Biz loses drama dynamo

Aaron Spelling, television’s most prolific and perhaps most commercially successful independent producer, died Friday at his home in Los Angeles, days after suffering a stroke. He was 83.

With an uncanny knack for programming for younger audiences, Spelling was responsible for some of TV’s most well-known dramas, including “The Mod Squad,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “The Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island,” “Dynasty,” “Melrose Place,” “Beverly Hills, 90210″ and “7th Heaven.”

He also was instrumental in putting no less than three networks on the map, producing signature series that transformed first ABC, then Fox and finally the WB into young adult magnets. Throughout his five-decade career, Spelling produced nearly 4,000 hours of television, landing him in the Guinness Book of World Records as TV’s most prolific drama producer.

While his CBS Paramount-based company is not nearly as active as it once was (see story, page 6), Spelling remained a working producer until his death. His WB drama “Charmed” ended its run in May, while another Frog staple — “7th Heaven” — is set to migrate to the new CW network in the fall.

Like Fred Silverman, the executive with whom he worked closely at ABC, Spelling was revered by some for his natural ability to predict what the country wanted to see and criticized by others for appealing to the lowest common denominator — producing shows Spelling once famously referred to as “mind candy.” Like it or not, Spelling’s primetime fantasies helped shape television programming for more than four decades.

“To me, he was a close friend, a loving, kind and gentle self,” Viacom topper Sumner Redstone said. “To the rest of the world, he was the most prolific creator on TV for our times, and maybe for all times.”

The smallest detail

CBS Corp. prexy-CEO Leslie Moonves, reached via email Saturday, called Spelling a “great showman” and “a gentleman” who prided himself in getting involved in all aspects of a production.

“He always paid incredible attention to every detail of every show,” said Moonves, who first met Spelling as an actor on an unsuccessful audition for one of Spelling’s shows. “He watched every frame of every episode as if he were a kid doing his first show.”

CAA co-chairman Lee Gabler, whose agency repped Spelling for more than 25 years, said Spelling’s shows “are more than entertainment. They have become part of the fabric of popular culture.”

Jordan Levin, the former chairman of the WB, said Spelling “operated at a pace that seemed like a throwback to an earlier Hollywood era.

“Time was spent. Nothing was quick. You would literally spend hours in his office discussing a pitch, but that process led to making the project better.”

Not as widely known, according to Levin, were Spelling’s skills as an editor. “He knew how to take something that wasn’t working and fix it in the cut. Storytelling for him didn’t stop on the page,” Levin said.

The Dallas native was the son of an immigrant Russian tailor. Although raised in the city’s Jewish enclave, he ventured out of the neighborhood to attend a non-Jewish school. Bullied by classmates because of his religion, a traumatized Spelling had a nervous breakdown and temporarily lost the use of his legs at age 8. During his yearlong confinement in bed, he reportedly honed his storytelling abilities by reading Mark Twain, O. Henry and other literary greats.

Perhaps those early childhood troubles stuck with Spelling, since those who know him said he remained modest and unassuming despite the trappings that came with enormous wealth and success — including his expansive Holmby Hills, Calif., mansion.

“Aaron was never really a Hollywood guy, personally or professionally,” said outgoing WB Network topper Garth Ancier, who worked with Spelling at both the WB and Fox. “He had the heart of a good-natured Middle American.”

Ancier said Spelling “always looked a bit out of place at the mansion with its huge, endless rooms” and that Spelling’s library, which contained bound volumes of scripts from all of his series and movies, was his sanctuary.

“I think he was happiest smoking a pipe in that room talking about his characters,” Ancier added.

Levin said Spelling “had a Southern graciousness about him and never forgot his roots,” something that caused “sort of this disconnect” between how Spelling acted and the reality of his status.

“When he had a problem with his roof, he’d describe it as though it were any other roof from any other house,” Levin said. “He’d talk about his best friend, but his best friend just so happened to be Sumner Redstone. He’d show you a painting he stumbled across in Paris that he liked, and it turned out to be a Renoir.”

After his youthful breakdown, Spelling recovered and went on to serve in the Army Air Corps during WWII. After returning home, Spelling graduated from Southern Methodist U. and then headed to New York to find work as an actor and writer. Unable to get any writing gigs, Spelling landed work as a character actor in films such as “Vicki,” “Black Widow,” “Wyoming Renegades” and “Target Zero” throughout the 1950s.

