Aaron Spelling, 83; Prolific TV Hitmaker

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 24, 2006

Aaron Spelling, 83, who produced a staggering number of commercial television hits over four decades and whose hallmarks were glamour, violence and sexy escapism, died Friday in Los Angeles.

He died at home after suffering a stroke June 18, his publicist said.

Mr. Spelling produced so many popular shows for ABC from the 1960s to the 1980s that it was often joked that the network's initials stood for "Aaron's Broadcasting Company." Shows he produced that ran for years on ABC included "Burke's Law," "The Mod Squad," "The Rookies," "Starsky and Hutch," "Charlie's Angels," "Hart to Hart," "Family," "The Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island," "Matt Houston," "Hotel" and "Dynasty."

The last, at its peak in the mid-1980s, reached 40 million viewers and commanded some of the highest advertising prices. Twenty years ago, Mr. Spelling's fortune was estimated at more than $100 million.

In the 1990s, he produced several series for other networks, including "Melrose Place," "7th Heaven," "Charmed," "Moesha" and "Beverly Hills 90210," which starred his daughter, Tori.

He far outpaced his rivals commercially but never won the critical respect of peers such as Norman Lear, producer of "All in the Family," "Maude" and "Sanford and Son."

"There is good and there is bad Spelling," a Washington Post television critic said in a 1996 Los Angeles Times Magazine article, "but there is never great Spelling, only degrees of terribleness."

Mr. Spelling's first major success was "Burke's Law," which ran on ABC from 1963 to 1966. The show starred Gene Barry as a millionaire Los Angeles chief of detectives fond of showing up at crime scenes in his chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce.

"It's a pretty show, well-shined, its pants pressed and shoes shined, a revolt against all the dusty cowboys of the westerns," Mr. Spelling said at the time. "And it's flip and casual, irreverent, which perhaps is a revolt against the 'dark problems' shows."

The emphasis was on glamorous locales and debonair people, and it had plenty of guest stars. It was an idea he helped create with Dick Powell.

"I think there is a need to escape," Mr. Spelling once said. "I think it is a release valve that keeps people from blowing their brains out or having nervous breakdowns. We find that the majority of our audience is worried, really worried, about the cost of food, how much it costs to send your kid to school, the cost of clothes.

"Unfortunately, we often have to make the choice between 150 critics and 150 million Americans out there, and I have always felt that my job was to please [the viewers]. To entertain them."

Mr. Spelling was born in Dallas on April 22, 1923, according to one authoritative account, although other dates have been given, and was the youngest of five children of a Russian Jewish immigrant tailor. Classmates often made anti-Semitic taunts, he later said, and his shyness and slight build made it hard to fight back.

While recuperating from what he called a "nervous breakdown" at age 8, he spent the year reading books and was especially drawn to O. Henry. He said most of his plotlines drew inspiration from O. Henry's ironic plotlines.

He began to put on shows during World War II while serving in the Army Air Forces in Europe. He continued his involvement in theater while attending Southern Methodist University on the G.I. Bill and also was reportedly the school's first Jewish cheerleader. Before graduating in 1950, he received several awards for his one-act plays, and this led to stage directing jobs in the Dallas area.

Hoping to write for television, he settled in Los Angeles and worked as an airline reservations clerk, talent scout for an all-girl orchestra and dinner theater director. He won movie bit parts in forgettable cowboy and crime films and acted on "Dragnet" and other television shows. Gradually, he managed to sell scripts to Dick Powell and Jane Wyman, both former actors who became producers.

He was so prolific contributing scripts for "Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre," the CBS western anthology program, that he became a producer of the show in 1960. Two years later, he produced his first series, "The Lloyd Bridges Show," a CBS dramatic anthology with Bridges playing an investigative freelance journalist.

He went on to produce "The Smothers Brothers Show," a sitcom; "The Guns of Will Sonnett," a western with Walter Brennan; "The Danny Thomas Hour," a musical-variety show starring the entertainer who became Mr. Spelling's business partner.

