SMILING ALL THE WAY!
...dead at 83
The genial guy behind
the trashy TV image
By RON MILLER
Let me tell you why I found myself with tears in my eyes when I learned that TV producer Aaron Spelling had died from a stroke late last week at age 83. He wasn't supposed to be the sort of guy TV critics would mourn. So, take me out and shoot me. I liked the guy and I've missed him ever since I left my full-time job as a syndicated TV columnist eight years ago.
I know what you've read about him: He got filthy rich making schlock TV shows like "Charlie's Angels" and "Dynasty" and he built that decadently opulent mansion in the Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles, where he lived like a guilt-free sultan on the proceeds of his tacky TV crapola. And, yeah, he had a daughter named Tori who became a TV "star" because he put her in his shows and forced the world to watch her talent-free performances.
Now I have no idea what Spelling was like as a boss, as a neighbor, as a father or as a friend. I didn't know him very well, though we "knew" each other well enough to say hello to each other and smile when we passed on the street for the 20-some years I worked the TV beat. But I liked the guy from the day I met him--liked him a lot more, I might add, than some other TV producers whose work I respected a great deal more than Spelling's.
I first met Aaron in January of 1978. He had four hit TV shows going at the time: "Charlie's Angels," "The Love Boat," "Fantasy Island" and "Family." I was a young television critic on my first national "TV press tour," where I was previewing the new mid-season shows of the 1977-78 TV year. And I already knew what I was supposed to think of him.
If you were a "serious" TV critic, this was the accepted point of view on him:
Except for "Family," which had somehow turned out to be a critics' favorite, Spelling was a schlockmeister who made nothing but crappy TV shows that played to the TV audience's lowest common denominator. Worse yet, he was responsible for launching the "jiggle" era of late 1970s television with his dippy "Charlie's Angels," which was popular only because it featured three beautiful actresses who were always running somewhere so men could watch their breasts jiggle.
In those days, the ABC network had an exclusive relationship with Spelling. ABC liked to have columnists and critics "interview" stars and producers in a series of small press conferences limited to about 20 of us at a time. The "talent" would do several of these small group sessions per day. In my session, I wound up facing Aaron Spelling across a small table. We were maybe six feet apart.
The first thing I noticed about him was he was a kind of weird-looking character--not much of a chin, sort of bug-eyed and quite thin. In fact, I could swear I'd seen him somewhere before, like in a police lineup or peering through the bars at a mental hospital. And he was smiling right at me.
I remember that I was going to pop with one of my standard wise-ass remarks at the press conference, trying to instill a sense of levity to a gathering I was afraid would be taken over by the "serious" critics who still wanted to work the tired "jiggle" angle. I think it was probably the one about how I wanted my tombstone to have this line etched on it: "He never saw an episode of 'Charlie's Angels' all the way through."
But the guy's smile got to me. He looked like he'd probably laugh louder than anybody else at the table and say something wittier, like, "You can't have that one. I've already got it locked up for my own tombstone."
So, I didn't say anything remotely funny and the "jiggle" attacks began. That's when I discovered Spelling's secret weapon: He rolled with the punches and came up smiling. He knew exactly what he was doing, he told us, and what he was doing was making hit TV shows for his network. He knew they weren't going to earn him a spot in the TV Hall of Fame, he admitted, but they weren't going to get him chased by any lynch mobs either. His shows were harmless fun. They were, he said, "mind candy."
The guy was incredibly disarming. He was as charming as JFK had been in his press conferences. You could ask him a really serious question about lowering the I/Q. of the TV audience and he'd give you a quote that was better--and funnier--than the serious answer you might have been counting on.
And then he would mention a few really high quality things he'd done along the way, just so you'd realize he DID KNOW the difference between quality and schlock.
Another thing I came to like about Aaron Spelling was his abiding respect for the great actresses of Old Hollywood. He had a close relationship with Barbara Stanwyck, for instance, and persuaded her to return to television on several occasions, lastly for his spinoff of "Dynasty," a serial drama called "The Colbys." He lured Bette Davis back to TV to star in his "Hotel" and, when Davis died after filming just the pilot episode, he convinced Davis' one-time deadly rival and "All About Eve" co-star, Anne Baxter, to take Davis' place. He was the catnip that brought Joan Collins to TV in his "Dynasty" and a great many other old-time stars to his "Love Boat."
