Perry Wolff, a longtime CBS News producer, writer and director who won 17 News & Documentary Emmys but probably is best known for a now-classic documentary in which Jackie Kennedy provided a tour of the newly restored White House, died February 17 in Portland, OR. He was 97.
His death was confirmed to The New York Times by his son, the writer John Trevor Wolff. (Watch a clip of the Kennedy film below).
Wolff’s métier was the television documentary and news special. Here’s a partial list of his Emmy- and/or Peabody Award-winning films, listed on Wolff’s website and blog and mostly from the 1960s-’70s golden age of TV news documentaries: A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, The Italians, The Great American Novel, Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed, The Japanese, The American Revolution, The Selling of the Pentagon, Conversations with Eric Sevareid, Inside Hollywood: The Movie Business, Whose America Is It?, The Vanishing Family: Crisis in Black America, The Burger Years, The Battle for Afghanistan and American Dream, American Nightmare: The Seventies.
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Wolff also was Oscar-nominated for his 1996 short film An Essay on Matisse.
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At least several of Wolff’s documentaries had significant social impacts and prompted nationwide discussions, particularly his CBS 1968 special Hunger in America, widely credited with prompting Congress and the Nixon White House to expand the availability of food stamps. And in 1971, Wolff’s The Selling of the Pentagon was perceived as critical of the war in Vietnam and, according to The New York Times, prompted Vice President Spiro Agnew to use the phrase “credibility gap” with regard to the news media.
As an executive producer of CBS News, Wolff oversaw the groundbreaking 1969 limited documentary series Of Black America.
But perhaps none of his films has had the longevity of the Camelot White House tour with the first lady, with clips from the film still cropping up today when footage of Jackie Kennedy — speaking, no less — is needed for glimpses into the Kennedy years. Wolff wrote and produced the special, which was hosted by CBS journalist Charles Collingwood.
A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy was broadcast on Feb. 14, 1962, on both CBS and NBC and aired four days later on ABC. The first-ever televised White House tour conducted by a first lady, the special showed off Jackie Kennedy’s $2 million restoration and notched 80 million viewers. More than 50 countries saw a syndicated version.
According to the biography on Wolff’s website, the Chicago native, after serving in World War II, joined Chicago’s CBS affiliate WBBM in 1946 as a news and pubic affairs writer. In the early ’50s he wrote a novel and poetry and was a ghost writer on The Guiding Light.
He joined CBS News in New York in 1951 as a producer for the CBS Morning News and CBS Saturday News and, following a leave of absence, by 1961 was a staff writer and producer for CBS News. In 1963 he was appointed executive producer of CBS News, launching his long run of documentary making.
At least one documentary was not remembered fondly by Wolff: 1963’s now-notorious The Homosexuals, hosted by Mike Wallace. On his blog, Wolff — who executive produced the special but soon disavowed it — wrote that “Wallace reflected the homophobia of the time.”
“It was too much for me,” wrote Wolff. “I had not participated in the planning, shooting nor preliminary editing. … I would not put my name on the credits.”
Continued the blog entry: “Years later, Wallace asked me why he had been such a damn fool to do the show. Unfortunately, the CBS News Library was well run and had filed the script properly. A gay employee found it and distributed it. Mike has had to live with it ever since.”
Wolff’s wife, the dancer and painter Irja Tuulikki Suominen, died in 2013. He is survived by his son John Trevor Wolff.
Here is a segment of the White House tour film:
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