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TV Mogul Spun Fluff Into Gold

Special to The Times

Aaron Spelling, whose knack for tapping into the public’s taste for light entertainment made him both the most prolific and one of the wealthiest producers in television history, died Friday evening. He was 83.

Spelling died at his Holmby Hills mansion of complications from a stroke he suffered Sunday, according to his publicist, Kevin Sasaki. His wife, Candy, and son, Randy, were at his bedside.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Jun. 29, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 29, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
Aaron Spelling obituary: The obituary of Aaron Spelling in Saturday’s Section A said Spelling and Danny Thomas produced “The Danny Thomas Hour,” “The Guns of Will Sonnett” and “The Mod Squad” after forming Spelling-Thomas Productions in 1969. The pair formed the company in 1969 but collaborated on “The Danny Thomas Hour” and “The Guns of Will Sonnett” in 1967 and “The Mod Squad” in 1968.

Although seldom a darling of critics, Spelling was associated with a dizzying roster of commercial successes, including such long-running series as “Dynasty,” “The Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Melrose Place,” “Beverly Hills, 90210" and “7th Heaven.”

“For a person of such fame, you would marvel at how unassuming, kind and gentle he was,” said Sumner Redstone, chairman of Viacom Inc. and CBS Corp. Redstone said he was not surprised by his friend’s death. He and his wife, Paula, had taken the Spellings out for dinner on Aaron’s birthday a couple of weeks ago at The Grill. “He was more frail than usual,” Redstone told The Times on Friday. “We called Candy yesterday -- she was always very protective of Aaron -- and she said, ‘He’ll call you in a few days.’ ”

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With over 5,000 hours of TV and more than 70 series bearing his name, as well as dozens of made-for-TV movies and a smattering of feature films, Spelling was recognized by Guinness World Records as the most prolific TV producer of all time. A decade ago, he received a special People’s Choice Award that cited his “innate sense of the public taste.”

In a sense, Spelling represented one of the final ties to a time when independent producers could amass enormous wealth by developing popular hits, during an era when the major networks were prevented from supplying their own programming -- federal rules that have since been rescinded. And though Spelling remained active as a producer until his death -- including most recently the series “Charmed” -- his company, which he took public in 1986, was sold and became a unit of Viacom, functioning the last few years as a small division of a vast media conglomerate.

A soft-spoken Texan who started his Hollywood career as an actor and became increasingly eccentric later in life, Spelling was such a major supplier of programs to ABC in the 1970s that the network was only half-jokingly nicknamed “Aaron’s Broadcasting Company.”

Spelling’s roster of hits also made him one of Hollywood’s richest denizens, with a fortune estimated in the mid-1990s at more than $300 million. His wealth was underscored by the 56,000-square-foot, 123-room mansion -- complete with bowling alley and indoor skating rink -- that he built on Bing Crosby’s former estate and dubbed “The Manor.”

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After years of chatter about the gargantuan home and complaints from neighbors about the construction disrupting their quiet community, the Spellings wryly announced that the work was done with a postcard to friends and the media saying simply, “We’ve moved.”

Despite his reputation as a purveyor of fluff and what the producer himself called “mind candy,” Spelling’s career also included several tonier projects. They included the Emmy-winning TV movies “Day One” (about the first atom bomb) and “And the Band Played On” (dealing with the AIDS epidemic) in 1989 and ’93, respectively, as well as the Emmy-nominated dramatic series “Family” in the late 1970s.

Still, he will always be most closely associated with opulent prime-time soap operas and light dramas rife with action and beautiful women, which in the days of “Charlie’s Angels” spawned the term “jiggle TV.”

Director Joel Schumacher, a close friend of Spelling’s who worked with him on the short-lived CBS series “2000 Malibu Road,” once said simply, “I would hate to have lived through this era of Hollywood without knowing Aaron Spelling.” As for the producer’s success, he added, “Aaron knows we like to watch rich people fight with each other.”

Spelling conceded that he would never please his critics but took exception to descriptions of his programs as “schlock,” which he saw as an elitist attitude. He took pride in relating that he traveled by train (refusing to fly), often speaking to “normal people” -- including those who passed his home in tour buses -- who repeatedly told him, “I want to come home after a hard day’s work and enjoy myself watching television.”

“What they were saying was, they like to be entertained, and I think our shows are entertaining,” Spelling said in an interview some years ago.

Notably, Spelling did not create the shows, working with several different writers and producers who often took pains, once they left the fold, to point out that fact. Collaborators such as Darren Star (“Melrose Place,” “90210") and Richard and Esther Shapiro (“Dynasty”) accused him of hogging credit for their creations.

Yet Spelling’s genius, many said, stemmed from his ability to spot talent and bring what amounted to quality control to his productions -- from keeping story lines on track with small suggestions to overseeing minute details, such as hairstyles and costumes.

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Although he said his goal was always to write, having started as what he called a “bad actor,” Spelling also possessed a special affinity for performers long before he cast his daughter, Tori, on “90210" and his son, Randy, took up the profession as well. Tori is now featured in the comedy series “So Notorious” on VH-1.

