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Caught up in Spelling’s unique spell

Special to The Times

TV mogul Aaron Spelling, who died Friday at age 83 because of complications stemming from a stroke, left an indelible mark on the medium. “7th Heaven” creator Brenda Hampton, who worked closely with Spelling in recent years, recalls her friendship with the show’s executive producer.

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The first time Aaron Spelling ever called me at home, I was grilling a steak, and as I watched from my kitchen window, it went up in flames and burned to a crisp. It was Aaron Spelling on the phone. Wow. Aaron Spelling.

In my wildest dreams, I never imagined that Aaron Spelling would call me, much less that we’d get into an argument about the title for a television show I’d written and whether or not Spelling employees should get to vote on it.

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The bizarre reality of a man who was a television legend arguing with me over the phone scared and amused me then and continued to scare and amuse me over the next decade.... Ask anyone who worked at Spelling Television, Aaron loved me and I loved him, and we argued all the time. If he didn’t want to do something that I wanted to do, he wouldn’t tell me he didn’t want to do it, he’d just blame the network.

Knowing this was a game, I would yell at him, “Tell them you’re Aaron Spelling, they can’t say no to you -- they can’t!” And that would make him laugh, and he’d pretend to be weak and whine that the networks didn’t care who he was anymore, and I’d say, “Please, they know who they’re working with, and I know who I’m working for, you’re Aaron Spelling. Call them. Tell them you want what you want,” which of course would be something I wanted. He’d hang up laughing and in a few minutes he’d call back and say “OK, they changed their minds.” And that would make me laugh. He was really a funny man.

Anyone who has had the privilege of talking to Aaron Spelling very often on the phone knows that he always claimed that [Viacom Inc. and CBS Corp. Chairman] Sumner Redstone was calling when he wanted to get off the call. It took me a while to figure this out, but as soon as I did, I started using Aaron as my excuse to get off a call.

One day, [Spelling Television Inc. President] Jonathan Levin called me and I didn’t like the way the conversation was going so I said, “Jonathan, I’m sorry, Aaron’s on the other line.”

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Jonathan said, “No, he’s not, he’s right here in front of me.”

I said, “Oh, then it must be Sumner Redstone,” and hung up.

Two seconds later, Aaron called and said, “You can’t use Sumner Redstone, lover, that’s mine.” He called everyone lover. He could get away with calling everyone lover. He was loved.

Aaron was a kind man. When I was doing the pilot for “7th Heaven,” I tried to hide the fact that I was adopting because I didn’t want him to think that being a single mother and running a television show would be too much for me. One day after screening dailies, he asked if he could talk to me alone. He sat down across from me and said, “So I hear you’re adopting.”

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I immediately launched into all the reasons this would not be a problem. He finally put up his hand and said, “No, no, no, I just wanted to ask if you need any help, if you need an attorney, or if you have enough money. I’m happy you’re adopting, and when the little girl gets here, you bring her to work with you, she’s welcome here anytime. You can even have an office for her if you want.”

I got my daughter out of Vietnam the next year, the second season of “7th Heaven,” and I took Aaron up on his offer. In the 10th season of “7th Heaven,” Zoe completed high school through home schooling in her office at Spelling Television. That office was not something that I had bargained for in a contract agreement, that was just a gift from Aaron Spelling.

Aaron was completely unpredictable. One Saturday he called me at home to discuss something about a pilot we were doing, but I was in a hurry to get out the door. I told him I was on my way to Chinatown and asked if he wanted anything. He said yes, he told me if I found any zip-up jackets that looked like the ones he wore, to pick one up for him. I asked if there was any particular color. He said black. I got him a black zip-up jacket, some knockoff, and I took it to him on Monday morning. After offering to reimburse me for the $25, he put it on, and he wore it several other times to work.

Aaron loved In-N-Out burgers. He had a chef at work, but quite often, he’d order from In-N-Out. One day the chef came in and took the orders for the burgers from everyone who was sitting in the office. When Aaron ordered a hamburger and fries, the chef asked if he wanted cheese on the hamburger. Without missing a beat, Aaron asked if the cheese cost extra.

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The last time I was at the house, just a few weeks ago, Aaron and I had In-N-Out burgers for lunch, for old times’ sake. It was just the two of us at a big round table in an elegant dining room, and Aaron was wearing a Burberry robe with matching pajamas. We were served by his butler. The ketchup and mustard were in silver serving bowls. Someone had made coleslaw. It was delicious.

Aaron showed me how the buzzer under the table was used to call the staff. He buzzed and then asked for something, buzzed and asked for something else, buzzed and then explained he was just buzzing to amuse me and apologized to the butler.

After lunch, he took me down to see the bowling alley. I had never seen it before. We wandered around looking at all the trophies and the awards and the pictures. But unlike other trips down memory lane with him, this wasn’t just a reminder of who he was, it was a pleasant walk through television history with a friend who had been there and seen it all. Then he walked me to the door, and we hugged and said goodbye. He looked happy and perfectly content.

I will miss him, I will miss his voice on the phone, and I will even miss seeing the name “Aaron Spelling” on the office caller ID. Thousands of phone calls from him over the years and it was always the same. Wow. Aaron Spelling.

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