SPELLING, AARON

U.S. Producer

Aaron Spelling is one of television's most prolific and successful producers of dramatic series and made-for-television films. Spelling began his career as a successful student playwright at Southern Methodist University where he won the Eugene O'Neill Award for original one-act plays in 1947 and 1948. After graduating in 1950 and spending a few years directing plays in the Dallas area and trying less than successfully to make his way on Broadway, Spelling moved to Hollywood. There he initially found work as an actor and later as a scriptwriter for such anthology and episodic series as the Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre, Playhouse 90, Wagon Train, and The Jane Wyman Theater. Within a few years Spelling had become a producer at Four Star Studio Productions where he created The Lloyd Bridges Show (1962-63), Burke's Law (1963-66), Honey West (1965-66), and helped develop The Smothers Brothers Show (1967-75).

Spelling's first really successful series, Mod Squad (1968-73), was produced after he left Four Star and formed a partnership with Danny Thomas. During its five year run, Mod Squad earned six Emmy Award nominations, including one for outstanding dramatic series of the 1969-70 season. In 1972 Spelling formed a new partnership with Leonard Goldberg which lasted until 1977 and produced such hits as The Rookies, Starsky and Hutch (1972-76), and Charlie's Angels (1976-81).

Spelling series featuring both wealthy crime fighters and regular cops continued in the 1980s with Hart to Hart (1979-84), Matt Houston (1982-85), Strike Force (1981-82), T.J. Hooker (1982-87), and McGruder and Loud (1985). But Spelling also ventured into new genres with his innovative hour-long comedy, Love Boat and the prime time serial Dynasty. Reminiscent of the 1960s anthology comedy, Love, American Style, Spelling's Love Boat turned the three separate comedy stories into three intertwined storylines. Intercutting three separate plots in short scenes which recapitulated yet advanced each storyline plot was a brilliant strategy which enabled the series to appeal to different sets of viewers, each of whom might be attracted to a particular plotline, within a format that was admirably suited to the fragmented and distracted way that most people view television. Another Spelling innovation which first appeared in Love Boat was the ritualized introductory sequence that formally presented the multiple plots in each week's episode as well as the series' main characters.

In 1980s television, Spelling was king. In 1984 Spelling's seven series on ABC accounted for one-third of the network's prime time schedule and led some critics to rename ABC "Aaron's Broadcasting Company." Spelling's 18-year exclusive production deal with ABC ended in 1988, but his ability to create hit series did not; in the 1990s, he introduced Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place.

Among the recurring thematic features that have characterized Spelling's productions over the years are socially relevant issues such as the disaffected militant youth of the 1960s, the institutional discrimination against women, racism, and homophobia; altruistic capitalism; conspicuous consumption and valorization of the wealthy; the optimistic, moralistic maxims that people can be both economically and morally successful; good ultimately triumphs over evil; the grass often looks greener but rarely is; and the affirmation of the "caring company" work family (e.g., in Hotel) as well as the traditional kinship family. Stylistically his productions typically have included high key lighting, gratuitous displays of women's bodies, heavily orchestrated musical themes, lavish sets, and what Spelling himself thinks is the most important thing in television--"style and attention to detail."

One Spelling series which stands out as truly anomalous among this auteur's prime-time and movie ventures is Family (ABC, 1976-80). Spelling and Mike Nichols co-produced this weekly hour-long drama which many consider to be his best work. During the four years that this serious portrayal of an upper middle-class suburban family was in first run, it won four Emmy Awards for the lead performers and was twice nominated for outstanding drama series.

"Innovator," "over-achiever," "spin doctor," "angel," "king of pap," "ratings engineer," "TV's glitzmeister," winner of six NAACP awards--whatever other labels Spellings' critics and admirers have used to describe this prolific, successful producer, one which certainly describes the unique signature Aaron Spelling has left on four decades of television is that of television auteur.

