BORN: April 22, 1923 • Dallas, Texas
DIED: June 23, 2006 • Los Angeles, California
American television producer
During his fifty years in the television industry, producer Aaron Spelling created over 4,300 hours of network TV programming—more than anyone else in history. He is probably best known for introducing soap opera-style dramas to prime-time TV, including Dynasty, The Love Boat, Beverly Hills, 90210, and Melrose Place. While some of Spelling's programs have been dismissed by critics as lightweight entertainment with no lasting value, the veteran producer also won a number of awards for addressing difficult social problems and issues in his work.
"You can't predict if a show is going to work out or not until it's On the air."
Becoming an actor and writer
Born April 22, 1923, Aaron Spelling grew up in a poor area of Dallas, Texas, as the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Aaron's father worked as a tailor, and his family, which included five children, lived humbly. As the only Jewish kid in his primary and secondary schools, Spelling was teased a lot by his peers. This social rejection caused him so much anxiety that he developed a psychosomatic reaction (physical symptoms caused by an emotional disturbance) and lost the use of his legs for a year. While bedridden, Spelling spent much time reading. Authors Mark Twain and O. Henry were among his favorites.
After serving the Army Air Force, Spelling enrolled in Southern Methodist University. He studied theater and received the Eugene O'Neill and Harvard Awards for plays he wrote during his undergraduate years. In an era when many schools in the South were segregated by race, Spelling angered many people by agreeing to serve as the director of an African American high school play. His courageous decision had negative consequences, though: Spelling was forced to leave Texas, and his father very nearly lost his job.
Spelling then moved to New York, where he found some work as an actor but had little success as a writer. In 1953, Spelling married Carolyn Jones, an actress best known for her role as Morticia in the television series The Addams Family. The couple moved to Hollywood, where Spelling acted in several small roles in movies and television shows, including I Love Lucy, Dragnet, and Gunsmoke. Within three years of his arrival in California, Spelling had also sold several scripts for TV series, including Playhouse 90.
Finding success as a television producer
Spelling began working as a television producer in the early 1960s. Although he eventually became the most successful producer in the history of television, his first series, The Lloyd Bridges Show, was a failure in 1962 and was canceled after only one season. His next effort, Burke's Law, fared better, running from 1963 to 1966. In 1967, Spelling joined forces with comedian and actor Danny Thomas (1914–1991) to create Thomas-Spelling Productions. Their most successful TV series, a detective show called The Mod Squad, featuring teenage detectives, received numerous Emmy Award nominations. (Emmy Awards are annual honors recognizing excellence in television programming.) Spelling divorced his first wife in 1965, and three years later he married socialite Carol Jean (Candy) Marer. They had two children, Randy and Tori.
Spelling's career took off in 1973, when he formed a partnership with fellow producer Leonard Goldberg. Spelling and Goldberg produced a number of hit drama series in the 1970s, including Charlie's Angels, about three attractive female private detectives; Starsky and Hutch, about a pair of tough city cops; and Fantasy Island, about a magical place where troubled people could go to solve their problems and make their dreams come true. Spelling and Goldberg also produced a popular made-for-TV movie, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, starring a young John Travolta.
One of Spelling's most highly regarded shows from this era was Family. This series—an hour-long, realistic drama about a middle-class family—premiered on ABC in 1976. "When we did Family, everybody said, 'You can't do a family show,'" Spelling told Anna Carugati of Worldscreen.com. "I don't know who said that but I think he doesn't have a family." The show proved to be very popular, earned four Emmy Awards, and is still considered to be one of Spelling's best works.
The Job of a Television Producer
The role of a television producer varies greatly, depending on the individual and the project. Some producers control every creative and technical aspect of a show. They come up with the original concept, write the script, arrange for financing, oversee the building of a set, hire a director and cast, and participate in network scheduling decisions. On the other hand, some celebrity producers might lend their name to a project and have very little hands-on participation in its development. In general, television producers tend to have a higher level of involvement in their projects than film producers. As Muriel G. Cantor noted in The Hollywood TV Producer: His Work and His Audience, film is a "director's medium," while television is a "producer's medium."
Many successful TV producers, like Aaron Spelling, start out as writers for a particular network. Even as his success increased, Spelling continued to collaborate with other writers on the shows that he produced. "The producer hires the writers to do one or more scripts during a season, and often works with them, directing the tone and content of the script," Cantor explained. Casting is often a collaborative effort between the director and producer of a TV show, although the producer usually has the final say. Spelling has often been recognized for his brilliant casting choices.
Even the most powerful television producers, however, must answer to big production studios and networks. A producer may write, own, cast, and produce a show, but final approval for all of these decisions must be granted by the network that ultimately airs the program. Spelling found the work of a television producer to be both busy and rewarding. "Right now I'm doing four shows at a time, trying to read four outlines every week, four scripts every week, and watching four rough cuts," he told Anna Carugati of Worldscreen.com in 2003. "It's a lot of good work."
Creating his own production company
In 1977, Spelling formed his own company, Aaron Spelling Productions (later called Spelling Entertainment). The company's first series, The Love Boat, was hugely popular and ran for nine years. Set aboard a cruise ship, the show was unusual in that each episode introduced viewers to a new set of passengers—and their romantic entanglements. A number of big-name celebrities made one-time appearances on the show as passengers. The only recurring characters were a few members of the ship's crew, who helped to advance the story.
