A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The most prolific producer in the history of television, Aaron Spelling dominated his industry in a way no single producer in today’s splintered 400-show landscape possibly could. He boasted more than 200 series and TV movies — programs that defined the medium and garnered Emmys for acting, costumes and more, though Spelling himself won only two (for TV films about the A-bomb and AIDS). He changed the face of pop culture in the ‘60s and ‘70s with counterculture cops on The Mod Squad, female private eyes on Charlie’s Angels and such escapist fare as The Love Boat. He pioneered crossover episodes (yes, the Angels did solve a case on The Love Boat) and season-finale cliff-hangers (Starsky and Hutch chucking their badges into the ocean). In the ‘80s, he brought soap melodrama to nighttime with Dynasty and produced one-third of primetime on ABC (nicknamed “Aaron’s Broadcasting Company”). At the height of his career, he wielded more influence than any TV producer before or since. After ABC canceled all of his shows in the late ‘80s, the populist maestro persevered, reinventing his now-publicly traded Aaron Spelling Productions with Fox’s Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place and The WB’s Charmed and 7th Heaven, which was still on the air when Spelling died in 2006 at age 83, leaving an estimated $500 million estate and a vast TV library now owned by CBS TV Studios. “He had blatantly commercial taste,” says NBC Broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert, who worked with Spelling in the ‘80s and is one of 32 friends, loved ones, colleagues and stars who recalled the producer’s life, times and achievements for THR. “He had storylines full of action and glamour that women, husbands and kids would watch. Certainly they can be accused of being formulaic, but what a winning formula.”
His youth: ‘He decided to have a nervous breakdown’
CANDY SPELLING (Wife; philanthropist) Aaron was born poor. There were five of them sleeping in one bed, and they used to go to sleep hungry. He was embarrassed that his mother and father were immigrants [from Russia and Poland, respectively] and didn’t speak English well. They lived in a bad neighborhood in Dallas; he got beaten up, and they would take his shoes. So at age 8 he decided to have a nervous breakdown.
DANIELLE GELBER (Spelling development exec, 1984-1990; exec vp, Wolf Films) There was great anti-Semitism in Texas, and it really scarred him. He couldn’t go to school and stayed in bed for a year and wrote book reports, and that set him on the path to writing.
JACLYN SMITH (Charlie’s Angels, 1976-81) He told me a story that as a kid he’d entered a Christmas essay contest to win a bicycle, and he won second place — a football. They liked his story but it wasn’t about Christmas. I think after that he became an unbiased listener.
TORI SPELLING (Daughter; Beverly Hills, 90210, 1990-2000) In World War II, he served in the Air Force and was heading to an air base in Ohio, but he was too sick to fly. The plane crashed, and everyone was killed. His mother made him promise never to fly again. He never did. Our family vacations were always on a bus, a train or a boat.
From left: Spelling with Wagner and Wood in 1977 at the producer’s house on Mapleton Drive.
His start: ‘He never asked for anything without saying thank you’
JOAN COLLINS (Dynasty, 1981-89) I first met Aaron when I was making a film in the mid-1950s called The Opposite Sex and my best friend was his wife, the adorable Carolyn Jones [who’d go on to play Morticia in The Addams Family]. Aaron was trying to be an actor and a writer, and he was going to make it one day.
STEFANIE POWERS (Hart to Hart, 1979-84) When they were married, he was the coach of our Entertainment League girls’ softball team when I was a teenager. They would have the team over for barbecues and we used to call him Jiminy Cricket — he was very skinny and very chirpy.
ROBERT WAGNER (Hart to Hart, 1979-1984) I knew him when he was an actor. The odds were pretty stacked against him, but nothing bothered him. Through all the rejections, he kept his head up and had a great sense of humor.
RANDY SPELLING (Son; Sunset Beach, 1997-1999; life coach) He always played a scrawny, weird underdog with a Texas accent. Coming from so little, he always rooted for the underdog — that was a core theme for him.
RENATE KAMER (Spelling secretary who rose to senior vp, 1963-2006) I worked for him as a secretary in the 1950s, and we really hit it off. We were at Four Star Television on the CBS Radford lot, where he was writing Westerns for producer Dick Powell. If there were problems, he would fix the script right there on the set. I had a mimeograph machine to make copies, and Aaron would staple. He asked me to be involved in everything from casting to story ideas to watching rough cuts. He never asked me, or anyone else, to do anything without saying thank you. And he gave a lot of people opportunities.
CANDY At Four Star, he stood up for Sammy Davis Jr. to be the star of an episode of Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater. Sammy became Tori’s godfather. Aaron saw things differently; he didn’t look at black and white.