Thomas and Mr. Spelling produced the long-running drama "The Mod Squad," about counterculture youths -- one white (a drifter), one black (a Watts rioter), one woman (a prostitute's daughter) -- recruited to the police force to ferret out adult criminals targeting the young.

The show's contemporary dialogue and emphasis on violence was Mr. Spelling's attempt to win back younger viewers. It ran so long and was so commercially successful that Mr. Spelling was signed to an exclusive production contract with ABC. With Leonard Goldberg, a former ABC vice president of programming, he produced "The Rookies," about young cops who clash with hard-line commanding officer. He followed with "S.W.A.T.," with Steve Forrest and Robert Urich, and "Starsky and Hutch" with David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser.

Mr. Spelling and Goldberg teamed with Mike Nichols in 1976 to make the domestic drama "Family," one of Spelling's rare critical successes. The show won four Emmy Awards, all for acting, and became a point of pride for Mr. Spelling. He said he was "decimated" by its cancellation in 1980, later telling the New York Times that making that show "was the happiest creative time of my life."

Meanwhile, he was busy with "Charlie's Angels," an undisputed hit despite horrendous reviews. The detective show, which ran from 1976 to 1981, featured three gorgeous sleuths who use their street smarts and athleticism to stop crime. Among the rotating cast were Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith, Farrah Fawcett-Majors and Cheryl Ladd.

Fawcett-Majors, in particular, became a major pin-up star and tried to leave the show to focus on making movies.

He returned to the guest star format with "The Love Boat" (1977 to 1986) and "Fantasy Island" (1978 to 1984), with Ricardo Montalban as a wealthy host on an island who promises to fulfill all wishes. "The Love Boat" also was the first show from his new company, Aaron Spelling Productions.

The Spelling-Goldberg team also made "T.J. Hooker," with William Shatner. The series started on ABC in 1982 and switched to CBS in 1985, airing another two years.

His "Matt Houston" with Lee Horsley as a millionaire private investigator ran on ABC from 1982 to 1985.

There were flops, but they were followed by "Dynasty" (1981 to 1989) about the intrigues and internal disputes of a Denver oil family, starring John Forsythe, Joan Collins and Linda Evans.

Mr. Spelling was also credited with more than 200 made-for-television movies, numerous miniseries and several films for general theatrical release, including "Mr. Mom," with Michael Keaton.

Interspersed with these were critically acclaimed television series such as "Day One" and "And the Band Played On."

Of all his made-for-television movies, which included many by Jackie Collins and Danielle Steel, Spelling was said to be proudest of "The Best Little Girl in the World," a frank and realistic drama about a young woman suffering from anorexia nervosa that was broadcast by ABC in 1981.

But he said, for every one like that, "I did five 'Satan's School for Girls' or 'Hollywood Wives.' "

He helped finance the L.A. production of "Nicholas Nickleby" and " 'night Mother," Marsha Norman's play about suicide. Of "Cracked Up," an ABC drama involving addiction, he said he felt some twinge of responsibility for "Mod Squad" showing drug use as "kind of a fun thing."

When his ABC contract was to expire in 1988 he expressed happiness that he could shop his projects around.

He was described as an obsessive worker, intimately involved in his productions. He lived on an opulent estate once owned by Bing Crosby. He also maintained a stable of thoroughbred horses.

He gave generously to Jewish causes.

His memoir, "Aaron Spelling: A Prime Time Life," was not received kindly by book critics.

One Publishers Weekly reviewer said, "If Spelling's writing works on the tube, it doesn't fly on the printed page. This tame memoir offers little in the way of character shading or social insight."

His marriage to actress Carolyn Jones ended in divorce.

Survivors include his second wife, Carole Marer "Candy" Spelling, whom he married in 1968, and two children from his second marriage, Victoria and Randall.

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