Born April 22, 1923, in Dallas, TX; died of complications from a stroke, June 23, 2006, in Los Angeles, CA. Television producer. Aaron Spelling reigned as the king of prime-time television drama for more than 30 years. With a legacy that included Charlie's Angels, Dynasty , and Beverly Hills, 90210 , as well as more than 200 other series and feature films, Spelling was ranked by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific television producer in the history of the medium. His glittery dramas were often loathed by critics, but as film director and producer Joel Schumacher once told the Los Angeles Times , "Aaron knows we like to watch rich people fight with each another."
Spelling was the son of immigrant Jewish parents who settled in Dallas, Texas, where he was born in 1923. The family struggled financially during his childhood, and Spelling was bullied at school because of his Jewish heritage. At the age of eight, he suffered what he later called a nervous breakdown because of the taunting, and was unable to walk for months. He stayed in bed, and spent the better part of a year reading; the short stories of O. Henry were a particular favorite.
During World War II, Spelling served with the Army Air Corps in Europe, and was wounded by a sniper, and earned a Purple Heart medal. He returned to civilian life and enrolled at Southern Methodist University, and by the time he graduated in 1950 was already staging one-act plays in his hometown. An all-black cast in one stage production stirred up some minor controversy in conservative Dallas; however, Spelling's father lost his job as a tailor at a Sears department store because of it. Store management agreed to rehire him if Spelling left town, and he complied. Heading first to New York City but unable to find work, he moved on to Los Angeles. He worked as an airline reservations agent and talent scout while attempting to break into show business as a performer. Bit roles in movies and television came his way, but he began to write television scripts and had much better success. He found steady work writing for a popular CBS network series, Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre , and he proved so adept at the form that in 1960 Powell, a former actor, hired Spelling as a producer.
Spelling's first genuine success as a producer came in an ABC series, Burke's Law , that ran from 1963 to 1966. Its title character was an independently wealthy Los Angeles police detective who often arrived at crime scenes in his Rolls Royce. By the end of the decade, Spelling had entered into a business partnership with actor Danny Thomas, and their production company scored another ratings hit for ABC, The Mod Squad , a cop drama featuring a trio of hippie detectives. That led to an exclusive contract to produce shows for the network, and Spelling went on to make several other hour-long dramas that all did spectacularly well with audiences, if not critics. These included the police dramas S.W. A.T. and Starsky and Hutch , television movies that included an early breakout role for John Travolta called The Boy in the Plastic Bubble , and finally the sole series of Spelling's career that earned genuine critical accolades as well as a couple of Emmys, Family , an earnest but well-written drama about a middle-class California clan.
Family debuted the same year as Spelling's best-known and perhaps most widely reviled series, Charlie's Angels . The latter show featured a trio of attractive private detectives, ran from 1976 to 1981, and was "decried by critics as the end of the civilized world as they knew it, and embraced by audiences who made it the season's fifth highest-rated program," noted E! Online reporter Joal Ryan. Spelling went on to dominate ABC's line-up for the next several years, with his production company scoring hits with The Love Boat, Fantasy Island , and finally Dynasty , a dishy drama about a wealthy Denver oil clan that became one of the most successful prime-time series of the 1980s.
When Dynasty was cancelled in 1989, it marked the first time in 20 years that Spelling did not have a series on ABC, and he later called this the low point of his career. True to form, he returned with the high-school soap drama Beverly Hills, 90210 in 1990 for the FOX network, followed by another California-set hour-long campfest called Melrose Place . Both were among the highest-rated series for the decade, and launched the careers of several performers, among them Spelling's daughter, Tori.
Tori—short for Victoria—and her brother, Randy, were Spelling's children from his second marriage to a former model, Carole "Candy" Marer in 1968. His first wife was actress Carolyn Jones, who played Morticia on The Addams Family series. The Spellings and their children lived in the Holmby Hills area of Los Angeles, where Spelling bought an estate once owned by Bing Crosby but tore it down to make room for the largest private residence in Los Angeles at 56,000 square feet and 123 rooms. Never forgetting his humble roots in a Dallas household that was so poor the family had to take in boarders, Spelling preferred to live lavishly, including ordering refrigerated truckfulls of snow so that his young children could enjoy a white Christmas.
Though he was somewhat reclusive in his later years, Spelling was known to venture out to the gate of his home to greet the tour buses that stopped there to gawk at the enormous residence. The longtime pipe-smoker was diagnosed with oral cancer in 2001, and suffered a stroke on June 18, 2006. He died five days later at his Los Angeles home. He is survived by his wife, his daughter, and his son. His golden touch in producing highly rated, hotly debated series that were scorned as the television equivalent of junk food may have irked him, but he was pragmatic about his success. "You have a choice of proving yourself to 300 critics or 300 million fans," he once said, according to CNN.com. "You have to make a choice."
Chicago Tribune , June 24, 2006, sec. 2, p. 11; CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2006/SHOWBIZ/06/23/spelling.obit.ap/index.html (June 26, 2006); CNN.com http://www.cnn.com/2006/SHOWBIZ/TV/06/26/aaronspelling.appreciation.ap/index.html (June 27, 2006); Entertainment Weekly , July 14, 2006, pp. 43-45; E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/news/Items/0,1,19352,00.html (June 26, 2006); Los Angeles Times , June 24, 2006, p. A1, p. A9; New York Times , June 25, 2006, p. A24; Times (London), June 26, 2006, p. 52.