MART CROWLEY (The Boys in the Band playwright; Hart to Hart writer) Four Star was created by four movie legends — Dick Powell, David Niven, Charles Boyer and Ida Lupino. Dominick Dunne and Aaron were working there and they presented Bette Davis with The Decorator, a script about a star decorator who invaded people’s homes. She turned it down, so I did a rewrite and we made the pilot. The sponsor pulled the plug because they went into overtime every day. Television was too fast for Davis. But Aaron loved her and put her on Hotel in the 1980s. I think she lasted a week.
TED HARBERT (ABC Entertainment exec 1977-1997; chairman, NBC Broadcasting) Aaron’s first big show was Burke’s Law. It had the perfect angle on a procedural: a great-looking guy who rides around in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. I was 8 years old, and I was crushed when it went away.
JAMES CONWAY (Spelling exec vp, 1996-2002; novelist) When Burke’s Law wasn’t doing so well, Aaron invented this: For all the suspects, let’s cast famous, old movie stars, which became a template for The Love Boat.
CANDY I met Aaron around 1965 at the Daisy nightclub in Beverly Hills. We were both on dates with different people, and he asked me to dance. I knew that he was divorced and a bachelor around town who dated the flavor of the month. He said, “I’m going to marry you,” and I thought, “What a line.” Eight dances later, my date was holding up my coat and said, “We’re leaving.” Aaron had gone into partnership with the comedian Danny Thomas for The Mod Squad. He never needed a partner, but the truth is, he was insecure without somebody. We’d go to a dinner party, and we’d be the only married couple sitting together because he insisted.
GELBER My sisters and I lived for The Mod Squad. It was a show about the counterculture and social issues, and I was obsessed with how they were so cool, those hippies, and the way they spoke and had each other’s backs. Peggy Lipton played Julie, and that name became a good-luck charm for Aaron and he used it in many scripts, notably [for cruise director Julie McCoy] in The Love Boat.
CROWLEY He reinvented cop shows for the times with The Mod Squad and later Starsky & Hutch. Aaron had this talent for tapping into the cultural moment.
The 56,500-square-foot, 123-room Spelling Manor is on the market for $150 million; Formula One heiress Petra Ecclestone bought it in 2011 for $85 million.
His rise: ‘He was a Napoleon figure with the charm of a beauty contestant’
POWERS When he and producer Leonard Goldberg created Spelling-Goldberg [in 1972], one of the first things they did was a TV movie called Five Desperate Women. I was one of the five. We had gone to school together, and we had a reunion on Catalina Island, and people started dying.
CHERYL LADD (Charlie’s Angels, 1976-1981) I was in Aaron’s show The Rookies with Kate Jackson. I think I got murdered in the first act, but he was aware of me. Then I got a role in his TV movie Satan’s School for Girls.
ANTONIO FARGAS (Starsky & Hutch, 1975-1979) I was recommended for one scene in a TV movie, which was the Starsky & Hutch pilot, as a character named Huggy Bear. I am so far from Huggy Bear that I had to make it my own. After that, I was called into Aaron’s lair. He was like Hugh Hefner or a Napoleon figure with big doe eyes, a great smile and all the Texas charm of a beauty contestant, this diminutive guy in Gucci loafers who could make smoking a pipe look sexy.
CANDY Aaron always had a big office. I’d read about Louis B. Mayer‘s office at MGM, and that was an image I thought Aaron should have, and I made sure he did. He had a sofa that was 23 feet long, and everyone always said by the time you got to his desk, you felt lost.
FARGAS With Starsky & Hutch, Aaron created the offbeat police show, a heterosexual love affair between two guys with a red 1974 Ford Torino. He let the actors direct, created season-end cliff-hangers and, in one episode, got Hutch hooked on heroin. Some people thought it was too gritty. Today it would be tame.
FRED SILVERMAN (ABC Entertainment president, 1975-1978; president, Fred Silverman Co.) Until then, law-enforcement shows were on the nose, not much humor. Starsky and Hutch were wisecracking, derring-do guys. They preceded Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon.
SMITH Charlie’s Angels was originally called Alley Cats. It was Kate Jackson who said it should be Angels. It was escapism, not Shakespeare, but it inspired people. Aaron got us new motor homes, the latest cameras and our own makeup people, but he wouldn’t let you change your hair. We had Nolan Miller doing the costumes and we would stand for hours in fittings like the Old Hollywood era. Kate wore turtlenecks and slacks. I was dressed more in classics. Farrah [Fawcett] was a little sexier, no bra.
