The Thorn Birds director Daryl Duke
02:06

Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, The

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David L. Wolper on producing The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau
03:12

Welcome Back, Kotter

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David L. Wolper on selling Welcome Back, Kotter to ABC
02:27
David L. Wolper on Welcome Back, Kotter, produced by James Komack, starring John Travolta
05:20
Topics

1939-40 World's Fair

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David L. Wolper on seeing television at the 1939 World's Fair and on his family's first television set
01:19

Censorship / Standards & Practices

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David Wolper on fighting for key scenes in Roots
02:15

Emmy Awards

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David L. Wolper on winning an Emmy for The Making of the President: 1964
04:28
David L. Wolper on Roots winning Emmys
00:36

Historic Events and Social Change

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David L. Wolper on seeing television at the 1939 World's Fair and on his family's first television set
01:19
David L. Wolper on the genesis and production of The Race for Space
05:58
David L. Wolper on producing Roots
28:39

Industry Crossroads

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David L. Wolper on the huge success of Roots when it aired in January of 1977
03:57

John F. Kennedy

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David L. Wolper on The Making of the President: 1964
05:57

Lyndon B. Johnson

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David L. Wolper on doing convention films in 1964 for Lyndon B. Johnson
03:29

Moon Landing

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David L. Wolper on the genesis and production of The Race for Space
05:58

Olympic Games

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David L. Wolper on producing the 1984 summer Olympics opening ceremonies
12:22

Pivotal Career Moments

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David L. Wolper on critical reaction to The Race for Space and on the show being a turning point in his career
06:33

Representation on Television

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David L. Wolper on producing Roots
28:39

Richard M. Nixon

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David L. Wolper on making convention films in 1972 for Richard M. Nixon
02:12

Sports

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David L. Wolper on producing the 1984 summer Olympics opening ceremonies
12:22

Technological Innovation

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David L. Wolper on making the switch to color for his documentaries
03:04

Television Industry

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David L. Wolper on the business of television syndication early on
02:16
David L. Wolper on making a deal with ABC to air 24 of his series
03:43
David L. Wolper on the huge success of Roots when it aired in January of 1977
03:57
David Wolper on fighting for key scenes in Roots
02:15
David L. Wolper on how cable television impacted television documentaries and miniseries
03:28
David L. Wolper on the then-current state of television
05:12
David L. Wolper on the then-future of the independent producer on television
02:21

Television and the Presidency

View Topic
David L. Wolper on The Making of the President: 1964
05:57
David L. Wolper on doing convention films in 1964 for Lyndon B. Johnson
03:29
David L. Wolper on making convention films in 1972 for Richard M. Nixon
02:12

Underrepresented Voices

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David L. Wolper on producing Roots
28:39
Professions

Directors

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David L. Wolper on the the role of the producer and director in a documentary
04:12

Producers

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David L. Wolper on the the role of the producer and director in a documentary
04:12
David L. Wolper on his style of making documentaries, and on forming his own production company
05:20
David L. Wolper on the importance of casting
03:06
David L. Wolper on the then-future of the independent producer on television
02:21
Genres

Comedy Series

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David L. Wolper on executive producing Welcome Back, Kotter and Chico and the Man
26:07

News and Documentary

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David L. Wolper on the genesis and production of The Race for Space
05:58
David L. Wolper on producing The Race for Space
09:43
David L. Wolper on The Making of the President: 1964
05:57
David L. Wolper on producing The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau
03:12
David L. Wolper on the declining popularity of the documentary in the early '70s
03:27
David L. Wolper on producing Let My People Go
01:46
David L. Wolper on producing The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and on the importance of the narrator in documentaries
02:48
David L. Wolper on producing a series of specials titled Appointment with Destiny and on the controversial practice of docudramas using newly shot "recreations"
07:03
David L. Wolper on how cable television impacted television documentaries and miniseries
03:28

Sci-Fi/Supernatural Series

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David L. Wolper on working on the syndication and sponsorship of Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves
01:21

Sports

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David L. Wolper on producing the 1984 summer Olympics opening ceremonies
12:22

TV Movies/Miniseries/Dramatic Specials

View Genre
David L. Wolper on producing The First Woman President directed by Delbert Mann
02:04
David L. Wolper on executive producing Roots
03:07
David L. Wolper on executive producing Roots
28:39
David L. Wolper on executive producing Roots and Roots: The Next Generations
17:58
David L. Wolper on executive producing The Thorn Birds
07:17
David L. Wolper on executive producing North and South
03:21
David L. Wolper on executive producing North and South
02:21
David L. Wolper on producing Alex Haley's Queen
04:17
David L. Wolper on how cable television impacted television documentaries and miniseries
03:28
People

