In his prime, Aaron Spelling defined the concept of the television superproducer. In his life, Spelling's rags-to-riches success story was the embodiment of the American dream.
The prolific writer-producer, whose roots in television stretched from 1950s Westerns to the upcoming season with "7th Heaven," died Friday at his Holmby Hills mansion near Beverly Hills of complications from a stroke he suffered June 18. He was 83.
Of his extraordinary run with more than 50 television series and 140 television movies, friends and colleagues often said that what was most striking about Spelling was his insatiable appetite for more. Long after he earned his entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for logging the most television producing credits, he never stopped getting excited when he sold a pilot to a network, found a good script from a young writer or discovered a future star in a cattle-call casting session. Into his final months, the impish, pipe-smoking producer still loved the game.
"He just loves television, and he loves what he does. He never looks down on the medium or the people who watch it," Leonard Goldberg, a longtime Spelling friend and former producing partner, said of Spelling in 2003. "Aaron will call me up and say, 'I just got a development deal at NBC,' and you'd think he needed it to pay his rent."
In the 1970s and '80s, Spelling's industry clout rivaled that of the three broadcast networks that bought his shows. He perfected an oeuvre of light action-fantasy dramas with sexy stars and glossy production techniques that made his shows stand out as Spelling productions, including "The Mod Squad," "S.W.A.T.," "The Rookies," "Charlie's Angels," "Vegas," "Starsky and Hutch," "The Love Boat," "Fantasy Island," "T.J. Hooker," "Hart to Hart," "Dynasty" and others. In the early '80s, he produced nearly a third of ABC's primetime schedule, earning it the sobriquet "Aaron's Broadcasting Company." His television movies ranged from such issue-oriented fare as 1976's "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble" and 1981's "The Best Little Girl in the World" to romps like 1982's "The Wild Women of Chastity Gulch." He ventured into film production on and off, scoring with 1983's "Mr. Mom," 1986's " 'Night, Mother" and 1991's "Soapdish."
"Aaron was a groundbreaking producer whose shows are more than entertainment. They have become part of the fabric of popular culture," said Lee Gabler, co-chairman of CAA, which represented Spelling for more than 25 years. "He was also a close friend and a wonderful mentor."
By the mid-'80s, the man born of modest means to Jewish immigrants in Dallas had become a fabulously successful Hollywood mogul with a fortune estimated at $300 million by Forbes magazine. His Aaron Spelling Prods. became a publicly traded entity in 1986, and during its rocky run as an independent the company attempted to diversify into a broad-based media concern. But television series produced by the company's founder was always the company's bread and butter. By the end of the '80s, when his string of ABC hits inevitably dried up, Spelling mounted a comeback with buzzworthy serials "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Melrose Place" on the still-young Fox network.
Spelling often told the story of how devastated he was after the cancellation of "Dynasty" in 1989, when he found himself without a single show in primetime for the first time since 1960. He feared he'd lost his touch. Out of the blue he got a call from Barry Diller, an old friend from the early-'70s ABC days who was then chairman of the upstart Fox Broadcasting Co. Diller asked him to do a show about a group of high school kids. He was dubious until Diller reminded him that he had two teenagers of his own, Spelling said. In fact, the older of Spelling's two children, daughter Tori, co-starred on "90210" through its entire 1990-2000 run. His son, Randy, is also an actor, and has appeared in Spelling productions like the '90s NBC daytime serial "Sunset Beach."
In 1996, Spelling extended his reign to yet another new network, WB Network, with wholesome family drama "7th Heaven," followed two years later by the fantasy-themed "Charmed." "Heaven" would rank as the highest-rated show in WB's 11-year history and is poised in the fall to help launch WB's successor network, the CW.
Although Spelling took his lumps from writers who accused him of claiming too much credit for shows they created, there was no discounting his track record or the distinct Spelling stamp his shows carried. As a producer, he was known for his attention to detail, particularly wardrobe, and for his strength in spotting holes in scripts or character problems.
"He was incredibly hands-on, loved his work, and told me once he'd never retire," said "Heaven" star Stephen Collins. Added "Heaven" creator/executive producer Brenda Hampton: "He was a genius. I loved working for him."
Spelling deeply resented the broad brush that television critics and other pundits often used to describe his shows. He hated the derogatory labels "jiggle TV" and "schlock TV" that some applied. He earned Emmys as a producer for the 1989 CBS television movie "Day One," about the Manhattan Project, and for "And the Band Played On," HBO's sweeping 1993 miniseries about the AIDS crisis. He was proud of the earthy, Emmy-nominated '70s drama series "Family," co-produced with Mike Nichols; and he was proud of the occasional efforts undertaken by "90210" to educate its youthful audience about social issues ranging from the importance of safe sex to the dangers of drunk driving.
But while he craved the kudos and prestige of winning awards, Spelling never apologized for being a crowd pleaser with escapist potboilers infused with glamour and an ever-present affluence among its characters and settings. Spelling delighted in occasionally strolling outside and talking to the people on the celebrity sightseeing tour buses that drove past his famously opulent, 56,500-square-foot, 123-room French chateau in the Holmby Hills enclave that he built, amid much public scrutiny, on a six-acre estate formerly owned by Bing Crosby. He would tell the gawking tourists, "You are the reason we have this house."