LADD Charlie’s Angels was called “jiggle TV,” which made me laugh. I never went braless, and I was married and the mother of a 2-year-old. The Angels were grown-up Girl Scouts. We never slept with anyone; my most “Aaron Spelling” moment was wrestling an alligator.
SILVERMAN There were some pretty outlandish story premises, like “Angels in Chains,” when they were all handcuffed together. The next thing you know, it’s doing a 55 share. Aaron could read a script and in a matter of 10 seconds, he could quote you chapter and verse what’s the matter with it and how to fix it.
GARTH ANCIER (Former executive, NBC and The WB; media consultant) He had a masterful story sense. What easier way is there to do an opening for Charlie’s Angels than an explanatory voiceover: “Once upon a time there were three little girls who went to the Police Academy.” Aaron hooked viewers right away. To a great degree, his successor is Dick Wolf. He does Chicago Fire. What’s that about? Fires in Chicago.
EILISH ZEBRASKY (Spelling costume department head, 1979-2006) Aaron had a thing about being able to identify the characters. God forbid you put two of the Angels in blue or red. And most of the time, you never saw the girls’ shoes, but we still bought the best.
KAMER The wardrobe department would bring in racks with all the clothes, and if Aaron wasn’t sure about something he would have the actors go into the changing room. He had all the hair stylists and makeup come. He would decide on everything.
LADD With the feminist movement, we were kind of half-heroes, half-goats. I used to get upset [about] being in a bikini all the time, so I went and found the smallest bikini I could find, and when I dropped the robe, everybody gasped and said, “We can’t shoot that.” They had to end up blowing up the film so you couldn’t see that much of my cleavage. I got a note from Aaron that said, “OK, little rebel, I got the point. And this will never happen again.” But he didn’t mean I’d never be in a bikini again. It was more like, don’t try that again.
SILVERMAN When I got to ABC, he had Starsky & Hutch. We added shows quickly, and they all clicked. Family was a superb pilot sitting on the shelf. I said, “Why isn’t this on the air?” It was a look at an upper-middle-class suburban family and it won [four acting] Emmys.
KRISTY MCNICHOL (Family, 1976-1980) I was 9 when I read the script for the pilot — where my character gets upset and takes off in the family car. It was a big part for a kid. Aaron was very kind and genuine, and my mom thought that he hung the moon. Family was different from any of his shows; it was a drama with real issues like illnesses, bad relationships, divorce and suicide.
SILVERMAN The Love Boat was a brand-new format with different guest stars every week. We did three of them as TV movie pilots, and every time we played one of them, it got better than a 50 share.
FLORENCE HENDERSON (Guest star, The Love Boat) I did one of the pilots for The Love Boat. If Aaron liked you, he’d have you return often. I think Charo and I hold the record for most guest appearances, at least 10, including a two-parter where I played a country singer. The costumer spared no expense. It was not like some shows where you’d go, “Oh, God, where did they get this?”
GAVIN MACLEOD (The Love Boat, 1977-1987) My agent called and said, “Aaron Spelling wants you for this pilot. I think it sucks, but you want to read it?” My wife read it, and she said, “They’ve never done something like this on TV.” Critics said it was going to sink like the Titanic. But Aaron knew what he was doing. There was the romantic element of traveling, leaving your problems behind. People all over the country who were freezing their tushes off could watch our show with girls in bikinis. We had young actors like Tom Hanks and Mark Harmon and guest stars like Ginger Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who hadn’t worked for 20 years.
DOUGLAS CRAMER (Spelling exec vp, 1976-1991) I produced the first Love Boat pilot and brought it with me to Spelling, and that’s when we got the casting right. The Love Boat became a juggernaut. We did 34 to 36 hourlong episodes a year and three two-hours that were shot around the world, so it aired in primetime and as late-night and daytime reruns. At first, the Princess line was worried that people who were on the cruise without their husbands and wives wouldn’t want to be filmed, so we had to put up signs around the ship. By the end, we had Bill Blass fashion shows on the boat, and we got Andy Warhol to appear on the show and paint a portrait for the 1,000th guest star, Lana Turner. She didn’t like it, so he took it back and did a portrait from a still from one of her 1940s movies, Johnny Eager.
HARBERT Some of the guest stars were big names that required fees that would be high by today’s standard. The network might not want to pay $100,000 for them for The Love Boat, but if it was February sweeps, it just might. Aaron had close ties with powerful agents at CAA who had close ties with senior management at ABC. There was a premium on trying to cooperate.
