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He's Made Tv What It Is Today

Aaron Spelling is the most prolific producer in the history of prime-time TV. Why doesn't he just relax and retire to Fantasy Island?

September 08, 1996|Hilary de Vries | Hilary de Vries' last article for the magazine was a profile of Jodie Foster

On May 21, Aaron Spelling, vice chairman of Spelling Entertainment Group Inc., prepared for the company's annual stockholders' meeting. A man of few but precise rituals, Spelling traded in his customary casual attire and reluctantly put on a white shirt and dove-gray silk suit. He lunched in his office--the meal served on a silver tray, as usual, by a uniformed butler--and afterward was driven from the company headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard west to the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

Ever since he took his company public in 1986--solidifying his reputation, if not his reality, as one of Hollywood's wealthiest, most enigmatic citizens--Spelling has dreaded these meetings. A shy, reclusive man, he has never overcome his distaste for rubbing shoulders with strangers. As much as he loves producing television--and he does love it again, now that "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Melrose Place" have restored some of the luster from Spelling's heyday with "Charlie's Angels," "Fantasy Island" and "Dynasty"--he prefers to leave the business side to others: Lee Gabler, his agent; E. Duke Vincent, his producing partner, and Sumner Redstone, chairman of Viacom, Spelling's parent company since 1994.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 29, 1996 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Editor's note: In the story about Aaron Spelling, The Times did not mean to imply that he engaged in illegal activity to obtain his wealth, and The Times apologizes if anyone inferred that he was engaged in illegal activity.

"Have you ever seen anything more boring?" Spelling groused, as he paused in the hotel foyer to watch the stockholders shuffle into the Champagne Suite. "I mean, my God, I'm even wearing a tie."

This year, Spelling had more reason than ever to feel uneasy as he stood shielded from the crowd by his PR people and his beefy, unsmiling security staff just steps away. He was now 73, and while he had shaved his workweek from five to four days, an inner ear infection left him feeling his age more acutely. "It was the damnedest thing," he grumbled about his convalescence. "I couldn't write, couldn't watch TV, so boring."

But Spelling had more than age on his mind. For the past nine months, Spelling Entertainment had been up for sale. Viacom's hefty $1 billion-plus sticker price, however, had kept buyers at bay. No offer had materialized--only a lot of speculative tire-kicking and skeptical press. The stories infuriated Spelling--one of the few Hollywood producers ever to have taken his company public--and resulted in the embarrassing withdrawal of the sale. Now he was in the awkward position of publicly defending the company he no longer owned but which still bore his name. "The truth

is, the company has grown and grown," Spelling said later in his office. "I have this stupid worry that shareholders bought stock because of me, people who pay my salary. But the stock price? That bothers the hell out of me."

Spelling's reservations aside, when the meeting got underway, it was clear that defensiveness would not be necessary. Despite some mutterings, shareholders nodded happily to news of Spelling's renewed two-year contract and the announcement that the new season's program orders would top 400 hours. As Spelling smilingly explained from the dais: "That is more hours than in any year of our history." He has, as it turns out, another hit on his hands. By meeting's end, the gnomish, snowy-haired producer is besieged by shareholders anxious to pump the hand of the man Redstone expansively introduced as, "a man who needs no introduction, my very good friend and an unparalleled voice in entertainment."

*

Creating the impression of being a peerless force in television may be Spelling's canniest move--cleverer even than his much-noted comeback after the cancellation of "Dynasty" in 1989 put an end to his 18-year reign at ABC, once known as Aaron's Broadcasting Company. Beginning with Fox's "Beverly Hills, 90210" in 1990 and "Melrose Place" two years later, and now supplying series and movies to three of the four major networks as well as the fledgling WB, Spelling has pulled off the kind of career second act seldom seen in Hollywood.

Television is littered with the names of the once powerful: from the legendary Norman Lear and Grant Tinker to more recent casualties like Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Diane English. For one brief season, 1989-90, Spelling too looked like a dinosaur: all of his hit series, including "Dynasty," were in ABC's dumper; an unrenewed contract; persona non grata at affiliates' meetings. It was more than personal failure. It was, as Variety made clear, the end of an era when beautiful people in beautiful clothes in exotic locales were enough to earn a berth in the Nielsen Top Ten.

But then, just as abruptly, Spelling was back. "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Melrose Place" were more than hit series; they were, in TV's meretricious way, history in the making--the first dramas to win the elusive and coveted Gen-X viewer. The "King of the Jiggle" had reinvented himself for a new generation.

"Aaron came back because, like all truly talented people, he has the ability to reinvent himself," observes Don Ohlmeyer, NBC West Coast president and a former ABC executive.

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