Prolific Producer Aaron Spelling Dies at 83

Jun 26, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Aaron Spelling, who the Guinness Book of Records calls the most prolific TV drama producer, died Friday from complications due to a stroke. He was 83.

Mr. Spelling died at his Holmby Hills mansion in Los Angeles with his wife, Candy Spelling, and son, Randy Spelling, at his bedside, the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday.

His producing career spread over six decades, from the CBS western “Zane Grey Theater” in the 1950s to The WB-turned-CW family drama “7th Heaven,” which begins its 11th season on the air this fall. Mr. Spelling has more than 200 TV and film credits, according to Web site IMDB.com.

Mr. Spelling’s TV series helped define television for generations of viewers. In the 1960s he produced the Western-themed “Daniel Boone” for NBC and “Honey West” for ABC, plus the counterculture cop series “The Mod Squad” for ABC, which he produced with TV star and producer Danny Thomas. In the 1970s his work became synonymous with ABC. With his new partner, producer Leonard Goldberg, he helped define the decade’s TV dramas with “Charlie’s Angels,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “The Rookies” and “Hart to Hart,” among others. Mr. Spelling also produced what became the linchpins of ABC’s Saturday night schedule: “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island.”

In the 1980s Mr. Spelling began producing with longtime partner E. Duke Vincent, who worked on the ABC evening soap “Dynasty” and the cop drama “T.J. Hooker.” Those two shows made TV history by starring Heather Locklear simultaneously.

Ms. Locklear was just one of many actors Mr. Spelling is credited with discovering and nurturing. Peggy Lipton, Farah Fawcett, Robert Urich, David Soul, Kate Jackson, Michael Ontkean, Luke Perry, Jason Priestley, Shannen Doherty, Jessica Biel and his daughter, Tori Spelling, all established their careers with help from Mr. Spelling.

In the 1990s Mr. Spelling made a name for the new Fox network with the teen drama “Beverly Hills, 90210” and its spinoff, the 20-something soap opera “Melrose Place.” He also developed the NBC daytime drama “Malibu Shores,” and the longest-running family drama in U.S. TV history, “7th Heaven,” for The WB.

Mr. Spelling did not limit his efforts to series television. He also was a prolific TV movie producer, with a variety of titles to his credit, from the 1970s weeper “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” with John Travolta to the 1993 HBO AIDS miniseries “And the Band Played On.” Mr. Spelling won an Emmy Award for “Band,” and for the 1989 CBS miniseries profiling the history of the Manhattan project, “Day One.”

Mr. Spelling formed his own independent company in the 1970s, which went public in 1986. He became part of the Viacom media empire in 1994 after the company bought Blockbuster Video, which then owned about half of Mr. Spelling’s company. Mr. Spelling also launched a comedy and syndication production company, Big Ticket Productions, which produced one of UPN’s first successful comedies, “Moesha,” and the syndicated courtroom show “Judge Judy.”

With the announcement of the merger of CBS Productions and Paramount Network Television, Leslie Moonves, who then was Viacom co-president and co-chief operating officer and CBS chairman, kept Spelling Television a separate entity that reported directly to him. He called Mr. Spelling “an icon in this business” at the time of the merger.

But even Mr. Spelling couldn’t buck the trend of corporate consolidation and the end of the independent scripted TV production company.

In December 2005, Spelling Television laid off about 30 staffers as part of the Paramount merger. The move left Mr. Spelling with about a dozen employees, but transformed Spelling Television into a pod deal at Paramount rather than a separate company.

Born in Dallas, Mr. Spelling began his career in television after a stint in the U.S. Army Air Corps and obtaining a degree from Southern Methodist University. He moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950s, where he worked as an actor, appearing in a variety of TV series including “I Love Lucy” and “Dragnet.” He was married to the actress Carolyn Jones (“The Addams Family”) from 1953 to 1964.

While TV reviewers often dismissed Mr. Spelling’s shows, the audience responded enthusiastically, Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros., Television said Monday.

“He was clearly in touch with then tastes of the American public,” Mr. Roth said. “He understood pop culture far more fervently and emphatically than those who criticized his works.”

Mr. Roth called Mr. Spelling “one of the great mentors” in the TV business, noting that he first met the producer when he was a 28-year-old current programming executive at ABC, and would sit in on editing sessions where Mr. Spelling would help craft episodes.

“He would get up in a room full of 25 people and say, ‘Lovers, here’s what’s missing in this act,'” Mr. Roth recalled. “That’s when you saw his true genius. He taught me about the value and impact of great editing.”

In a September 2005 interview with TelevisionWeek, Brenda Hampton, the creator of “7th Heaven,” said that despite his success and wealth, Mr. Spelling was easy to work with.

“Maybe I expected something imperial, I don’t know,” Ms. Hampton 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.”

As she was developing the show, Ms. Hampton was also in the process of adopting a girl from Vietnam. Initially she was concerned that if Mr. Spelling found out, it might jeopardize her involvement on the show. Her concerns were unwarranted, she said.

“When Aaron did find out what I was doing, he offered me any help, connections to lawyers, anything,” Ms. Hampton said. “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.”