AL CORLEY (Dynasty, 1981-1982; producer, co-founder, Code Entertainment) I didn’t really read the fine print, but I think all the younger actors [on Dynasty] had to do a Love Boat. That was part of the contract. I played a guy who was in love with a girl who thought I was seeing a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.
CANDY I can tell you how Fantasy Island came to be. Aaron was in his office, trying to sell a show to ABC, and I heard him say, “What would you like me to do? Put some guy on an island and have him grant wishes to people?” He was being sarcastic.
‘CHARLIE’S ANGELS,’ 1976-81
His peak: ‘There were no ugly people on Aaron Spelling shows’
HARBERT In 1984, Aaron Spelling had seven hours of programming — more than a third of the ABC primetime schedule — and people were calling it “Aaron’s Broadcasting Company.” There was Hart to Hart on Tuesday; Dynasty and Hotel on Wednesday; Matt Houston on Friday; and Saturday was T.J. Hooker, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. We would go to his office several times a year, and I remember the smell of the world’s finest pipe tobacco and not being able to see your shoes because the shag carpet was so high.
POWERS I was rehearsing Cyrano de Bergerac when Aaron called me about the pilot for Hart to Hart. I said it sounds fabulous, but we’re supposed to go to Broadway. He said, “Well, there might be a newspaper strike in New York. Shall we wait and find out?” It turned out to be the greatest newspaper strike ever [which meant no reviews or ads for Broadway shows], and I was able to do the pilot.
WAGNER Sidney Sheldon wrote the original script [for Hart to Hart], and I didn’t like it. I said I wanted to have the feeling of watching William Powell in The Thin Man. So we stole everything from Nick and Nora Charles — total plagiarism. We even had a dog and a butler. And in one episode, I wound up in a motorized bed driving across the Golden Gate Bridge with Stefanie Powers.
HARBERT Hart to Hart was one of those shows that I used to say doesn’t make any sense. These wonderfully wealthy people are sleuths that pick and choose their cases. So don’t be their friends, because it will get you killed.
CROWLEY Natalie Wood was married to Robert [Wagner] and asked me to rewrite some of the scripts. Aaron really took care of his actors. There was a producer on the show who did the unpardonable — he called Stefanie a name in front of the crew, and that was the end of him.
LINDA GRAY (Models Inc., 1994-1995) I think Aaron would be the first to admit he copied Dallas for Dynasty. “Let’s do it better than those kids in Texas; let’s go to Denver and have a bigger house.” When I was playing Sue Ellen Ewing, I saw him and Candy at a function, and they said Krystle was going to have a bigger ring than Sue Ellen.
CANDY George Peppard started out playing Blake, and it didn’t work out, so they reshot the pilot with John Forsythe. Krystle and Blake were getting married in it, and I said, “That’s ridiculous, Aaron. No man with that money would give her a ring that small.”
ZEBRASKY I brought in trays of rings, and Aaron didn’t think any of them were big enough. We had to have a synthetic diamond that was 25 carats, and Linda Evans, who played Krystle, said, “Oh my God, look at the size of this,” but that was Aaron.
CORLEY Dynasty had great parts for women over 40; they played the leads and got all the good lines. I was the arrogant theater guy from New York, and the costume designer didn’t seem to have anything I thought my character, Steven Carrington, would wear. I hadn’t even met Aaron, but he took me in his town car to shop together for clothes in Beverly Hills. To me, Steven was gay; he was in love with another person who happened to be a guy. But I couldn’t touch the guy’s hand, and the only way we could hug was by saying goodbye. And in the show, Steven [ended up] bisexual; he was married and had a baby with Sammy Jo [Heather Locklear].
JOAN GREEN (Founder, Joan Green Management) I was with Wilhelmina and opening a TV and film division, trying to make their models stars. I discovered Heather in an acting class at UCLA and dropped everyone else. She played Sammy Jo, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Aaron really knew how to cast. A year later he put her in T.J. Hooker, and she was one of the first actresses to be in two hit network shows at once.
HEATHER LOCKLEAR (Dynasty, 1981-1989; T.J. Hooker, 1982-1986; Melrose Place, 1993-1999) My very first scene in Dynasty was sliding down the banister in the Carrington mansion and bumping into Alexis [Joan Collins].
COLLINS I had played Cleopatra on a Fantasy Island and Aaron wanted me to play Alexis. All the people at ABC wanted Sophia Loren or Elizabeth Taylor. He was always very proud of the fact that he had overridden the suits. I am told that when he saw the rushes of my first scene I had this big hat and veil and when I lifted the veil Aaron said, “We gotta put a lot of hats on that gal.” And everybody wore shoulder pads. Once I went to Pierre Cardin and bought this amazing suit with shoulders so wide that when I had a telephone scene Aaron said, “For God’s sake, we couldn’t see your face.”