-Leah R. Vande Berg

AARON SPELLING. Born in Dallas Texas, U.S.A., 22 April 1923. Educated at Sorbonne University, Paris, 1945-46; Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, B.A. 1950. Married: 1) Carolyn Jones, 1953 (divorced, 1964); 2) Carole Gene Marer, 1968; one daughter and one son. Served in U.S. Air Force, 1942-45, decorated with Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart with oak leaf cluster. Actor, from 1953, appearing in 50 television shows and 12 films; began career as a writer after selling script to Zane Grey Theater; worked in production, Four Star, 1956-65; co-owner, with Danny Thomas, Thomas-Spelling Productions, 1968-72; co-president, Spelling-Goldberg Productions, 1972-77; president, Aaron Spelling Productions, Inc., Los Angeles, 1977-86, chair and chief executive officer, since 1986. Member: Board of Directors, American Film Institute; Writers Guild of America; Producers Guild of America; Caucus of Producers, Writers and Directors; Hollywood Radio and TV Society; Hollywood TV Academy of Arts and Sciences; Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Recipient: Eugene O'Neill Awards, 1947 and 1948; six National Association Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Awards; named Man of the Year by the Publicists Guild of America, 1971; named Man of the Year by Beverly Hills chapter of B'Nai B'rith, 1972, 1985; named Humanitarian of the Year, 1983; named Man of the Year by the Scopus organization, 1993. Address: Spelling Television Inc., 5700 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, California 90036-3659, U.S.A.


Aaron Spelling
Photo courtesy of Spelling Television, Inc.

TELEVISION SERIES (selection; producer)

1956-62 Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater (writer only)
1959-60 Johnny Ringo
1959-61 The du Pont Show With June Allyson
1963-65 Burke's Law
1965-66 Amos Burke: Secret Agent
1968-73 The Mod Squad
1975-79 Starsky and Hutch
1976-81 Charlie's Angels
1976-80 Family
1977-86 The Love Boat
1978-84 Fantasy Island
1981-89 Dynasty
1983-88 Hotel
1984-85 Finder of Lost Loves
1985-87 The Colbys
1989 Nightingales
1990- Beverly Hills 90210
1992- Melrose Place
1994 Winnetka Road
1994-95 Models, Inc.
1995- Savannah
1995- Malibu Shores

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES

1976 The Boy in the Plastic Bubble
1977 Little Ladies of the Night
1981 The Best Little Girl in the World
1993 And the Band Played On

FILMS (selection; producer)

Mr. Mom, 1983; 'night, Mother, 1986; Surrender, 1987; Cross My Heart, 1987; Soapdish, 1991.

PUBLICATION

Spelling, Aaron, with Jefferson Graham. Aaron Spelling: A Prime Time Life. New York: St. Martin's, 1996.

FURTHER READING

Bark, E. "Aaron Spelling." The Dallas (Texas) Morning News, 12 March 1989.

Budd, M., S. Craig, and C. Steinman. C. "Fantasy Island: Marketplace of Desire." Journal of Communication, (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 1983.

Carson, T. "The King of Pap." Village Voice (New York), 12 April 1994.

Coe, S., and D. Tobenkin. "Aaron Spelling: TV's Overachiever." Broadcasting & Cable (Washington, D.C.) 23 January 1995.

Davis, I. "He's baaaaaack! TV's King of Jiggle, Aaron Spelling." Los Angeles Magazine, April 1991.

Friedman, D. "Fox Sees Spelling as an Angel." Variety (Los Angeles), 6 January 1988.

Goldenson, Leonard. Beating the Odds. New York: Charles Scribners, 1991.

Grover, Ronald. "Is Aaron Spelling Still in His Prime Time?" Business Week (New York), 17 April 1989.

Marc, D., and R.J. Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers. Boston: Little Brown, 1992.

Marc, D. "TV Auteurism." American Film (Washington, D.C.), November 1981.

Quill, G. "Spin Doctor Spelling Aspires to the Heights of Hyperbole." The Toronto (Canada) Star, 26 August 1992.

Schwichtenberg, C. "A Patriarchal Voice in Heaven." Jump Cut (Berkeley, California), 1984.

Seiter, E. "The Hegemony of Leisure: Aaron Spelling Presents Hotel." In, Drummond, P. & R. Paterson, editors, Television in Transition. London: British Film Institute: 1985.

Swartz, M. "Aaron Spelling: Entertainment's King of the Jiggle." Texas Monthly (Austin, Texas), September 1994.

_________. "Aaron Spelling: The Trash TV Titan." Texas Monthly (Austin, Texas), September 1994.

Thompson, H. "Messing with Texas: TV Glitzmeister Aaron Spelling Tries to Wake up Michener's Epic Snooze." Texas Monthly (Austin, Texas), August 1994.

Thompson, R. "Love Boat: High Art on the High Seas." Journal of American Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), 1983.

 

See also Beverly Hills, 90210; Charlie's Angels; Dynasty; Melodrama; Starsky and Hutch