Born April 22, 1923, in Dallas, Spelling was the fourth of five children in a family that lived "on the wrong side of the tracks," Spelling recalled in his 1996 autobiography, "A Prime Time Life." His father, David, worked as a tailor for Sears. As the lone Jew in his school, Spelling frequently was taunted and harassed by other students. He spent a year in bed at the age of eight after suffering a nervous breakdown from the constant pressure. The experience shaped his personality and spurred in him the creative storytelling impulse. He was eager to leave his hometown after graduating from high school and joining the Army Air Corps in 1942. He earned his Greatest Generation stripes with a three-year hitch during World War II that left him with a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and a mangled finger on his left hand from a sniper's bullet.
After his discharge, Spelling returned to Dallas to study journalism on the G.I. Bill at Southern Methodist University, where he served as the school's head cheerleader. He earned some acclaim with one-act plays that he wrote and directed, a move that was in and of itself a controversial act amid the pervasive anti-Semitism of the era. Whether apocryphal or not, Spelling often recounted in interviews how his rising profile in Dallas eventually cost his father his job, and that his sister Becky convinced Sears to reinstate him in exchange for her brother agreeing to leave town.
Spelling bounced around New York for a while looking for work as an actor and playwright. He landed in Los Angeles in 1953, virtually flat broke. He became active in the local theater scene and landed bit character parts in movies and TV series including "I Love Lucy," "Dragnet" and "Gunsmoke." During this period he married actress Carolyn Jones, later of "The Addams Family" fame. He also sought to sell scripts to various Westerns and other shows of the day. He eventually was taken under wing by Dick Powell, the former matinee idol-turned-television producer. Spelling worked round the clock for Powell's Four Star Television production banner producing such shows as CBS' "Zane Grey Theater" and "The Lloyd Bridges Show," NBC's "The Dick Powell Show" and ABC's "Burke's Law" and "Honey West." The first of Spelling's long list of TV series created-by credits was the 1959-60 CBS Western "Johnny Ringo," starring Don Durant as a reformed gunfighter trying to settle a lawless town in Arizona.
By the late '60s, Spelling was established enough to form his own production partnership with Danny Thomas, the hugely successful comedian and producer. The Thomas-Spelling production partnership yielded the youthful police drama "The Mod Squad," "The Guns of Will Sonnet" and "The Danny Thomas Hour." Goldberg, a former head of programming at ABC, partnered with Spelling in the early '70s for the era of such hits as "Starsky and Hutch," "Charlie's Angels," "The Rookies" and "Hart to Hart," starring Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers in a romantic light detective vehicle. During this period, Spelling worked under a lucrative, exclusive production pact with ABC. Spelling and Goldberg sold their television library to Columbia Pictures in the early '80s.
Spelling's longtime friendship with Lucille Ball led to one of the few half-hour comedies he ever attempted, the short-lived sitcom "Life With Lucy," which proved to be Ball's last series. The show was a high-profile flop for ABC in the fall of 1986. Spelling once said he knew the show would not make it during the first day of shooting for the pilot, when audience members gasped as Ball, then in her mid-70s, struggled to pull off the physical comedy that had been her trademark.
Spelling's business acumen was never as strong as his storytelling skills. He went solo with his Aaron Spelling Prods. banner in the late '70s. Spelling Communications, as it was renamed after its initial public offering in 1986, sought to expand beyond the volatile business of series production in 1988 with the acquisition of program distributor Worldvision Enterprises. In 1993, Spelling launched the 24-hour Latin American entertainment channel TeleUNO. The company made a big push into first-run syndication in the mid-'90s with short-lived dramas including "Robin's Hoods" and "University Hospital." Spelling Communications also launched a subsidiary production unit, Big Ticket Television, that fielded such hits as the syndicated court show "Judge Judy" and the UPN comedies "Moesha" and "The Parkers."
In 1993, home video retailer Blockbuster acquired nearly half the company and gradually increased its stake. When Blockbuster became part of a three-way merger deal between Sumner Redstone's Viacom and Paramount Communications in early 1994, Spelling moved with Blockbuster under the Viacom fold. Redstone put Viacom's stake in Spelling on the auction block more than once in the mid- to late-'90s. When no buyer emerged at the $750 million price tag Viacom sought, Redstone opted to buy up the remainder of Spelling in 1999. The friendship that blossomed between Redstone and Aaron Spelling during this period helped ensure a measure of autonomy for Spelling and his company within the Paramount Television banner in his final years.
"For a person of such fame, you would marvel at how unassuming, kind and gentle he was," said Redstone, now chairman of Viacom and CBS Corp., in the Los Angeles Times' Saturday edition.
Spelling was honored in 2000 by the Producers Guild of America with its Golden Laurel Award for Lifetime Achievement in Television. He also was recognized with six NAACP Image Awards during the course of his career. He was named Man of the Year by the Publicists Guild of America in 1971, among many other industry and philanthropic honors.
Spelling's marriage to Jones ended in 1965. In 1968, he married Candy, an interior designer. Their first child, Victoria (Tori), was born in 1973, followed five years later by Randy.
Funeral services will be private. Longtime Spelling publicist Kevin Sasaki said a memorial service is being planned for next month. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services, 3200 Motor Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90034.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Cynthia Littleton and Duane Byrge writes for The Hollywood Reporter.
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