ANCIER Aaron had pictures of these amazing ball gowns in his office. It only made it better when the women wearing them got into a catfight in a lily pond.
ZEBRASKY Nolan Miller designed gowns for the stars, and we were always in Beverly Hills buying and renting furs. Aaron would arrange for us to have real jewels from Van Cleef & Arpels, so we needed security guards on the set. There were no ugly people on Aaron Spelling shows; even the villains were handsome.
GEORGE HAMILTON (Dynasty, 1985-1986) Aaron dressed like he was going to play at the Riviera [Country Club] and always had a smile on his face like he was in on a secret and you were about to hear it. Whenever you’d go to his place they’d always have really good food and he would somewhere get around to having a bologna sandwich to compensate for the two martinis that suddenly made him tongue-tied. If you talked to him for a few minutes, he could convince you he could write a role for you. That’s how I became Joel Abrigore, who kidnaps Krystle and keeps her in a closet. I couldn’t charm Linda. I’d get this look on my face like I was at the Bates Motel, and Linda said, “You’re freaking me out.”
KEN HOWARD (Dynasty and The Colbys, 1985-1986; president, SAG-AFTRA) Aaron wanted me to play Garrett Boydston, the ultimate WASP lawyer representing Charlton Heston, the Colby patriarch who was at odds with John Forsythe. We’d be sitting around in dinner jackets, and John would say, “Careful, after a while, you’ll start to like this shit.” On The Colbys, I spent a lot of time in court cross-examining Barbara Stanwyck or in bed with Diahann Carroll. I remember getting a call from my agent: I was being considered for some commercial, but they had to remove me from the list because of the interracial romance. Aaron was socially liberal, ahead of the curve.
DIAHANN CARROLL (Dynasty, 1984-1987; The Colbys, 1985-1986) I don’t think he was color-blind, I think he was color-wise and understood where it would work. When they decided John Forsythe should have a multiracial sister, I loved that Dominique Deveraux was so haughty about everything, including giving Blake Carrington $70 million, which at that time was a lot of money. And it was heaven when she and Joan Collins met and started throwing nasty remarks at each other. It was so wonderfully absurd — silly wealthy people doing a fashion show. I remember Nolan made a coat lined in sable, and I said, “You could’ve done it in [less expensive] mink,” and he replied, “You’re on Dynasty now.”
CANDY In some ways, Aaron was not the best businessperson. A lot of people would’ve put the money in their pocket. He wanted it on the screen.
HAMILTON He needed to make the television experience as important as film. TV was meat and potatoes; with him, it became champagne and caviar. The crystal had to be Waterford and the chandeliers Baccarat.
CRAMER Aaron’s secret sauce was to give the people what they wanted. That’s a phrase he used all the time. He was remarkably on the nose and his antennas were always working. Dynasty had a million-dollar-or-more per-episode budget, and it fell to me to make sure everything was right. There was a scene where Blake gave Krystle a Rolls-Royce convertible, and when I saw the dailies, I was horrified to see the keys were for a Lincoln, so we reshot the scene, to Aaron’s considerable chagrin.
HARBERT Because he had come from being poor, he didn’t think people wanted to watch that. When I visited his Malibu house, he’d be standing at the beach with his fishing pole. He’d said, “I’m just a little Jewish kid from Texas looking to catch dinner.”
From left: Jason Priestley, Tori and Aaron Spelling, Shannen Doherty and Luke Perry at the 1992 People’s Choice Awards. “When we all started to direct episodes, he said, ‘I’ll let you, but if you come in late or over budget, I will fire you,’ ” recalls Perry. “And he wasn’t playing around.”
TORI When my parents were building [Spelling mansion] The Manor [in 1988], Dad honestly couldn’t care less. He’d be like, “This is your mom’s dream, as long as it has my bowling alley.” He was an excellent bowler, and he had monogrammed bowling balls.
RANDY I could skateboard around that house; it was a big place. Sometimes we’d have lunch on the weekends, and we would watch horse racing. He used to put Spanish red-skinned salted peanuts in a bottle of Pepsi and drink it. He said it was a Southern thing. It didn’t taste bad, kind of like a Pepsi surprise.
ANCIER He called his office at the house “the library,” and it was lined with every script of every show, bound in leather. They looked like a row of Charles Dickens, until you got closer and realized it was Charlie’s Angels.
