Aaron Spelling's Zippy Code

Aaron Spelling had a record 3,000 series episodes to his credit.
Aaron Spelling had a record 3,000 series episodes to his credit. (1996 Associated Press Photo)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

Not every television show produced by Aaron Spelling was silly or sleazy, but those that weren't seemed to have sneaked in over the transom or slipped in under the door. Spelling was one of Hollywood's wealthiest and most prolific producers, and he didn't get that way, as the old saying goes, by overestimating the intelligence of the American people.

But millions of those American people liked what they saw in shows like "Dynasty," "Charlie's Angels" and "Beverly Hills, 90210," and Spelling, usually with his partner Leonard Goldberg, was more than willing to crank them out, like gooey, chewy confections on a candy factory's conveyor belt. Candy, in fact, is the name of his widow, his second wife.

Spelling died Friday, about a week after suffering a stroke, at the age of 83. If critics -- this one included -- were unkind to him during his long career in producing escapist television, even they would have to admit that Spelling had that proverbial "finger on the pulse of the American public"; with the other nine, he could count the millions that poured into his empire, a reward for assessing the audience's appetite and satiating it.

He was America's Trashmaster Flash, the man who specialized in dangling images of wealth, power and glamour in viewers' faces so they could pant and gasp over them -- and yet still go to bed comforted by the notion that the rich really are miserable under the tuxedos and designer gowns. In his heyday at ABC -- during which he virtually saved the network from oblivion -- Spelling was unquestionably a trendsetter, a man whose shows established genres that other producers, at other networks, strove to imitate.

With its debut in 1981, "Dynasty" -- in the footsteps of CBS's hit "Dallas" -- helped bring the soap opera back to prime-time network television and proved it could still work. It was also one of the first episodic dramas to feature a gay character -- a rich patriarch's post-adolescent son -- as part of the regular cast. Veteran TV columnist John Carmody dubbed the boy "Sensitive Steve."

When "Dynasty," dominated by graying magnates and middle-aged minxes, had run its course, Spelling reinvented it with younger characters for a younger audience at a younger network: His vapid, but addictive "Beverly Hills, 90210" helped put Fox on the map. The network's current hit "The O.C.," though not produced by Spelling, clearly continues in traditions he established, and even bears a certain resemblance to "Malibu Shores," a series Spelling sold to NBC in 1996. That show, however, proved to be one of his infrequent flops.

He did the occasional "quality" series, notably ABC's "Family" (1976-80), a thoughtful domestic drama about a middle-class family and its everyday problems. But "Family" didn't attract audiences as large, nor is it likely to be remembered as long, as "Melrose Place," another prime-time soap full of sex and secrets.

"Dynasty" reflected and epitomized the glitz and greed of the '80s, but the show still plays in reruns on cable. In fact, no matter how the cognoscenti may try to dismiss them, Spelling's shows have a way of hanging around or returning in new incarnations. Movies based on "Charlie's Angels" mopped up at the box office in recent years, albeit with production values and randy antics that wouldn't have been possible at ABC; the series was the subject of a TV movie, "Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of 'Charlie's Angels,' " that was a ratings hit for NBC.

"Angels" epitomized yet another arguably mindless genre: "jiggle TV." The reigning philosophy at the show was to get the three girls into their bikinis as often as possible, and to get the bikinis wet, whenever the scripts, as flimsy as the bathing suits, would allow.

Perhaps Spelling's life will be a movie itself someday, since he definitely lived the proverbial American dream. Born into poverty in Dallas and subjected to anti-Semitic taunts as a child, he suffered what he later called a nervous breakdown at the tender age of 8. All the hardships made him that much more determined to succeed and made it that much more inevitable he would end up in Hollywood, where determination and tastelessness can take you a long way.

He originally tried his hand at acting, and can be seen playing a hayseed pumping gas in an episode of "I Love Lucy," a performance he praised in his autobiography, published in 1996. Ironically or not, Spelling would much later team up with Lucille Ball for "Life with Lucy," an attempted comeback by the 75-year-old star that had a brief and unhappy run on ABC in 1986.

Spelling recalled that when he pitched the show to ABC executives, he got "the easiest 'yes' I've ever gotten in my life," according to "Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz." Prior to the premiere, Spelling said he was letting Ball call the shots: "I'd be an idiot not to trust Lucy with how to do Lucy," he said. He was hardly being an idiot, but the woman who had been television's comedy queen was no longer up to the broad and physical humor called for in the series' old-fashioned scripts.

Spelling's first hit as a producer was the classy mystery-comedy "Burke's Law," with Gene Barry as a very rich detective solving crimes that always involved big-time guest stars. Although he'd continued to do acting jobs in the '50s (he has one line, as a beggar, in the MGM musical "Kismet") and wrote scripts for "Desilu Playhouse" and other drama anthologies, Spelling realized that his talents were best suited to the job of producer.

And while few of his future shows had the wit or class of "Burke's Law," Spelling unquestionably became one of the most successful and imitated producers in television history, with a record 3,000 series episodes to his credits. And he did do the occasional good deed -- among them "Day One" (1989), a docudrama on the creation of the atomic bomb, and "And the Band Played On" (1992), a dramatization of Randy Shilts's acclaimed book about the beginnings of the AIDS crisis.

Spelling's son Randy played a role in "Malibu Shores," but it was his daughter Tori who made the bigger splash as an actor, though hardly without a chorus of jeers from the sidelines. She was ridiculed for her less-than-flawless facial features and a kind of klutziness that afflicted her performances on "Beverly Hills, 90210" and others of Daddy's productions. But for her work in a low-budget independent movie called "Trick" she earned respect and critical acclaim, and she's anything but the first person to take advantage of nepotism in Hollywood, where it has practically become an art form.

A tiny man who lived in a very big house, Spelling liked to be photographed holding a pipe, perhaps an attempt to lend him a note of class and distinction. The big house was, in fact, another Spelling production that earned vociferous criticism, especially from neighbors in ritzy Holmby Hills, where it utterly engulfs an entire block. After the house's completion, there were rampant rumors, which Spelling denied, that he convinced a department store on Wilshire Boulevard to move its neon sign, after decades spent in the same location, to a spot where it wouldn't mar the Spellings' view.

The little kid in Dallas who said he had grown up thinking "Jew boy" was one word -- having heard it so many times directed at him -- had the last laugh on all his detractors, including the critics whose derisive diatribes seemed only mildly to irk him. His era as well as his life are over now, with the TV audience favoring "reality" shows and gritty crime dramas. No single producer had greater influence -- nor as much fun wielding it.

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