Spelling didn't just use his money to persaude them. He was an incomparably charming man who truly respected these aging divas. He got them the very best hairdressers, clothes designers and makeup people. He treated them like royalty and they loved it.
It was Spelling who personally talked Lucille Ball into doing her final TV series, "Life With Lucy," for ABC in 1986. You may have read that ABC paid her a gigantic salary and gave her complete creative control over the series. That's true, but Lucy told me, in my last meeting with her while she was doing the short-lived series, that it was Aaron who convinced her she could do it. She had many misgivings, but she adored Aaron Spelling and trusted his instincts.
Well, that time Aaron's instincts failed him. The 75-year-old Lucy's show was painful to watch. She was trying to be herself at 35 in a show that seemed as old as she was. I remember sitting in the studio audience with my wife during the filming of her first show. We turned to each other and were almost in tears. It was agony and ABC performed a mercy killing before two months had passed.
But Spelling's instincts seldom failed him that completely. I think he may be the most successful producer in TV history. And he could come roaring back just when everybody thought he'd really lost it bigtime. After his ABC contract ended and his planned revival of "Charlie's Angels" with a new cast fizzled at Fox, Spelling tried going into syndication with original shows. They were pretty terrible. I remember talking with him at that time, in the early 1990s, and thinking he didn't look very happy anymore.
Then he came up with "Beverly Hills, 90210" for Fox. I remember loving the pilot and thinking he'd really scored another winner this time, but this time in a more serious vein like his beloved "Family." It didn't take off like a rocket, but Fox stayed with him and it blossomed into an awesome hit with the young viewers Fox was after. That led to the "Melrose Place" spinoff, which went even bigger for Fox. He was back on top in his 70s.
My last personal contact with Spelling came when the criticism of his daughter. Tori, had reached the point where I thought it was beyond reason. I don't know Tori at all, but I talked with her a few times during that period and thought she was handling herself extremely well under very difficult conditions. I always felt she was a talented actress besmirched by the mean-spirited writers who just couldn't see her as anything but an artificially-created product of her dad. I saw nothing wrong with Aaron putting his daughter in his shows--"Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Melrose Place." How was this different than a plumber bringing his son into the business? And I wrote about this subject in one of my syndicated columns.
A few days later, I received a telegram from Aaron Spelling, thanking me profusely for defending Tori on a professional level. It was something he couldn't do because he WAS her father as well as her employer, he wrote. Like any father, he wanted his girl to succeed and yet he never answered her critics, no matter how unfairly they attacked her, because he felt she had to face this herself. I felt his love for Tori in that very personal message to me and, I think, finally understood how much he might have been hurt by all the nasty things written about him over the years--and also understood why he didn't fight back, but smiled at his enemies instead.
It was in the mid-1990s that I finally figured out why I thought I'd met Aaron Spelling before that day that I first met him in 1978. I was watching one of my favorite old movies, a thriller called "Vicki," which was made in 1951. It was a remake of the 1940s noir classic "I Wake Up Screaming,"with Betty Grable. And there in the middle of "Vicki" was Aaron Spelling, making his film debut as an actor, playing the psycho hotel night clerk who has a crucial role in the story.
I think one of the reasons the old Hollywood stars loved Aaron Spelling so much was that he'd been there and done that himself. I still remember what was the highlight of the ABC dinner that introduced Lucille Ball and her new Aaron Spelling-produced sitcom to the TV press. Lucy had asked that a certain clip from an old episode of "I Love Lucy" be shown that evening. It was the one in which a really goofy-looking Aaron Spelling played a hayseed that Lucy and Ricky Ricardo meet while motoring across the U.S. He was outrageously funny--and the fact that he had wound up being one of the richest and most successful TV producers in the world made it all the more entertaining.
I also remember looking over at Lucy's table, where Aaron was seated, watching the film clip along with the rest of us. And he was laughing louder than anybody else.
That's the way I want to remember Aaron Spelling, always able to laugh at himself at every step in his long and remarkable career in television.
©2006 by Ron Miller. This column first posted June 26, 2006.
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