KEVIN SASAKI (Spelling publicist) People laughed about Candy’s gift-wrapping room, but it was used. Missus — that’s what everyone in the office called her — was in charge of gifting the casts and crews. And when tour buses came by to see the biggest house in L.A., Mister — that’s what we called Aaron — would come out to ask people what they wanted to see on TV.
ANCIER He had Prince Charles to Spelling Manor, but the most famous party there was Tori’s first wedding [to Charlie Shanian]. They covered the fountain in the motor court and put these giant aerial balloons on metal rods to keep helicopters away. Back at the reception table, it’s all Sumner Redstone and Marvin Davis.
JASON PRIESTLEY (Beverly Hills, 90210, 1990-2000) After he finished building The Manor, Luke [Perry] and I were at an awards show, and Aaron invited us back to see the house. He was so excited to show us his bowling alley — he takes his shoes off and the second ball he throws, he slips in his socks and falls ass-over-teakettle. I was terrified I would be known as the actor that was bowling with Aaron the night he broke his hip.
Spelling appeared on a 1955 episode of ‘I Love Lucy’ with Lucille Ball (center) and Vivian Vance.
TORI He was a self-professed workaholic, but at home, he was a regular family guy. When he was nominated in 1989 for an Emmy for Day One, a TV movie about building the atom bomb, he was sick, so we watched on TV. He won, and he said, “Damn, the one time I stayed home, see what happens?”
HARBERT The late 1980s were difficult. When Brandon Stoddard took over ABC, ratings were starting to decrease, and there was a seismic shift away from Spelling shows. We moved on to Thirtysomething and NYPD Blue. Viewers take the ball and move it forward. I had some difficult conversations with Aaron. The rise of that new audience was difficult for him, but nothing lasts forever and those final phone calls — canceling this show, not picking up pilots — he understood it.
RANDY If a show got canceled, I remember him being sad for a day or two, like a mourning process. He might have stayed in bed and watched sports and read the papers. I never heard him say the word “failure,” but it was like a family had to be disbanded.
SASAKI Aaron would have to go to the set and let everyone know. And he would do that personally.
CANDY Stoddard said, “I’m going to get rid of every last one of Spelling’s shows.” He made it a vendetta.
CONWAY One of the first things Stoddard said was, “It’s no longer Aaron’s Broadcasting Company,” and Aaron took it personally. He was quite hurt. He did some pilots and a miniseries or two and then Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place. It was Dynasty all over again, but now it was at Fox.
PRIESTLEY I really saw what happened to his business after ABC got tired of it being Aaron’s Broadcast Company. After the first season [of Beverly Hills, 90210], Aaron invited me to his Christmas party. It was in the back room of Chasen’s, and there were 20 people. By the time 90210 ended, the Christmas party was 700 people at the ballroom of the Beverly Wilshire. Whatever happened with him at ABC, he found a way to reinvent himself. The big change was the rise of cable; Aaron was very aggressive about exploring that. And then there were his series for Fox and The WB. The times and styles may have changed but his storytelling did not. Dynasty was set in a big, glamorous world, but even though they were rich, it was a family drama, just like 90210 and Charmed and 7th Heaven, which inhabited much smaller worlds.
His comeback: ‘I’m not saying they were all good actors, but he knew how to cast a face’
GELBER Barry Diller, who had gone to Beverly Hills High, said, “Why don’t you whip up a school show?” It was so ironic, considering Aaron was nearly 70. You had a great entry point with Brandon and Brenda from Minnesota going into this rarefied atmosphere. We also tried to demystify Beverly Hills. These kids had wealth, but they also had homework and hated the way they looked — it spoke to the fundamental vicissitudes that all kids go through. And it had hybrid viewing — mothers 35 to 50 watched with their daughters.
PRIESTLEY Our show resonated with young people because it was aimed squarely at them and wasn’t on Saturday morning. It wasn’t speaking down to them, but speaking their language and dealing with problems the audience might have in their own lives. And we weren’t stuck in high school for 10 years; we graduated, went to college and got married. Obviously it meant something because The CW rebooted the concept as 90210 in 2008, and I directed some episodes. It was a heritage brand at this point in time, known around the world. The only thing it shared was the title, it had nothing to do with the show we made. And it shouldn’t have. One thing I learned from Aaron is that TV audiences always demand something different.
LUKE PERRY (Beverly Hills, 90210, 1990-2000) With other producers, you get hired; with Aaron, you were chosen. He watched the pilot and realized there was a note we weren’t hitting. He wanted to create this fantasy world and have some dark ballast to pull it down. So my character, Dylan, was a poor little rich kid — everybody thinks he’s got everything going, and it’s just not always that great — but he drove a cool car and had cool hair. There was a running joke in the wardrobe department: People are going to be watching for the clothes. Get ’em upscale and get ’em trendy.
