Aaron Spelling

Television's most prolific producer - maker of 'Dynasty', 'Charlie's Angels' and 'Starsky and Hutch'
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The Independent Online

Aaron Spelling, television producer: born Dallas 22 April 1923; married 1953 Carolyn Jones (marriage dissolved 1964), 1968 Carole Marer (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 23 June 2006.

The three G's - gloss, glitz and glamour - were the trademarks of Aaron Spelling, who earned his place in the Guinness World Records book as television's most prolific producer. Starsky and Hutch, Charlie's Angels, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Hart to Hart, Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210 were just some of the series that made a splash worldwide.

Television critics were unimpressed, but it was the viewers whom Spelling aimed to please. He said the key to his success was "knowing the audience", explaining:

I relate to the audience. People always ask me questions when I meet them, but I ask them, "What do you like to see?" I go out and talk to the tour buses that stop in front of my house. I think knowing the audience is the key and not just making shows networks want . . . I have a plaque that says, "We don't make TV for the Bel-Air circuit." People want to escape, and escapism doesn't have to be comedy. It can be romantic escape. It can be a soap-opera escape.

Indeed, Spelling's most famous soap, Dynasty (1981-89), epitomised his style of entertainment. As executive producer, he hired Esther and Richard Shapiro to create the ABC network's response to CBS's Dallas, which offered escapism with its tale of nasty J.R. Ewing and his oil-rich Texas family. Working on the idea in Mae West's old dressing-room at the Warner Brothers Studios, the couple updated the I, Claudius theme of villainy among a dynasty of Roman emperors to create another oil-rich family, this time in Denver, Colorado, headed by the smooth Blake Carrington (John Forsythe) and his new wife, Krystle (Linda Evans).

The result was no overnight sensation. In fact, the serial was in danger of sinking as audiences plummeted, but that changed when the first run approached its conclusion, with Blake on trial for murdering the boyfriend of his bisexual son Steven. Into court, as the prosecution's chief witness, swept Alexis Carrington, Blake's first wife, in the form of the fading British film actress Joan Collins, whose most recent big-screen roles had been in soft-porn pictures such as The Stud and The Bitch.

She proved the perfect bitch in Dynasty and, in Alexis's battles with Blake and cat-fights with Krystle - in a lily pond, a mud puddle, a beauty parlour and a burning cabin - Collins brought the programme the ingredient that won over fans in 70 countries and saw it surpass Dallas's popularity in the United States in 1984.

Her padded shoulders ushered in a soap that would become as famous for its fashions - plunging necklines, wings, trains, bustles, furs and jewels - as its outrageous storylines. This made it a natural successor to Spelling's previous international hit, Charlie's Angels (1976-81), which featured three female private detectives - played by Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith and Farrah Fawcett-Majors - who went through multiple outfits in each episode and were notable for their trendy hairstyles and make-up.

While that might have satisfied female viewers, males were happy to watch the trio posing undercover as strippers, cheerleaders and health-spa attendants as they carried out assignments issued by their unseen boss (voiced by John Forsythe, pre-Blake Carrington). The sight of the scantily clad trio every week led to accusations of sexism and the programme was labelled "jiggle TV", but it was soon watched by 50 million Americans and many more around the world.

Such programmes made Spelling rich beyond belief, enabling him to build the Manor, the largest single-family home in California, a 56,000 sq ft, 123-room mansion with bowling alley, swimming pool, gymnasium, tennis court, skating rink, screening room and four two-car garages on six acres in Los Angeles's exclusive Bel-Air district - after buying Bing Crosby's former house there in 1983 and knocking it down.

It was a far cry from the producer's humble beginnings. Born of Jewish immigrant parents in Dallas in 1923 - his father was a tailor - Spelling grew up in poverty alongside three brothers and a sister. He was a victim of anti-Semitism and the bullying he experienced led to depression and, at the age of nine, he didn't move from his bed for a year. He said:

I went to a school that was a block and a half from a cotton mill, and there was a group of kids we called the Cotton Mill Gang before the word "gang" came into use. I used to get my ass kicked every day going to school and coming home. My mother had to take me to school and pick me up. And then they would throw rocks at her. I had a nervous breakdown. I couldn't move. I couldn't walk. I didn't want to go there any more. I couldn't stand the abuse.

Spelling weaved tales in his imagination during that year in bed and developed a love for cinema when his mother later took him to watch the latest films, walking into town because they could not afford the bus fare. Then, he wrote for Stars and Stripes magazine while serving in the US Army Air Force during the Second World War, 1942-45, when he was awarded a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star after being wounded in the left hand and knee by a sniper.

