ONE WAY OF SPELLING SUCCESS
Aaron Spelling’s office at Warner Hollywood Studios says more about Aaron Spelling than all the articles ever printed about him.
No other producer has produced more hours of filmed entertainment, no other producer has made more money from television and no other producer has a bigger office than Spelling. Your average family of four could live in it comfortably.
Spelling didn’t know the exact footage. Neither did the ever-present butler who silently tapped out the bowls of the 12 pipes on his boss’ desk and attended to the full bar tucked into one corner.
But the producer of such shows as “Charlie’s Angels,” “Fantasy Island,” “Matt Houston,” “The Love Boat,” “Dynasty” and “Hotel” politely offered to pace off the room. When he approached 40 feet in one direction of the vast, plushly appointed space, he backed off. He is slightly “claustrophobic,” he said in defense of the room’s magnitude, as if he suddenly saw before him yet another article excoriating his and wife Candy’s opulent life style.
It is not always easy being Aaron Spelling, and it never was. Accounts of his early childhood have him fending off bullies, the victim of anti-Semitism in a Dallas ghetto. The constant struggles, some of his producing peers say, made Spelling a driven man.
That drive was applied first toward screenwriting and acting and eventually producing. With partners such as Danny Thomas, Leonard Goldberg, Mike Nichols, Douglas Cramer, Richard and Esther Shapiro, and now Lucille Ball, Spelling has influenced TV-viewing habits from early shows like “Burke’s Law” up through the new “Life With Lucy,” premiering Saturday. He has made 103 TV movies, including “Best Little Girl in the World,” about anorexia.
The rewards of Spelling’s success often cast him in a bad light. His wealth is rumored at between $100 million and $300 million. Much has been made of his purchase of a $10-million estate once owned by Bing Crosby in Holmby Hills and its multimillion-dollar renovation, complete with ice rink.
Spelling’s shows likewise have come under fire for what is often seen as vapid displays of mindless action or meaningless escapism, reality-based series like “Family” the rare exception. “Glitter,” the short-lived series about two jet-setting journalists, “should be renamed ‘Litter,’ ” The Times wrote two seasons ago.
The Wall Street Journal last year suggested that ABC’s exclusivity deal with Spelling, which gave that network many bona-fide hits, had also contributed to its fall in ratings by creating an unstoppable stream of non-reality shows whose prime had passed.
Yet even as Spelling’s clout with ABC seems to be waning--he has no new hourlong series on the air--he is expanding his power base. Aaron Spelling Productions recently became a publicly held company, selling $108 million in common stock while the company’s 63-year-old founder retained controlling shares.
Spelling is also branching out into feature films. Though he produced three films--"California Split” and “Baby Blue Marine” with Goldberg and the 1983 hit “Mr. Mom"--he has now made a full-time commitment to movie-making, having appointed producer Alan Greisman (“Fletch”) president of Aaron Spelling Productions’ film wing. The company will produce three films in the next six months: “Surrender,” starring Sally Field, Michael Caine, Steve Guttenberg and Peter Boyle, for Cannon Films; “American Date,” starring Martin Short, for Universal, and “After School,” to be directed by Steven Spielberg protege Phil Joanou.
Last Friday marked the premiere in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto of the first film from the new Spelling banner, “ ‘night Mother,” starring Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft, from Universal. Based on Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a woman who has decided to kill herself, it is a startlingly different kind of project from the man who brought the world “S.W.A.T.”
Question: Is “ ‘night , Mother” Aaron Spelling’s bid for respectability?
Answer: I’ve never heard it put in those words--making the picture because we’re seeking respectability. My question would be, “Respectability from whom?” My peers? Or the critics? I’ll tell you what happened with this movie. Alan and I one Friday were asked by our agents to read a script. I read it that weekend and I was devastated by it, and I said to Alan, “Can we do this?”
I’m not going to deny this is a good change of pace for me. But I never thought about respectability or gaining respectability. I hope I have some within the industry. I think in town I don’t lack respect. I don’t seek it, but I don’t lack it.
Then why the move into movies?
I’ve been in television a long time and you look for other things you want to do. I had fun making “Mr. Mom” and I’ve been looking for somebody to really help with motion pictures, and then I met Alan. I didn’t have anyone working in features at all before this.
But again, why this particular film? A story about suicide wouldn’t seem to have a lot of box-office potential.
I heard those exact words used for a picture called “Chariots of Fire.” And profitability also depends on what you made the picture for. We made it for a very, very reasonable amount. With network and cable and cassette. . . .
Does a certain economy or efficiency from your TV experience translate to making movies?