In 1981, Spelling produced Dynasty, a prime-time soap opera about the conflicts between wealthy and powerful families. The show was a tremendous success, ranking among the top shows on television for most of its eight-year run. Spelling oversaw every detail of production on Dynasty, from casting to costumes and hairstyles to dialogue. Some critics claimed that Dynasty stood out among the many similar shows of that era because of Spelling's brilliant casting decisions. His best move was hiring Joan Collins to play the rich and beautiful villain, Alexis Carrington Colby. "Joan Collins is … the archetype [example for all similar characters in the future]," E. Duke Vincent, vice chairman of Spelling Entertainment, told the Sydney Morning Herald. "How do you get that? You get it in the storytelling, obviously, but the actress herself, her personality, brought something to that role which I don't think anybody else could have done."
By 1984, Spelling had seven different series running on ABC. In fact, some people jokingly referred to the network as Aaron's Broadcasting Company. Spelling also branched out into producing full-length feature films during the 1980s, including 'Night Mother, an intimate drama starring Sissy Spacek; and Mr. Mom, a comedy starring Michael Keaton.
Continuing to reach television audiences
Spelling helped launch a major television trend in the 1990s when he created several popular programs aimed at teenagers, beginning with the drama Beverly Hills, 90210. The story follows a group of students at West Beverly Hills High School. It revolves around twins Brandon and Brenda Walsh (played by Jason Priestly and Shannen Doherty), whose family has recently moved to the glitzy area of southern California from Minnesota. The cast also featured Spelling's daughter, Tori, in a prominent role.
Although 90210 used some of the conventions of the prime-time soap opera, it treated the concerns of its youthful audience more seriously than most teen dramas. For instance, one of the main characters, Dylan, struggles with drug and alcohol abuse. Several other characters cope with the divorce and remarriage of their parents or face the decision of whether or not to become sexually active. Although some critics complained that the show focused exclusively on upper-class white kids, many teenaged viewers recognized themselves and their problems in the characters. 90210 became a pop culture phenomenon, launching books and fan clubs and setting clothing and hairstyle trends across the country. It also started a trend in which the television industry increasingly targeted younger viewers.
Following the success of 90210, Spelling launched another youthful soap, Melrose Place, in 1992. Also set in southern California, this show revolves around a group of attractive people in their twenties. Most of the characters are at a point in their lives when they are concerned about starting careers or getting married. Melrose Place tended to be less serious and more sensational than 90210. The show's wild story lines, dark humor, and cynical outlook gained a huge following among college students, who enjoyed watching the show in large groups. Melrose Place also became one of the first programs to build a presence on the Internet, as fans gathered online to discuss plot developments and predict the fate of various characters.
In 1993, Spelling showed his serious side by producing the Emmy Award-winning HBO movie And the Band Played On, which challenges viewers' assumptions about homosexuality and AIDS. Based on the book by Randy Shilts, the movie took four years to complete. As soon as he read the book, Spelling invited the author to Hollywood and began negotiating with various TV networks. The broadcast networks shied away from the controversial subject matter, but Spelling eventually found a home for the project with the pay-cable network HBO.
And the Band Played On demonstrated Spelling's long-standing commitment to increasing diversity in TV programming. "I love giving time to gay actors, gay characters; I think it's wrong to say, 'You don't exist,'" he told Carugati. "I like diversity in shows." Over the years, Spelling also received six Image Awards from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for his contributions to improving the representation of African Americans on television.
Michael Idato of the Sydney Morning Herald noted that throughout his career, Spelling's productions have "successfully tapped the sensibility of their audience at the time, whether they were looking for challenging television or pure escapist candy to take them out of their ordinary lives." In order to stay in touch with TV viewers, Spelling often asked for opinions from a wide variety of people—from fellow passengers on trains and airplanes to his colleagues at Spelling Entertainment.
Diagnosed with oral cancer in 2001, Spelling underwent successful treatment. In June 2006 Spelling suffered a stroke and died a few days later. Just prior to his death, the veteran producer had two hit shows running on prime-time television, the family drama 7th Heaven, which had ended its ten-year run but was picked up by the new CW network, and the teen-oriented supernatural series Charmed, which ended its successful eight-year run in May 2006.
For More Information
Cantor, Muriel G. The Hollywood TV Producer: His Work and His Audience. New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1988.
Idato, Michael. "The Great Escape." Sydney Morning Herald, September 19, 2005.
Rauch, Melissa. "Who Will Be Next Survivor of New Fall Programs?" Observer, September 20, 2000.
Stein, Joel. "Aaron Spelling." Time, August 13, 2001.
"Aaron Spelling: Prime Time Patriarch." Oralcancerfoundation.org. http://www.oralcancerfoundation.org/people/aaron_spelling.htm (accessed on May 22, 2006).
Carugati, Anna. "Spelling Television's Aaron Spelling." Worldscreen.com, April 2003. http://www.worldscreen.com/print.php?filename=0403spelling.txt (accessed on May 22, 2006).
"Frequently Asked Questions." Producers Guild of America. http://www.producersguild.org/pg/about_a/faq.asp (accessed on May 22, 2006).