“Once you realize how tough it is on actors and actresses, you have to love your casts,” Spelling said in 2001.

By the late 1980s, Spelling’s brand of fanciful escapist entertainment appeared to have been replaced by grittier, more realistic dramas such as “Hill Street Blues” and “thirtysomething.” When “Dynasty” -- a lavish serial that some characterized as television’s embodiment of national excess during the Reagan years -- was canceled in 1989, he was left without a show on ABC for the first time in nearly two decades, causing many to wonder if the business had passed him by.

Those years also yielded some of Spelling’s more spectacular flops, among them “Nightingales,” an NBC series about nurses that was derided by critics and attacked by real nurses for its emphasis on changing-room scenes.

In a 1996 interview, Spelling acknowledged his apprehension at the time. “The worst time in my life was when ‘Dynasty’ was canceled and Variety ran the headline, ‘Aaron Spelling’s Dynasty is Dead,’ ” he recalled, “and there were no quotation marks around ‘Dynasty.’ ”

Spelling quickly renewed himself, however, with “Beverly Hills, 90210,” which premiered on the then-fledgling Fox network in 1990 and gradually blossomed into a breakthrough hit among younger viewers.

According to Spelling, then-Fox Chairman Barry Diller called and asked him if he would do a show about high school. When the producer protested that he didn’t know anything about high school, Diller responded, “What about your two kids, you idiot?”

That was followed two years later by “Melrose Place,” which brought the affairs, wild cliffhangers and intrigue that characterized much of Spelling’s earlier work to a new level of camp while simultaneously enthralling a new generation of viewers.

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In a business known for its ageism and short memory, Spelling was reborn, producing programs for fledgling networks catering to ever-younger audiences, among them “7th Heaven,” which ran for 10 seasons and became one of TV’s most popular family shows.

The son of a tailor who worked for Sears, Spelling was raised in Dallas. Spelling was fond of telling interviewers how he grew up poor, living with his parents, sister and two brothers in a house that that cost $6,000 and had one bathroom. The family took in a boarder to make ends meet.

“My nightmare is that my entire life has been a dream, and I’m now back in that house,” Spelling once said. “I honestly believe that nightmare is what brings me back to work every day.”

Being Jewish, he remembered being subjected to anti-Semitism as a youth, bullied and called “Jewbaby” in school.

Spelling enlisted in the Army Air Forces after high school and served as a correspondent for Stars and Stripes during World War II. He was wounded by a sniper in the left hand and knee, receiving a Purple Heart. He would also receive the Bronze Star.

After the war, Spelling attended the Sorbonne in Paris for a year and Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he majored in journalism.

Spelling wrote and directed theater (including “Thorns in the Road,” which dealt with his World War II experiences) before coming to Hollywood with only a few hundred dollars to his name. He appeared in his first movie, “Vicki,” in 1953, followed by small roles in westerns such as “Gunsmoke.”

He freely acknowledged that he was never much of an actor, which led him behind the camera. Spelling sold his first script to Dick Powell’s “Zane Grey Theater” in 1956, becoming a producer the next year at Four Star Television. He created his first TV series, “Johnny Ringo,” in 1959, subsequently producing “The Dick Powell Show” -- including an episode that introduced the character of debonair detective Amos Burke, played by Gene Barry, which gave rise to what was to become the producer’s first series hit, “Burke’s Law,” in 1963.

In 1969, he formed Thomas-Spelling Productions with Danny Thomas, producing “The Danny Thomas Hour,” “The Guns of Will Sonnett” and “The Mod Squad,” which became a significant hit for ABC. The network subsequently signed Spelling to an exclusive contract.

Spelling partnered with producer Leonard Goldberg in the 1970s, giving rise to a series of hits, including “Starsky and Hutch,” “The Rookies” and “Charlie’s Angels” before launching his own production company in 1977.

Writer-producer Duke Vincent, a partner on many Spelling productions in recent years, characterized him as a workaholic, someone who would never retire and had little choice in his drive to continue producing and entertaining.

Indeed, Spelling’s personal quirks were almost as legendary as his career. A frail man, he refused to fly, got around in a chauffeur-driven limousine or by train and held court in his massive Mid-Wilshire office, where a butler would serve his lunch.

Married to actress Carolyn Jones in the 1950s (the two divorced in 1964), Spelling married his second wife, Candy, a hand model and interior decorator, in 1968. In addition to his wife, his son and his daughter, Spelling is survived by a brother, Daniel.

Somewhat reclusive, Spelling enjoyed feeding the koi in one of the ponds at his home. The estate also featured an entire floor devoted to Candy’s wardrobe.

Although awards generally eluded him, Spelling was frequently recognized by industry groups and philanthropic organizations. Among his myriad honors, he was honored four times by the NAACP for his commitment to diversity.

Spelling was fond of self-effacing humor, joking about his own legacy in a 1994 interview: “My epitaph will be: ‘Tori Spelling’s father, did “90210" and “Melrose Place,” lived in a big house.’ That’s going to be it.”

*

Lowry, now a columnist for the trade publication Variety, wrote this obituary while a member of the Times staff. Times staff writers Sallie Hofmeister and Susan King contributed to this report.


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