We did “ ‘night, Mother” with our own casting director here, we did it with our own head of production here, we shot it at Warners, where we have a contract deal (for sound stages). We used our own editorial department.
We have to be price-conscious now in television. We have to be. The advertising dollar has gone as high as it’s going to go. I think it’s time that movies became cost-conscious. If you have “Indiana Jones” or James Bond, you know what it’s going to cost and it’s worth it. But dammit, there’s no sense spending $15 million for a small comedy when you can do it for $10 million.
Is your move into movies also tied to going public with Aaron Spelling Productions?
Well, Alan and I joined forces before I even thought about going public.
Why did you go public?
I ‘ ve tried to answer that so many times. Going public was the right thing for this company at this stage. It gives us the ability that, if we do see something that we want to do, we can do it financially. We would have done “ ‘night, Mother” even if Universal didn’t want to.
But you did finance a very small portion of “ ‘night , Mother,” and the total budget was only about $3 million. Surely your own pockets are deep enough to finance movies like that.
Well, the only man who does that is Marvin Davis. At Fox, he financed every picture out of his own pocket. I don’t know of any other person or company that’s run that way. It’s a dangerous game. We do try to put up our money to develop the scripts. That’s one of the things we are trying to do that most people don’t do. We don’t go to a studio immediately.
That buys you a piece of the ownership?
We have that automatically as producers. Does it get you a bigger piece of the ownership? Yes.
You mentioned looking for something new to do. Does this mean you’re bored with TV?
Never. I love television and I think every time I get bored with it a new form comes along. I was bored before movies-for-television came in, and that was tremendous excitement. Then it went from 90 minutes to two hours, then a thing called the miniseries came in. We’re going to try some things this year that have never been done.
Anhh-ann. I’d like to tell you, but I’m afraid it would be copied.
Any TV projects you can mention?
One in particular I’m very proud of. You won’t see “looking for respect” anymore. It’s called “Day One,” a three-hour movie about the decision to drop the atomic bomb. David Rintels wrote a marvelous script from the book.
It sounds as if the notion of your having to look for respect, even from the critics, really bothers you.
You know it bothers me. In every write-up I see about me, they mention everything except “Family.” They’ll mention some movies-for-television, but they don’t mention “Best Little Girl in the World.” They don’t mention those things that are very dear to me. On the other hand, I don’t make a big issue of it, because you can’t make 10 “ ‘night, Mothers” a year.
But we have seen that the television medium can produce shows like “Hill Street Blues” or “St. Elsewhere"--or “Family.” Shouldn’t those be the kinds of shows producers strive for?
You want to know the truth? There was one show I was more proud of than “Family.” You’re going to laugh when I tell you this. It was “Mod Squad.” That’s a show that approached issues. I had my biggest fight with ABC when they said, “You can’t do a show with these kids parading around the police department carrying signs against the Vietnam War.”
But . . . I’m sorry, I don’t see any reason for apologizing for “Love Boat” or “Fantasy Island” or “Charlie’s Angels” or “Starsky & Hutch.” “Starsky & Hutch” was a damn well-done show.
The “Miami Vice” of its time.
And you want to know why? Because the staff writer was a kid named Tony Yerkovich; the writer and director was a kid named Michael Mann. I like “Miami Vice.” I like Don Johnson a lot. He and I have been friends for a long time. But you know what? Had I done a show and put wild music to it and dressed everybody in those clothes, they would have said, ‘Oh hell, here he goes again.”
But you yourself have stated that there is a distinction between “Family” and “Charlie’s Angels.” One is a little more highbrow. Did you give up on making that kind of show after “Family”?
Both Len and I were very depressed when “Family” was dropped. It shouldn’t have been dropped. “Family” was dropped with a 30 share. Today it would have been a smash hit.
And “Family” was initially rejected by ABC, wasn’t it?
ABC said no. But ABC meanwhile had a deal with Mike Nichols to do a project. A year passes. Two years pass. Mike called ABC and said, “A neighbor of mine showed me a pilot I like and I’ve got to do it. It’s a Jay Presson Allen script called ‘Family.’ ” So we did it with Mike Nichols.
You know something? I was thrilled to work with Mike. What bugged me was, if the script wasn’t good enough for ABC, why was it good enough when Mike Nichols entered into it?
After that, you certainly didn’t make reality-based series your specialty.
I would rather have shows that entertain. I came from a vaudevillian family. My father used to tap-dance with a violin over his head. So I wouldn’t want to do eight “Hill Street Blues.” You gotta do what makes you happy. I have a lot of fun on “Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island.” I wouldn’t change places with anybody in the world.
So you’re proud of those shows?