Along with his wife, the actress Carolyn Jones, Spelling moved to California, living for a time in a $3 a night hotel on L.A.’s Franklin Avenue. While Jones’ career took off, his dreams of becoming a writer remained unfulfilled. Reluctantly, he returned to acting. But his luck changed when actor-production executive Dick Powell hired Spelling as a scriptwriter and producer for his Four Star Prods.

At Four Star, Spelling helped produce episodes of “Zane Grey Theatre” and “The Dick Powell Show.” In 1959, he created his first TV series, the Western “Johnny Ringo.”

The early years

Spelling’s early series, including “The Lloyd Bridges Show” and “Burke’s Law,” were only modestly successful. But when Powell died, Spelling partnered with comedian-TV producer Danny Thomas and hit the jackpot with “The Mod Squad” in 1968. With “Mod Squad,” Spelling proved he could program for younger audiences — an increasingly important skill in the TV business.

After his divorce from Jones in 1965, Spelling married Carol Jean (Candy) Marer in 1968. The couple had two children, Victoria (Tori) and Randall (Randy).

With nearly 200 television credits, Spelling produced or exec produced 10 series or made-for-TV movies in 1970 alone — most of them for ABC, the network with which he was most closely linked throughout his career.

Starting with “The Mod Squad,” Spelling produced nearly 30 series for ABC over a 25-year span, as well as six minis and dozens of telepics. In 1984, Spelling’s seven series for ABC accounted for roughly half of the net’s 15 hours of scripted programming. He had shows on four of seven nights and programmed the net’s entire Saturday sked.

Critics responded by dubbing the Alphabet “Aaron’s Broadcasting Company.” Two decades later, Spelling told Variety that the phrase caused a rift between him and the network.

“We broke up over it,” Spelling said in a 2003 interview. “I was blamed for calling it that, but I never said that in my entire life. Even if I hated them, I wouldn’t have said it.”

The 1970s were hugely successful for Spelling, who partnered with Leonard Goldberg to exec produce a string of popular crime drama skeins that continued into the ’80s: “The Rookies,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “S.W.A.T.” and “T.J. Hooker.” Their show “Charlie’s Angels,” which premiered in 1976, injected a twist into the crime drama by casting gorgeous women in the leading roles. Critics denounced it as “massage parlor television,” but the public loved it.

Spelling worked with partner Douglas S. Cramer on still more hit crime dramas, including “Vega$,” as well as the more romantic “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island,” which continued to populate the small screen with beautiful people living out their dreams. Some critics characterized Spelling’s shows as superficial fluff, but he earned respect for his primetime soap “Family,” which aired on ABC from 1976-80. More successful shows followed, including “Hart to Hart” and “Hotel.” The ABC nighttime soap “Dynasty,” one of many shows on which Spelling partnered with E. Duke Vincent, exemplified Spelling’s brand of escapist entertainment. It ran 1981-89.

In addition to his numerous hits, Spelling also produced his fair share of  misfires throughout the ’80s, including “Glitter,” “Dynasty” spinoff “The Colbys” and “Nightingales.”

Low point for Spelling came in 1989, when the producer suddenly found himself without any shows on the air. In a 1995 interview with Daily Variety, Spelling spoke of how tough that time was for him.

“You know Hollywood,” Spelling said. “You are suddenly not invited to premieres. You get out of the car and when once there were photographers that came over, suddenly they act like they are busy. And I think the thing that spurred me on was a headline in Variety. The headline said, ‘Spelling’s dynasty dead.’ It didn’t mean the show. It meant ‘dynasty,’ in quotation marks. That was a tough one.”

Big rebound

But Spelling hit paydirt again in 1990 with the frothy teen drama “Beverly Hills, 90210,” starring an ensemble cast that included his daughter, Tori. Two years later, Spelling — paired with Darren Star — introduced the nighttime soap opera “Melrose Place,” which, like “Beverly Hills, 90210,” developed a devoted fan base for Fox. The two series ran for most of the decade; two other Spelling skeins for Fox — “The Heights” and “Models, Inc.” — weren’t so lucky.

Spelling managed to incorporate social issues in his work throughout his career, especially in telepics such as “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” “The Best Little Girl in the World” and the acclaimed AIDS miniseries “And the Band Played On.” He won an Emmy in 1988 for “Day One,” his TV movie about the Manhattan Project.

Levin noted that such projects meant much to Spelling, who throughout his career endured many critical barbs. “He always seemed proudest of shows that mattered,” he said.

Spelling is survived by wife Candy and his two children. Memorial services are pending.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more