After studying in Paris at the Sorbonne (1945-46), Spelling gained a BA in journalism from Southern Methodist University, Dallas (1947-50), where his writing ability earned him two Eugene O'Neill Awards for his one-act plays. He then directed plays in the Dallas area before heading for Hollywood and starting out as an actor.

He made his début as a desk clerk in the digs of a murdered model in the film noir Vicki (1953), the first of his nine pictures, and appeared in episodes of legendary television series such as Dragnet (1953, 1954, 1955), I Love Lucy (1955), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955) and Gunsmoke (1956).

But, with an ambition to write, he sold his first script, Twenty Dollar Bride (1957), to Jane Wyman Presents the Fireside Theatre and subsequently contributed to other anthology shows such as Playhouse 90 (1958), Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse (1958), The Dick Powell Show (1961) and Zane Grey Theater (1958, 1959, 1961), as well as three 1957 episodes to the classic western series Wagon Train.

This led Spelling to become a producer for Four Star Productions, which made Zane Grey Theater and the classic detective series Burke's Law (1963-65), starring Gene Barry as a Los Angeles detective and millionaire playboy who arrives at crime scenes in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce - perhaps a sign of the glamour to come from Spelling.

He soon rose to the heights of executive producer, for popular series such as Daniel Boone (starring Fess Parker as the Kentucky frontier hero, 1964-70) and Honey West (with Anne Francis as a female private eye, 1965-66), before teaming up with the actor-producer Danny Thomas in 1967 to form Thomas/ Spelling Productions, whose most successful programme was The Mod Squad (1968-73), another police drama.

Spelling moved on just a year into that series to start his own company, Aaron Spelling Productions, in 1969, but his greatest successes came after forming Spelling-Goldberg Productions with another producer, Leonard Goldberg, three years later.

Glamour was the order of the day and the pair's first worldwide hit was Starsky and Hutch (1975-79), starring Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul as the streetwise detectives in tyre-squealing action, driving around in their red 1974 Ford Torino and apprehending crooks with the shout: "Freeze!" In contrast to the sexism of Charlie's Angels, the drama featured major black characters and gritty realism in its storylines, although one British police chief, Kenneth Oxford, was not a fan, claiming that the example set by the screen cops was causing police officers to begin "driving like bloody maniacs".

Then came The Love Boat (1977-86), following cruise passengers' search for romance, Fantasy Island (1978-84), with guests in a remote tropical paradise seeing their dreams come true, Hart to Hart (1979-81), starring Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers as husband-and-wife amateur sleuths, and T.J. Hooker (1982-86), with William Shatner playing a veteran policeman committed to beating street crime at first hand rather than accepting promotion.

Hotel (1983-88), based on Arthur Haley's best-seller of the same title and starring James Brolin, was effectively Love Boat in a landlocked San Francisco setting and made by Aaron Spelling Productions, as was Dynasty, which spawned a less-than-successful spin-off, The Colbys (1985-87), following the lives of the Carringtons' Californian cousins and featuring Charlton Heston and Stephanie Beacham.

At one time in the 1980s, Spelling had seven series on the ABC network, accounting for one-third of its peak-time schedule and leading it to be dubbed Aaron's Broadcasting Company.

But Spelling's winning ways appeared to desert him after Dynasty was axed in 1989 and his exclusive, 18-year deal with ABC ended. Then came a phone call from Barry Diller, of the fledgling Fox network, who asked the producer: "Did you ever think about doing a high-school show?" "What the hell do I know about high school?" retorted Spelling. "What about your two kids, you idiot," came the reply. The result was Beverly Hills 90210 (1990-2000).

Spelling found a new, young audience and continued his string of international successes with Melrose Place (1992-99), a steamy, twentysomething soap set in a trendy Los Angeles apartment block, and Charmed (1998-2006), about three sisters using witchcraft to battle the forces of evil.

In addition to producing more than 5,000 hours of television, Spelling was an executive producer of the film Charlie's Angels (2000) and made some other feature films that were no more than moderately successful. "Movies are tough," he said:

I lost my passion for them. It takes two to two and a half years before it is on the screen. I like TV. You do it and it's on.

Spelling's 11-year marriage to the actress Carolyn Jones ended in divorce in 1964. Tori and Randy, the two children of his second marriage, to Carole Marer, are both actors, Tori having played Donna Martin in Beverly Hills 90210. The producer's autobiography, Aaron Spelling: a prime-time life, written with Jefferson Graham, was published in 1996.

Anthony Hayward

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