You’re damn right! I’m proud of every show that’s successful. When you can compete in this tremendous market . . . I don’t think any less of myself because people like my shows. I don’t think that’s a crime.
Why do you suppose it’s portrayed as one?
I think when you’ve had four to six shows on the air for 15 years each season, I think people like to say, pot shot , “He’s got a deal with ABC.” Do you know, I’ve never gotten a show on the air at ABC without a pilot?
Until this year.
And you know what? Brandon (Stoddard) may say to me, “God, I love the idea; let’s make a pilot.” You know what I’ll do? I’ll make a pilot!
I meant “Life With Lucy.”
Yeah. Lucy. You’re right. Lucy walked in and said the only way she’d go on the air is with a series commitment.
How did you become involved with that?
My friend Marvin Davis said, “You ought to bring Lucy back to television.” He’s a good friend of Gary (Morton) and Lucy.
He’s also been buying stock in your company. Is he a friend or an investor?
He’s a friendly investor ... or an investor friend. We’re quite good friends.
And how much of the concept for “Life With Lucy” was yours?
Lucy playing a grandmother. The hardware store was my concept too.
Isn’t ABC’s committing to a full season--22 episodes--highly unusual? Do they give out commitments like that?
Not in my lifetime.
Except maybe to Steven Spielberg, who got the 44-episode commitment from NBC for “Amazing Stories.”
He deserved to get 44, too. I think Steven is just the best. Had Steven Spielberg come to me and said, “I want 44 on the air” . . . I don’t fly, but I would have caught a train to New York and begged to do anything Steven wanted to do. Steven knows the pulse of the public better than anyone.
It once seemed as if ABC counted on you for that same talent. But last season you lost two shows, “Love Boat” and “Hollywood Beat,” and gained only the Lucy show for the new season. Didn’t ABC used to have to put on a net of one additional new show from you each year?
They still do. The contract calls for a certain amount of shows to go on the air over the length of the contract. If you’ve got two shows one year, you may not get any the next year or you may get three. Actually, it’s more than one show a year.
You’re referring to your exclusivity deal with ABC. Is that still in effect?
It has 18 more months to go. A year from April.
Do you expect it to be renewed?
It always sounds like I’m on an option and they can pick up my deal. I’m not like a ballplayer. They don’t have the right to renew it. They’ve never had.
I’ve had a string of three-year contracts, five of them already. Each three years the network and I have met and talked about it and we have both come to the conclusion that I would like to stay and they would like me to stay. But it hasn’t been a one-way street--like I’m a piece of meat out there and every three years I have to wait till the network picks me up. I don’t know if the network wants me to stay any more and I don’t know if I want to stay.
Why would you leave?
For the ability to sell to three other networks now, including the Fox network. The ability to make things for cable, the ability to make things for first-run syndication. It’s been a long time since I’ve been non-exclusive. On the other hand, I must tell you, I like the new regime at ABC, I like working with Brandon Stoddard.
Now that you’re involved with movies, do you still have hands-on involvement with all your TV series?
No, I can’t say that. It got to the point last year, when we were doing so many shows, that I would pay more attention to new shows. This year “Lucy” takes a long time, because I want it to be good. I enjoy doing everything I’m doing. I get kicks out of reading every script, seeing rough cuts on “Dynasty.”
Speaking of which, has your relationship with Richard and Esther Shapiro been affected because of their lawsuit against you?
No more affected than if someone came into my office and said, “Are you doing this for respectability?” And that would not affect my relationship. People who allow that to interfere with working relationships are just amateurs.
Is television still a good business to be in?
I think television will always be a tremendous business. It’s tougher now. There have to be new forms. The action-adventure shows are going to be very hard to do. I think the day of saying every show has to have three car chases is out. I think it’s going to go more to character development. Right now, comedy is a hot thing, but it will cycle and they’ll be looking for action-adventure.
There have been reports that, unlike most producers, you don’t actually deficit-finance your shows, that ABC somehow makes up that difference to you.
There’s no show that can live on the network’s salary. We deficit our shows on the foreign and our fees. In other words, we throw our fees in the pot and our foreign in the pot, and therefore we hope to come out clean in syndication.
The problem with television is that you count on the investment tax credit; that’s why investors were coming into movies. You know, you make a $10-million picture, it’s almost like a million in the pocket. On “Dynasty,” it’s worth about $3 1/2 million. So we could take some deficits.
Some producers are shooting in Canada now to save money.
It’s a dangerous option, though, because it’s going to be really felt by the merchants and the people here. It’s a strange thing. I hate to see it happen. There’s got to be a way to keep that production here. You lose that mystique of Hollywood and you’ve lost a lot. Can you imagine Lew Wasserman opening up a tour in Toronto?