Spelling Remembered: Crafting Hits With the Master

Jul 10, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Fred Silverman, the only person to run the entertainment divisions at ABC, CBS and NBC, worked directly with producer Aaron Spelling on some of his biggest hits.

Fresh off a five-year stint at CBS, Mr. Silverman took the reins at ABC in 1975, where Mr. Spelling then had an exclusive production deal. Mr. Silverman left ABC in 1978 to run NBC, but in just three seasons he worked with Mr. Spelling to launch numerous well-known series, including “Charlie’s Angels,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “Family,” “Vegas,” “Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island.”

Mr. Silverman runs his production and consulting company, The Fred Silverman Co. His credits include “Diagnosis Murder,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Matlock” and “The Perry Mason Mystery Movies.”

Like many industry professionals, Mr. Silverman was saddened to hear of Mr. Spelling’s death June 23. TelevisionWeek Senior Reporter Christopher Lisotta talked with him about Mr. Spelling’s work style, his strengths as a producer and his legacy for the television industry. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

TelevisionWeek: When did you first meet Aaron Spelling?

Fred Silverman: The first time I met Aaron was shortly after I joined ABC. I had heard of him. He was legendary even back then in the mid-’70s, because of “The Mod Squad” and “The Rookies.” Before that I wouldn’t have the occasion to do that, because he was exclusive to ABC.

TVWeek: Did you ever turn him down for a show?

Mr. Silverman: When I first joined ABC, the first thing I did was to say, “What do they have on the shelf?” I learned from my experience at CBS that one man’s poison is another man’s food.

I went through the development list. Some were from the formal program development, others were part of the movie development, but there were about a half-dozen projects that looked pretty good. Among them there was a show called “Harry’s Angels,” which was later re-titled “Charlie’s Angels.” It wasn’t a particularly good script, but I loved the idea.

In that first meeting with Aaron, I mentioned it, and he went into a whole thing: “I really got a runaround from your guys on that one, I thought we were going to make it.”

I said, “I think it’s a great idea, and I would like to bring it back from the dead and really discuss making this pilot.”

And at this point I thought he would faint, because I don’t think he expected to hear that. Ultimately we shot that script, as bad as it was, and we ended up with a pilot that had a great cast doing a lousy script.

We air-tested it, and put it on a Sunday night in the movie time period, and it did a 50 share. At first I thought the machines at Nielsen broke or something.

We repeated the show and it did a 40 in the second run. And we had something there, regardless of what I thought of the script.

The magic of the casting of those three women made it a dynamite show. And that got our relationship off to a terrific start.

TVWeek: Warner Bros. Television President Peter Roth said he thought Aaron Spelling was a genius at editing. What do you consider his biggest strength as a developer of television?

Mr. Silverman: His biggest strength was recognizing good, commercial audience concepts.

Before you get to editing, you have to have the show. He had great instincts about what that vast American television public was looking for in terms of entertainment. And more often than not, he was totally right.

We basically had the same instincts. The thing that really amazed me about Aaron Spelling and myself is that we very seldom disagreed on anything. He recognized the merits of “Charlie’s Angels” long before I came on the scene. He just wasn’t persuasive to get it made at ABC.

TVWeek: What was it about him that he was able to have successes so many times?

Mr. Silverman: It’s a God-given thing. You’re born with those instincts. You’re born just sensing what the public is going to respond to. Therefore it didn’t make any difference if it was a detective show, police action, light comedy, comedy anthology or family comedy. He could just jump right in there and do it.

Past this great show sense, he had a terrific editorial sense, Peter is absolutely right.

He could also take a script-he was a writer before he was a producer-and if there was something wrong with the script he could fix it himself.

One thing you would say about a Spelling show is that they were really well produced. They looked good, the people were costumed well, they were lit beautifully, the music was terrific. Every aspect of the production was flawless. That’s why we could take a lousy script like that first “Charlie’s Angels” script, and by the time you were finished with it there were so many things that worked in favor of it.

These were skills that he learned, as opposed to his basic instincts. He acquired it when he worked with Dick Powell and later with Danny Thomas. He was producing back from the late ’50s early ’60s on.

TVWeek: Was there any time where everyone was in one camp and Aaron was in another on some major decision?

Mr. Silverman: Occasionally we had disagreements. We had a disagreement about the “Charlie’s Angels” characters. I felt in reading not only the pilot but some of the episodes that [the characters] were interchangeable on paper.

I said, “Aaron, they are all the same.”

I couldn’t tell one from the other, and wouldn’t it be nice to see if we could develop some individual characters who have interesting relationships? So that if you put Farrah Fawcett and Kate Jackson in a scene, they are going to be different show values than if you put Farrah together with Jackie Smith.

