A Decade of ‘7th Heaven’: Spelling has TV’s Midas Touch

Sep 26, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Alan Hill

Special to TelevisionWeek

The 10th season for “7th Heaven” on The WB is a record for family drama series and the network, and the show is yet another success in the 50-plus-year career of Aaron Spelling, whose company supplies the series.

Mr. Spelling is among the most successful producers in television history. Having produced series including “Charlie’s Angels,” “The Mod Squad,” “The Love Boat,” “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Dynasty”-to name merely a handful-no producer can claim to have been as prolific.

He has helped to build careers of many actors and revive the careers of many more, doing the same for writers and directors. Mr. Spelling can also be said to have helped to build networks. Many of his series were responsible for ABC’s rise from also-ran to the top-rated network in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and his company supplies not only “7th Heaven” but also “Charmed,” with an eight-year run, to The WB.

“He’s been incredibly important to The WB,” said David Janollari, the network’s president of entertainment. “He’s given us shows that are very different from each other but to which he is committed in the way Aaron Spelling commits to the projects with which he is involved-totally.”

Like all successful producers, Mr. Spelling has a diverse palette. The producer known for shows that present glitz and sheer entertainment has also won two Emmy Awards for producing thoughtful, provocative TV films-1989’s “Day One,” about the aftermath of nuclear holocaust and its impact on the survivors; and 1994’s “And the Band Played On,” which explored the genesis of the AIDS crisis.

“Aaron Spelling really understands the dynamic of the culture at any given time,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Media Television. “It’s fair to say no one has shown that ability so well for so long in television.”

The producer who brought the nation sexy women fighting crime with “Charlie’s Angels” at the same time offered another heralded family drama, 1976’s “Family” While Mr. Spelling’s shows are not prudish, his programs consistently eschew crude innuendo and explicit sexual content.

One might say this is because he still has emotional ties to his roots. Mr. Spelling was born in Dallas, in 1923, the son of an immigrant tailor. He attended Southern Methodist University and then decided to strike out for Hollywood to try acting. At the time, he sometimes relates, his parents gave him about $100 in cash they had saved so he could get a good start. He did not have the heart to tell them that money would barely get him to Los Angeles.

He did work as an actor, though sporadically. He can be seen in repeats of the “Tennessee Bound” episode of “I Love Lucy,” originally aired in January 1955, in which he played the Gas Station Man. He also had roles in numerous episodes of the original “Dragnet” series and played in many Western TV series and B-movies.

Throughout this early period, he also tried his hand as a director and a writer. Actress Barbara Rush remembered, “We would do plays on the Paramount lot so the producers and executives could see us and, hopefully, cast us in the films. Aaron would often direct these plays. Then after, we’d all go get hamburgers or something very cheap. None of us had any money, of course.”

In the mid-1950s, his acting career was sputtering and he was feeling financial pressure to provide for his first wife, rising actress Carolyn Jones. He met with Dick Powell, the movie star who became a successful TV mogul, about writing some episodes for Powell’s many TV series. He walked away from that meeting with writing assignments for “Zane Grey Theatre” and “The Jane Wyman Theatre,” popular anthologies of the time. Mr. Spelling eventually became a producer as well.

This led, beginning in the 1960s, to more than 40 years of Spelling productions, first with partner Danny Thomas, then with partner Leonard Goldberg. For the past 30 years E. Duke Vincent has been Mr. Spelling’s production partner.

Beginning in 1968 with “The Mod Squad,” Mr. Spelling has had almost every season not only multiple series on the air but also a hit series among them, many of which made their mark on the zeitgeist, including “Dynasty,” “Melrose Place” and “Beverly Hills 90210.”

The people who have worked under his creative umbrella consistently offer praise and admiration. “When I went in for the pitch meeting, I had never met him before,” said Brenda Hampton, the creator and showrunner of “7th Heaven.”

“Maybe I expected something imperial, I don’t know,” she said. “Instead, there was this nice man who pulled up a chair right across from me. I said I wanted to do a show that would be compatible with the 1950s shows like ‘Leave It to Beaver’ and ‘Father Knows Best.’ We were on the same page immediately.”

While Mr. Spelling has gotten a lot of press about his fortune and the size of his mansion in Holmby Hills, Calif., Ms. Hampton and others said his wealth should not define him in the popular imagination.

“I love Aaron,” she said. “No one in the entertainment industry has ever been as nice to me as he has been. When we began ‘7th Heaven,’ I was also trying to adopt a child from Vietnam. I was really fearful that he would try to, at best, diminish my role on the show if he found out my time would be compromised.”

But Mr. Spelling wasn’t concerned about her attention being diverted. “When Aaron did find out what I was doing, he offered me any help, connections to lawyers-anything. When my daughter arrived, he arranged for her to have the office next to mine to be home-schooled. “That is who Aaron Spelling is,” Ms. Hampton said.

He does have his quirks, of course. One of the reasons it is said Mr. Spelling and his wife, Candy, built the mansion-reported to be worth $40 million-for themselves and their two children is because he rarely travels, particularly not by air. During his time in the military, he was pulled from an airplane because he had a cold and was told he could not fly. The plane crashed, leaving no survivors.