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AARON SPELLING / 1923-2006

TV Mogul Spun Fluff Into Gold

June 24, 2006|Brian Lowry | 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.

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.' "

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.

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."

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.

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