The Legacy of TV Hitmaker Aaron Spelling

Writer Matt Roush remembers Aaron Spelling, who produced a long string of television hits and redefined the way TV is produced.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

For nearly 50 years, T.V. producer Aaron Spelling helped shape American prime time. Shows like Love Boat, Mod Squad, Charlie's Angels, Dynasty, even Melrose Place and 90210 - few won critical acclaim, but many sure were popular. All told, Spelling produced more than 3,000 programs, over 5,000 hours of T.V., a sum that still stands as a world record. He was, to say the least, prolific.

Aaron Spelling died on Friday of complications from a stroke. He was 83 years old. In a moment, T.V. Guide's Matt Roush, on the life and legacy of Aaron Spelling, but if you have a favorite Aaron Spelling show, or have questions about his role in changing American television, for good or ill, we'd like to hear from you. Our number here is Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, e-mail us - talk@npr.org.

And, joining us now as promised, Matt Roush, a television critic for T.V. Guide. He's with us by phone from his office in New York and thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. MATT ROUSH (Television Critic, T.V. Guide): Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: And we should remember that Aaron Spelling - well, if he'd been a better actor, there would have been a lot of dead air on television these last 50 years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROUSH: That's true, yeah. In the obits that you saw on television, they would often roll out the clips when he was on in the early days of T.V., sometimes playing a scrawny villain or a scrawny somebody in some forgotten western or something. So, he didn't have much a career as an actor, but he ended up producing a show - sort of a playhouse show - that Dick Powell was involved in. Dick Powell became his mentor and he began to produce series and, eventually, he got a few that were actual breakthroughs.

The first show, that really became noticeable as an Aaron Spelling show, was the Mod Squad, which was one of those shows that has a ridiculously silly sounding title, but it was a show of it's moment, and it really helped propel him to the next level to where he would create one show after another - some forgotten, but many of them really had a place in pop culture history.

CONAN: And he did seem to have a knack for the - well, you can call it what you want, but it was the American jugular.

Mr. ROUSH: Absolutely. I think, yeah, we like to call that a golden gut. Fred Silverman, the T.V. executive, used to be known as having one, and although Aaron Spelling was a smaller person, he certainly had that knack as well of finding, either the right show, the right concept, the right title, or in the case of people like Farrah Fawcett and on Melrose Place: Heather Locklear - the right person. Or even reviving careers, like Joan Collins and Linda Evans for Dynasty.

I mean that huge sensation that would take place whenever they would have a catfight in a lily pond or a mud puddle was just enormous, and it was great fun to cover those shows, even if you didn't respect them critically, you had to admit the fact they were fun to watch.

And as you look back on his career, I think fondly on the good times that he provided many, many people. He had a great sense of T.V. as a place for escape and escapism, and he knew that T.V. had a great capacity for providing that escape and many of his shows were perfect for that.

CONAN: A lot of producers are hands-on and influence everything that's done on the show, but some are not. Which kind of producer was he?

Mr. ROUSH: Well, I think that he influenced things like the look of his show with the casting of the show, and he was more like a benevolent grandfather to many shows, especially as time went on. The one show that carries his name now, on television, is 7th Heaven - which was on the WB, but which was saved from cancellation to help launch a network, the CW, in the fall. Because, although nobody ever talked about it, it was the most popular show on the WB and it's probably going to do okay on the CW for as long as it lasts.

But he wasn't, you know, intricately involved in the show. He didn't write or anything like that, but anything that happened around the show, he was very involved in, I think, again, the casting of shows like this - the fact that a young actress by the name - a starlet - by name of Jessica Biel came out of a show like that. He had a pretty good eye for this sort of thing.

And if you like the show, or even said anything nice about it, he really paid attention. There was a point where 7th Heaven was named by T.V. Guide as the Best Show You're Not Watching, in one of its early seasons, and he called me personally to thank me. I didn't have a lot to do with it, but he was just so glad anybody said anything nice about anything that he ever did, he couldn't help but call.

CONAN: You say he had a real good eye for talent, or if not talent, who America wanted to watch, with one glaring exception: his own daughter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROUSH: Yes. Well, you can't really blame the guy for loving his daughter, you know. He put Tori Spelling in 90210, which was a show that was very important in the early launching of the Fox network; it became a signature show for that network. And, of course, everybody derided Tori Spelling.

I once wrote something that was very hurtful, to him, about her. He would let it be known that he was very protective of his daughter, and now she, of course, has become sort of a tabloid queen and has spoofed her own notoriety in a cable series called, So NoTORIous, which was so irreverent that, actually, her father was not quite pleased at what she was doing on VH1.

CONAN: But, you could have just said she inherited all of her father's acting talent.

Mr. ROUSH: Very true, but I'll tell you what, he had a real eye for what was commercial and what sold, and the fact that he had such a prolific time, as you mentioned earlier, on television - it says something about, you know - I think he was good for television, let's put it that way.

I mean, even if we gave his shows pretty lousy reviews, here and there, there was something kind of enjoyable about wondering what he was going to come up with next.

CONAN: We're talking with T.V. Guide's Matt Roush, about the king of the guilty pleasure, Aaron Spelling, who died over the weekend.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get a caller on the line. This is Iman(ph) - Iman calling us from San Antonio.