SASAKI If someone came back after hiatus with a completely different haircut, Aaron would go crazy.
TORI Hair was very important to my dad. And if you watch, there are never sunglasses on 90210. He’d always say, “Let them see it in your eyes before they hear it in your words.” Luke Perry’s famous squint was probably because my dad wouldn’t let him wear sunglasses.
PERRY I was a guest star, and Aaron wanted to make me a regular. The studio didn’t want to pick up the deal, and he used that instance to illustrate an important principle: He gets to pick who’s on the show. He didn’t want me to have to go in the room with the network, but he calmly looked at me and said, “Go get ’em, kid.” He called me kid, honey, lover, baby, dear, buddy, pal and a few other, more colorful, names. I loved going to his office. He had a chef and an aquarium with puffer fish.
KAMER He didn’t know from going out and he didn’t really like eating. If he wasn’t having someone for lunch he’d send the driver to get him Pink’s hot dogs.
PRIESTLEY I was a 23-year-old kid when Aaron gave me an episode of 90210 to direct. All he said to me was, “Don’t f— this up.” I got Burt Reynolds to do a cameo, and it turned out so well that I did more episodes every year. Aaron would have you screen your director’s cut in his office with him. When I screened the episode where Donna Martin [Tori] lost her virginity, that was a little nerve-racking, I’m not going to lie. But when the lights came back up, he just said in that raspy Texas twang of his, “That was very tasteful.”
GELBER Aaron could not pronounce the word cinematographer for the life of him. He would always say cinema-photographer. But he was a brilliant natural editor. He was very diligent about watching every take in the dailies, and he would memorize things and knew how to cut them together for the best scenes. At the end of every episode, we had what we used to call “The Aaron Spelling Bonding Moment,” where the ensemble would appear somewhere like the Peach Pit, recap, and you’d comfort each other like a family. And for Melrose Place, they did at the bar.
GRANT SHOW (Melrose Place, 1992-97) Uncle A, as we used to call him, knew if the audience was going to like something and he didn’t care if it was cheesy or not. He also shot us in a particular, portrait-like way, very close up, almost looking directly into the camera and the audience’s eyes. It was all very pretty.
COURTNEY THORNE-SMITH (Melrose Place, 1992-1999) In 1992, I was auditioning every day for a week at Spelling for a show, and in the end, I didn’t get it. Aaron said, “I am going to work with you, kid,” and I probably rolled my eyes because what does that even mean? And the next day on my doorstep, I almost tripped over a pile of scripts, and one of them was Melrose Place. During the pilot, they replaced the actor who played Billy, and I went to Spelling Manor on Saturday to do auditions, and I watched Aaron turn the entire room into thinking that casting Andrew Shue was their idea.
GREEN Aaron was a brilliant businessman, very sweet and boyish, but when it got to the bottom line another Aaron showed up. The cutest thing was when he called me and said, “I’m looking for a manager for my daughter, have you got any recommendations?” I said, “Would you consider me?” And he said, “That’s what I wanted, but I didn’t want to put you on the spot.” The first season of Melrose Place was a dismal failure, and after that Aaron said, “I’ve got to have Heather.” He wanted a bitch on the show.
LOCKLEAR Aaron said they wanted to add some more conflict. I didn’t want Amanda to be a one-dimensional boss lady, and he agreed. She had to have a little compassion.
SASAKI He always called Heather his lucky penny. She had a recognizability factor and played the bitch of all bitches on television, but she was the nicest, most cooperative actor one could ever want to work with. And in the show, we shot the exteriors of Heather’s advertising agency at Aaron’s offices on Wilshire Boulevard, where The Hollywood Reporter is today.
THORNE-SMITH We needed a bad guy. But Heather’s character, Amanda, didn’t sleep with as many people as my character, Alison. Alison had a relationship with Billy and Jake and slept with everybody. Every week there was a new guest star and I’d say, “Good to meet you, let’s get in bed.”
SHOW I think Melrose Place was one of the first opportunities for audiences to relish in bad behavior. My character, Jake, was shot in a robbery, blown up in a boat, and had a fight on the third floor of a building with his brother, fell off and landed on and killed him, and survived. Our heroes were ignoble, conniving, backstabbing people doing dastardly deeds. I think the guy who does the Real Housewives shows owes a lot to Aaron.