Jack Albertson

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David L. Wolper on the cast of Chico and the Man, including Jack Albertson
02:55

Elmer Bernstein

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David L. Wolper on Elmer Bernstein
00:12

Marlon Brando

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David L. Wolper on Marlon Brando playing "George Lincoln Rockwell" in Roots: The Next Generations
04:06

Art Buchwald

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David L. Wolper on moving to Los Angeles and befriending future writer Art Buchwald
03:39
David L. Wolper on Art Buchwald
01:29

LeVar Burton

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David L. Wolper on casting Roots, including LeVar Burton as "Kunta Kinte"
03:40

Richard Chamberlain

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David L. Wolper on casting Richard Chamberlain, Barbara Stanwyck, and others on The Thorn Birds
02:27

Howard Cosell

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David L. Wolper on Howard Cosell
01:19

Jacques Cousteau

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David L. Wolper on producing The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau
03:12

Bob Daly

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David L. Wolper on Bob Daly
01:44

Dick Van Dyke

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David L. Wolper on Dick Van Dyke
00:48

William Friedkin

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David L. Wolper on William Friedkin
00:08

David Gerber

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David L. Wolper on the syndicated series Divorce Hearing packaged by David Gerber
02:12
David L. Wolper on David Gerber
01:42

Alex Haley

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David L. Wolper on producing Alex Haley's Queen
04:17

Adolph Hitler

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David L. Wolper on doing documentaries about Adolf Hitler
01:12

John Huston

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David L. Wolper on John Huston
00:27

Lyndon B. Johnson

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David L. Wolper on doing convention films in 1964 for Lyndon B. Johnson
03:29

Gabe Kaplan

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David L. Wolper on Welcome Back, Kotter, starring Gabe Kaplan
05:20

Alan Landsburg

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David L. Wolper on Alan Landsburg
00:10

Irving "Swifty" Lazar

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David L. Wolper on Irving "Swifty" Lazar
00:59

Delbert Mann

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David L. Wolper on producing The First Woman President directed by Delbert Mann
02:04

Stan Margulies

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David L. Wolper on Roots producer Stan Margulies
01:10

John Mitchell

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David L. Wolper on John Mitchell
00:59

Richard M. Nixon

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David L. Wolper on making convention films in 1972 for Richard M. Nixon
02:12

Don Ohlmeyer

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David L. Wolper on Don Ohlmeyer
01:39

Arthur Penn

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David L. Wolper on Arthur Penn
00:39

Freddie Prinze

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David L. Wolper on executive producing Chico and the Man; on the casting of Freddie Prinze
05:25
David L. Wolper on the cast of Chico and the Man, including Freddie Prinze
02:55

George Reeves

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David L. Wolper on working on the syndication and sponsorship of Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves
01:21

Fred Silverman

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David L. Wolper on Fred Silverman
00:43

Frank Stanton

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David L. Wolper on Frank Stanton
00:41

Barbara Stanwyck

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David L. Wolper on casting Richard Chamberlain, Barbara Stanwyck, and others on The Thorn Birds
02:27

Brandon Stoddard

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David L. Wolper on why he knew Roots would work and on convincing ABC, headed by Brandon Stoddard, to air the show
02:27
David L. Wolper on Brandon Stoddard
00:51

Mel Stuart

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David L. Wolper on Mel Stuart
00:08

Brandon Tartikoff

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David L. Wolper on Brandon Tartikoff
00:43

Grant Tinker

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David L. Wolper on Grant Tinker
01:44

John Travolta

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David L. Wolper on Welcome Back, Kotter, starring John Travolta
05:20

Mike Wallace

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David L. Wolper on the genesis and production of The Race for Space hosted by Mike Wallace
05:58
David L. Wolper on Mike Wallace
00:32

Lou Weiss

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David L. Wolper on Lou Weiss
00:41

Orson Welles

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David L. Wolper on Orson Welles
00:50

Bud Wiser

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David L. Wolper on Bud Wiser
00:13

Frederic Ziv

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David L. Wolper on his early competition as "film peddlers": Fredric Ziv
02:06

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