Unlike his one-dimensional, prime-time creations, Aaron Spelling was a complex character. The late television producer, best known for ’70s fluff shows Dynasty, Charlie’s Angels, Vega$, Starsky and Hutch, The Love Boat, and Fantasy Island arguably had more influence on my generation than any other individual, save Ronald Reagan. As the NBC Nightly News succinctly put it: “Aaron Spelling spent the prime time of his life influencing ours.” If I watch little or no television today it is because I grew up in the ’70s, a small, portable black and white TV with a coat-hanger antenna always playing in the background and usually turned to some vacuous Spelling production (Hart to Hart, The Rookies). For that, the Prince of Prime Time’s ashes deserve my sincere thanks.
The son of poor East European Jewish immigrants, Spelling specialized in obtuse, escapist fare served on a faux-silver platter to blue collar Americans. From his first hit, 1968’s The Mod Squad to his last 7th Heaven, Spelling produced more fluff than a Mexican pillow factory, while snobbish critics charged he wasn’t so much mirroring public taste as lowering standards. Despite having nearly as many hits as Lou Gehrig, Spelling felt the continual need to justify his labor. “I’m proud of what I’ve done,” he told an interviewer in 1992. “I think there is a need for escapism. I think it is a release valve that keeps people from blowing their brains out or having nervous breakdowns.” How true. And I, for one, owe my sanity to Aaron’s genius and Farrah’s happy smile.
Spelling, fresh from a tour of duty in WWII, arrived in Hollywood in the 1950s, found a few bit parts, but failed to catch on as an actor. In his own words, he looked too much like a “weirdo.” After a few years writing scripts for ’50s westerns and playhouse theaters, Spelling turned to producing where his real genius lay. His magic, according to critic Ian Ferrell, hid in the blend of glamour, sex and cattiness he sprinkled liberally over multiple, simultaneous plot lines; “a rich blend eagerly devoured by an audience yearning for escapism.” Thanks to this formula, his flops were few and far between.
Aaron Spelling was everything his audience was not: well-read, articulate and charming. Acting may not have been his strong suit, but he played the obligatory role of Hollywood liberal with aplomb, and was a six-time recipient of commendations by the NAACP for his encouragement to black actors. To maintain his liberal bona fides and justify his billions, he’d occasionally tackle politically correct social issues. His Mod Squad featured the first black guy-white girl smooch. And Dynasty was one of the first shows to feature a gay character.
Spelling spent his final months battling oral cancer and struggling to salvage his reputation by suing a former nurse for defamation. The nurse claimed the celebrity octogenarian had repeatedly harassed her, asked her to dress like a hooker, fondled her, whatnot. But what really set Spelling off him was the survey she mailed to 600 actresses, titled “Survey on sexual harassment by Aaron Spelling,” though a court found it hard to defame a man who’d spent a lifetime producing crap.
THERE WERE ONE or two exceptions: the shows Twin Peaks and Family, come to mind. In 1984 Spelling presciently told a group of critics: “I wish all my shows were as great as Family. But I know that when I die, the headline will be, Charlie’s Angels producer dead.” The obvious follow-up should have been, ‘Well, why weren’t they?” Anyway, he couldn’t have minded too much. Spelling worked hard for the money, oftentimes producing four shows at a time, and he had a great deal to show for his work, including the largest home in California. (What home is complete without 123 rooms, a bowling alley, ice rink, and a doll museum?)
As popular as his shows were in the U.S. they were even more popular overseas, where the images of wealthy, glamorous white Americans transfixed viewers in developing nations. Living in Poland in 1992, I was told the entire country turned into a ghost town at 7 p.m. Tuesday nights. That was the night Dynasty came on.
I wouldn’t want to be the one to make the case that our culture is the better for having known Aaron Spelling. Still, his shows were relatively harmless. Mind candy, he called them. Mindless candy, replied the critics. And in retrospect, compared to today’s idiotic reality shows, they seem rather mild, though they did pave the way for worse things to come. S.W.A.T was incredibly violent for its time, and Charlie’s Angels with its busty babes in wet bikinis anticipated Baywatch by two decades. “I think [my shows are] clean,” he told an interviewer. “I hate to talk about that, but, boy, where some of the shows are going today, it’s amazing. I’m ashamed of my wife seeing some of these shows, much less making them. I don’t even want the cast of my shows to see some of those other shows.” Then he went out and made the steamy, sexy Melrose Place.
Aaron Spelling’s version of the American dream was to make a billion dollars producing junk. Does this make him a bad man? No. But it certainly doesn’t make him a great man. Just one whose June 23 obituary headline read: “Charlie’s Angels’ Producer Dead at 83.” Just as he predicted.