GRAY I appeared on Melrose Place as Heather’s mother, to spin off a new series, Models, Inc., where I played the head of an agency, mother hen and puppeteer to all these beautiful, dysfunctional children. Pure Aaron Spelling, and I got to wear fabulous designer clothes. Aaron was the pied piper who led television from the studio system to the new era. He wanted to keep the glamour of Old Hollywood and make it young.
CONWAY Aaron made glossy TV, but he wasn’t afraid and was quite proud to tackle touchy subjects. Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place had abortion and gay storylines. He won an Emmy for a TV film of the AIDS story, And the Band Played On.
Heather Locklear, with Spelling in 1999, says, “He was larger than life but had a gentle way about him.”
GELBER Back then, when people were not gutsy enough to take on that subject, he and Richard Gere brought that story to HBO.
MATTHEW MODINE (And the Band Played On, 1993) I recall there being a letter sent around expressing Aaron and the other producers’ determination to get the film made. It wasn’t easy. HIV/AIDS was a medical mystery. Looking back, I remember being warned that participating in a film about homosexuality and HIV/AIDS would be “career suicide.” I’m thankful that so many people involved with making this film all took that risk and made this important film. There was an urgency to the project. From Aaron at the top, working all the way down to the many major stars in supporting roles to the extras and crew, our goal was to enlighten and educate as broad an audience as possible.
PERRY It could’ve been a feature film based on the cast, but Aaron said, “When you’re doing stuff that’s really important, you put it on TV; you don’t want to worry about having a bad weekend at the box office.” By 1994, Aaron was dealing with a number of networks. I remember him saying to me, “Les Moonves, that’s our future, kid.”
ANCIER When I was starting The WB, Aaron was one of the first people we went to. You’d go into his office and say, “There hasn’t been a family show since The Waltons and Eight Is Enough, and have you seen all these movies about witches lately?” And he’d come back with 7th Heaven, which became the longest-running family show in TV history, and Charmed. The thing that was so impressive was that he’d gone through a situation with Shannen Doherty on 90210 when the cast said, “It’s her or us,” and for Charmed, she was the first person he suggested. We shot the pilot, we were ready to go to air, and one of the other actresses on the show backed out because her church objected. So we had to recast her, and that’s when Shannen started rearing her head. She was very concerned that we would hire someone who was a competitor.
SASAKI They had their breakups and makeups, but he knew her appeal.
ANCIER A fascinating trait of Aaron’s is that he would not lock a cast until we brought them all together in a room and looked at them side by side to see if they looked like a family. In the beginning of 7th Heaven, Jessica Biel was taller than the actor playing her older brother. And Aaron said, “We’re going to need a half-apple box for him.”
SASAKI He was very good at recognizing who would be popular. I’m not saying they were all necessarily good actors, but he knew how to cast a face. And he maintained the brand. He discovered Jessica Biel, and her management decided to put her in a risque magazine. He thought, you cannot do a layout that is something short of Playboy when you’re on a series about a minister’s family. Eventually she left the show and went on to do what she wanted.
His legacy: ‘He was a true Hollywoodian’
CRAMER In the last years, it was like the air went out of his balloon. Charmed and 7th Heaven were never as glamorous or exciting as the shows that made him famous.
ZEBRASKY Charmed certainly did not have the Dynasty budget; it was Melrose and Fred Segal, not Beverly Hills. Even so, we weren’t allowed to accept free clothes. Aaron never wanted to be obligated by that. It took me a while to learn how to dress people down. I remember one show, there were some very down-to-earth mom types on the show and they said, maybe you need to go to Penney’s for the clothes and I said, “What is that?”
KAMER Aaron had been slowing down, and on Fridays, he would often work from home. I’d come to the house, and he’d be in his tracksuit watching sports. And he actually liked watching Jerry Springer. I think it was the insanity of it all, the departure from normal behavior.
RANDY When reality TV started to come in, I remember him shaking his head, “I do not understand making a show so cheaply.” There was no glamour or fantasy.
HARBERT When TV embraced dark characters, that troubled him. He understood melodrama. I think if he saw Sons of Anarchy, it would just drive him crazy.
PERRY He wouldn’t have produced Dexter. He wasn’t above titillation but he was not down for shock, violence or profanity.
TORI He had cancer five years before he passed away. He wasn’t feeling great after that, but he never really got old until he started not working — that was the fire that kept him alive.
COLLINS I saw him receive the Producers Guild’s lifetime achievement award in 2000. I went with him and Candy and Linda Evans. Shortly after that, I heard that he was not well. I was very sad when he became something of a recluse, and then he was gone. He was a true Hollywoodian. He loved the business and the creative people. And he loved actors. He was one of the few producers who did.