Monday, September 13, 2010

Roots and Pods

I'm not sure there are any television impresarios these days, unless you count Dick Wolf, creator of the Law and Order franchise, which I don't. This guy, though, certainly was one:

David Wolper


He turned his knack for sales and chutzpah into a lengthy career as a producer of television and film. He learned early in his career to spot a niche and find product to fill it. He dropped out of college and formed a company which sold old Flash Gordon serials to TV stations in need of filling airtime. His idea to package old movies and sell them to individual television stations created what many of us think of as "the late show."

His career included every aspect of fiction and non-fiction film. In the late 50s, he bought old Russian footage of space exploration, and edited the stuff to become The Race for Space, which snagged an Oscar nomination. He turned Theodore White's Pulitzer-prize winning book The Making of the President 1960 into a TV doc, and won the Emmy. He produced Four Days in November, the first comprehensive documentary regarding the JFK assassination, and won the Oscar for The Hellstrom Chronicle, a documentary about insects. In 1966, he produced the National Geographic special, The World of Jacques-Ives Cousteau, and turned the French oceanographer into an international celebrity.

Wolper's feature films include the first Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and L.A. Confidential, and his sitcoms included Chico and the Man and Welcome Back Kotter. But his most lasting legacy was probably in the mini-series format. Hard to believe today, but for about 10-12 years back in the 70s and 80s, the most important, prestigious events on television were the multi-episode limited series, and Wolper was a pioneer of the genre. The Thorn Birds and North and South were produced by his company, as was the birth mother of the genre, Roots.

In 1977, Wolper turned Alex Haley's family history into a 12-hour television event. ABC was extremely nervous about the project, and had no confidence that a series which chronicled multi-generations of a black family would be a success. Wolper shrewdly peppered his cast with familiar white faces in supporting roles, so Ed Asner (winning an Emmy), Lorne Greene, Robert Reed, Sandy Duncan, and Ralph Waite, among others, were meant to entice white viewers to watch the performances of Cicely Tyson, Maya Angelou, John Amos, Richard Roundtree, and Louis Gossett, Jr. (winning an Emmy). The series was a who's who of African-American talent; Leslie Uggams, until then known as a musical performer, delivered a searing dramatic turn:

And no one who saw Roots will ever forget Ben Vereen as Chicken George:

The nervous network execs programmed the series in a very unusual way. By running the entire 12 hours on 8 consecutive nights, ABC hoped to contain any ratings damage this series, dominated by black performances, might do (in a colossal miscalculation, the network scheduled the series to conclude its run before the sweeps period began).

Roots shattered the existing Nielson records, as its word of mouth spread and the ratings rose from night to night. I remember when Roots first aired, and can verify that excitement for the program built, day after day. It was the ultimate water cooler series. Roots earned 36 Emmy nominations and won 9, plus a Peabody. It provided meaty roles for dozens of African-American actors, at a time when such opportunities were non-existent. Perhaps most famously, an unknown drama student from USC was spotted in a college production of Carousel and was invited to read for the series. LeVar Burton's very first professional audition was for Roots; when David Wolper cast the kid in the pivotal role of Kunte Kinte (later called Toby), Burton won an Emmy nomination and launched his career.

Wolper's expertise with massive projects led to his producing the opening and closing ceremonies of the Los Angeles Summer Olympics in 1984, for which he won a special Emmy and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. He died August 10 from congestive heart disease.

Kevin McCarthy


This well-known character actor got a tough start in life, losing both parents to influenza when he was four. He was separated from his sisters (one of whom, Mary McCarthy, became an influential novelist and critic) and passed around to various relatives, some of whom were abusive. He attended college in Minnesota, where he first stepped onstage in Henry IV, Part I (nervous that he did not understand the language in the play, he was advised that he did not have to make sense of it, "just talk loud"). He moved to New York and began a successful stage career, while becoming a founding member of the Actors Studio. His Broadway credits included the Pultizer-prize winning Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and the musical Winged Victory, as well as other works by Chekhov and O'Neill. He played Biff, the elder, drifter son of Willy Loman, in the original London production of Death of a Salesman, which lead to his recreating the role for the film. He earned an Oscar nomination for his performance.

He had a long career on television, including a stint as the patriarch on the nighttime soap Flamingo Road, and playing opposite Lana Turner in the long-forgotten The Survivors. His numerous film appearances included The Best Man, Mirage, and Kansas City Bomber. As a favor for his friend Montgomery Clift, he made a cameo appearance in The Misfits, opposite Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. He felt the role was too small, finally agreeing to appear if he was paid $100 per word. The role had 29 words.

But it was a single performance in a low-budget science fiction thriller for which he may be best remembered. As the doctor who discovers the secret regarding The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, and attempts to warn the world, he became part of a cult phenomenon. Film enthusiasts argue that the movie was an allegory for the rise of McCarthyism in the 1950s, while others believe it was meant as a statement regarding the overtaking of the modern world by giant corporations. Kevin always chuckled at such beliefs, maintaining that there were no political sentiments in the film at all, they were just trying to make a good scare film.

They succeeded, and the final moments of the piece, in which McCarthy runs through traffic trying to get people to believe him, has become a classic moment in American film:

Kevin McCarthy died Sept 11 at the age of 96.