Perry Wolff's documentaries drew audiences, drove public policy and sometimes angered people in power. Undeterred, he reported on poverty, history, culture, inequality and race relations.
Perry Wolff, a groundbreaking television producer whose documentaries took viewers on a tour of the White House with Jacqueline Kennedy and awakened them to widespread hunger in America, died Feb. 17 in Portland, Oregon. He was 97.
His death was confirmed by his son, John Trevor Wolff, a writer and his only immediate survivor.
Wolff was credited as a writer, director or producer of some 600 hours of broadcasts over more than five decades, mostly for CBS News at a time when news documentaries were regular features of the major networks’ prime-time programming.
His broadcasts won 17 Emmy Awards, two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards in broadcast journalism and an Academy Award nomination for best documentary short film, for writing and directing “An Essay on Matisse” in 1996 for PBS.
His 1954 program “Genetics I,” which used dance and early films to explain science, was featured in a 1963 retrospective called “Television USA” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Wolff’s documentaries drew audiences and drove public policy. His “Hunger in America” for CBS in 1968 prompted an outcry from Washington officials over whether it had overstated the problem and was unfair in portraying the federal government’s response. But the broadcast also drew a commitment from the Nixon administration and Congress to expand the food stamps program as well as nutrition programs for women, children and the elderly.
In 1971, a documentary titled “The Selling of the Pentagon,” on military propaganda in support of the Vietnam War, prompted Vice President Spiro T. Agnew to declare that the news media were guilty of a “credibility gap.”
When the government demanded unedited footage of interviews conducted for the program, CBS refused. The network was credited with helping to clarify the supremacy of the First Amendment over the Fairness Doctrine, which required stations licensed by the government to provide balanced reporting.
Wolff, who was later promoted to executive producer of CBS News, was also responsible for a seven-part series in 1969 titled “Of Black America,” which delved into history, culture, inequality and race relations.
Hal Walker, who anchored the final segment with Charles Kuralt, was the network’s first black correspondent and among the few black journalists on national television at the time.
Probably no broadcast of Wolff’s was watched by more people than “A Tour of the White House,” a 1962 special that he produced and wrote. Shown on all three major networks, the broadcast drew a record audience of more than 80 million as the first lady guided Charles Collingwood of CBS through the newly restored Executive Mansion.
Perry Sidney Wolff was born June 12, 1921, in Chicago to Abraham Wolff, a dress salesman, and Bess (Billow) Wolff.
He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering from the University of Wisconsin and served in the Army during World War II in Europe, where he was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge.
More than once, Wolff redeemed his boyhood nickname, Skeezix, after the scamp in the “Gasoline Alley” cartoon strip.
As a soldier in postwar Paris, he brashly barged in on American writer Gertrude Stein, trailed by an underemployed Army newsreel crew. He then persuaded her to be profiled in what became his first documentary film.
In 1947, he married Tuulikki Suominen, a Finnish-born dancer and painter. She died in 2013.
Wolff went on to work for WBBM, a CBS radio affiliate in Chicago, after the war. In 1951, he and his wife moved to New York, where he was hired as a director of the “CBS Morning News” and regularly produced the documentary programs “Adventure,” in conjunction with the American Museum of Natural History, and “Air Power.”
During the 1950s, he made documentaries overseas on World War II and on the Congo. He returned to CBS News in New York in 1961.
Wolff was known to be fearless in biting the hand that fed him. As a WBBM reporter, for example, he discovered that illegal drugs were being sold at a bar owned by the station’s manager.
“Thus ended radio,” his son recalled.
In 1973, he produced a CBS documentary titled “You and the Commercial.” It was all about the insidious reach of TV advertising.
Wolff’s legacy to broadcasting went well beyond his documentaries: He was a mentor to generations of television journalists.
At WBBM, he helped persuade skeptical news executives to gamble on an avid advertising pitchman named Mike Wallace. And in 1952 he repositioned Walter Cronkite, a 35-year-old commentator, from his comfort zone behind a radio microphone to anchor the first television broadcast of the Republican National Convention in Chicago.
“Just do what you do on the radio, Walter,” Wolff advised, “but please look up into the camera.”
Wolff and Don Hewitt, who was a TV news director at the time and who later created “60 Minutes,” conjured up another TV innovation one day while at lunch at a Chicago diner. They were debating how to superimpose the delegate tallies over Cronkite’s talking head.
Suddenly, the flipboard that listed the day’s specials caught Perry’s eye. He and Hewitt bought the sign from the diner’s manager. It worked perfectly on air when the balloting began.