And he just totally disagreed. He said, “It’s there, it’s there.” When you take the chemistry of these beautiful women and put them into the show, then you’ll be able to see the differences. He thought it was absolutely right.

He said, “If there’s any question about the audience responding to them, then I’ll listen to you.”

And the show opened. He never said I told you so, but he never heard about the characters again. I figured the hell with it. He’s right. For whatever the reason is, the audience is buying the characters the way they are. And I just let it be.

TVWeek: What was his reaction to some of the critical responses to his shows, which at times could be pretty scathing?

Mr. Silverman: He always wanted to be recognized as a quality producer, and I think it hurt him that people always looked down their nose at his shows, the critics. But he had the last laugh, because the only people that count are the audience members, and the audience loved his shows, so to hell with the critics.

TVWeek: What was he like personally?

Mr. Silverman: Because he was Aaron Spelling, and he had all this notoriety as a big television producer, in any kind of a gathering he was always the center of attention.

He was a soft-spoken man. I thought he had a pretty good sense of humor. He was just easy to be around.

The pipe created part of the image. He didn’t go anywhere without that pipe. I think he took a shower with the pipe. I don’t think I ever saw him without the pipe.

I will say this: I worked very, very closely with him for three years. I probably had a better relationship with him than with any other producer that I could think of up to that point in my life.

TVWeek: Did he come up with show concepts and hand them to writers, or did writers come to him?

Mr. Silverman: There is no one way a show is created. Sometimes somebody can come in with an idea. Other times he came up with the ideas.

“Love Boat” I know was based on a novel. “Charlie’s Angels” may have been his idea. It really varies. But what’s important is once he had the idea, he had a major part in shaping the idea for television.

It’s one thing to say, “Hey, we’ll do a sho
w like the ‘Love Boat,'” but it’s another thing to develop the regular characters on the show, what the form of the series is going to be, how the hour lays out, and in the case of “Love Boat,” we were dealing with a brand-new form there. I don’t think that had ever been done before, to do an hour of comedy that was half anthology, half regular series. You had regular characters, and in that sense it was like a half-hour scripted comedy. But it was an anthology in the sense that there were anthological stories involving guest stars. To come up with the right balance of elements took some doing and a lot of experimentation to end up with the form that finally went on as a series.

TVWeek: So many actors got started on his shows. Was he very intently involved in casting, or is that something he left to others?

Mr. Silverman: He was very involved in casting. It was his idea to get Farrah Fawcett, which I think he later regretted. You know that story-after a year she wanted out of the show, and it was a whole megillah.

But he had great casting sense. He did indeed find Heather Locklear, and gave Kate Jackson her first role.

He was willing to take chances, which is what television is all about. Television is about discovering people. There really is no heart to giving the store away to hire an established star. Normally they have been established with another part, and when you try to bring them back, it doesn’t work most of the time.

I don’t think there is any greater satisfaction, and I know he felt this way, than discovering somebody and allowing the audience in turn to discover a new face, a new piece of talent. He did that repeatedly with his shows.

Who were Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul before “Starsky and Hutch?” Farrah Fawcett did commercials before “Charlie’s Angels.”

TVWeek: When did you last speak to him?

Mr. Silverman: I had lunch with him a little over a year ago in his office. That was the last time I saw him. We just had different paths. Unfortunately I left ABC and went to NBC, and I could no longer professionally deal with him, because I assured his exclusivity at ABC for several more years when I was there. We tried to stay in touch, but it became very difficult. But every year or two we would get together.

TVWeek: What is his legacy to the business?

Mr. Silverman: He leaves behind an enormous body of work that helped shape television in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and even the ’90s. It’s a diversified body of work that nobody else has come close to.

And there are all these shows that have stood the test of time. The fact that they have made two “Charlie’s Angels” movies, that some of these shows are still playing on cable, that they pop up on syndication in some markets, is really a testament to him.

He could also do a movie like “And the Band Played On.” He did a lot of really distinguished material. It wasn’t all fluff. A show like “Family” is as good a family drama that has ever been on the air.

And those shows are timeless, they still hold up. I don’t think he’s gotten enough credit for all the so-called critical successes.

TVWeek: Is there anything you think encapsulates who he was as a person?

Mr. Silverman: He really cherished his two children, and was a very, very decent sort. As famous as he was and as prolific of a producer as he was, and as wealthy as he was, he never forgot who he was and where he came from. And I think that’s a test of a good man.

I sure as hell enjoyed the relationship I had with him. It was a high point of my three years at ABC. I think he was directly responsible for a lot of the success the network and I enjoyed during that period.