IMAN (Caller): Yes, hi.

CONAN: Go ahead.

IMAN: I just wanted to say that I actually grew up in Lebanon, and we grew up watching all his shows: Love Boat, Dynasty, Starsky and Hutch, Charlie's Angels. We loved these shows, and we watched them, and they represented American pop culture to us. And I was sad to hear when he died, so. (Unintelligible) grow up in the country, but yet we knew all about his shows.

CONAN: That's interesting, Iman. Thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

IMAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Matt, we sometimes tend to forget what an ambassador to the world American television is, and, for better or worse, a lot of that embassy work was done by Aaron Spelling.

Mr. ROUSH: Oh, no question about it. You've got to figure something like Charlie's Angels - I mean, that's so simple a concept and so crazy. They're sort of the jiggle detectives, you know. But that's the kind of thing that sold everywhere. That poster was everywhere in the late 70s. And even though Farrah Fawcett was only on the show for one season, it submitted her fame for sure just being part of that, sort of, crazy concept.

Again, these were things that sometimes even the networks didn't want. He famously tells stories about Charlie's Angels. They'd laugh him out of the room, telling this concept. But once you saw it executed and cast the way that he cast it with the pretty blonde, the sort of no-nonsense Kate Jackson, and the beauty queen from all the glamour ads, Jaclyn Smith, all carrying guns and wearing crazy costumes and all this sort of business - it was perfect television - perfect escapist, bubble television.

CONAN: Yet, was it P.T. Barnum who said that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Aaron Spelling may have fit into that category.

Mr. ROUSH: Not only did not he go broke, he amassed an enormous fortune and the conspicuous consumption that was so evident on a show like Dynasty became part of his own persona. The house that he ended up building in Hollywood, became part laughingstock, part outrage, for people who just thought that he'd gone too far.

But the fact is, going into that house every day, he knew he had made it. He was so happy to be a famous producer and on T.V. you're a bit anonymous as a producer sometimes, but he was anything but anonymous. He was somebody who was sometimes bigger even than some of the T.V. shows that he produced, but it is rare, I think, for somebody to do television and to become quite as well known as he became. But a part of it was that he also bought into his myth and he proudly flaunted it.

CONAN: You say, for all of his faults, whatever they may have been, he was a man who loved T.V.

Mr. ROUSH: Yeah, he totally loved T.V. I mean, he was in it to the very end. And even in this last year with 7th Heaven possibly being cancelled, and then coming back, and he also had a series that didn't survive the end of the WB, called Charmed. So he had a couple of shows on the air to the very end.

I mean, he had a dynasty that adapted with the times. The fact that he was a standard-bearer for ABC for many years -- many people thought ABC was Aaron's Broadcasting Company, back in the day of, you know, Dynasty and oh, jeez, Fantasy Island, and Love Boat - all those shows were on ABC.

And then, he was very instrumental in the early days of the Fox network, so his company was able to adapt with several generations of T.V. watchers, and found a way to put T.V. shows on that would appeal to new generations. And that was something that - a lot of people don't have that flexibility.

CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller in. Norincar(ph) - am I pronouncing that right?

NORINCAR (Caller): Yeah.

CONAN: Go ahead. Calling from Oakland.

NORINCAR: I'm calling cause I met my husband and got married during Melrose Place, because I invited him over to my house to watch the series finale - to skip class and have a fun time - and we've been together ever since and we love Melrose Place.

CONAN: So, your marriage outlived the program?

NORINCAR: Yes, we actually made it, unlike all the characters on Melrose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORINCAR: Thank you.

CONAN: Thank you very much for calling. Let's see if we've got time to squeeze in one more - Lasonja(ph) - Lasonja in Sacramento.

LASONJA (Caller): Hi, thanks so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

LASONJA: I have to say that I grew up in Los Angeles and I - that his show that influenced me the most was Starsky and Hutch. I have - you have no idea how much that influenced me. I am still in the pursuit of meeting David Soul. I had an opportunity to visit the set, and actually watch them film that one time, and it has influenced me greatly.

CONAN: What did you make of the movie remake?

LASONJA: Oh, I was kind of insulted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It completely trampled on all of his artistic (unintelligible).

LASONJA: I mean, it just, you know, it was just - to me, it was just a farce. I mean, this is not what Starsky and Hutch was at all.

CONAN: Well, I'm glad we could have somebody stand up for the artistic integrity of Aaron Spelling and Starsky and Hutch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Lasonja, thanks very much for being with us.

LASONJA: But, yeah. Thank you so much.

CONAN: And Matt Roush, I guess Aaron Spelling must have some money on all of those remakes. I mean, there were two Charlie's Angels.

Mr. ROUSH: Oh, you got to imagine, yeah. And the is about his shows, they may not be timeless, but they were very much of their time. And as these callers indicate to me that we are just flooded and overwhelmed with fond memories of having watching these shows, even if they were time wasters of time. There's something really kind of satisfying about knowing that we were all there and watched. Sometimes we'd - on a Saturday when there was nothing better to do, you would just curl up with the Love Boat and Fantasy Island, and that was a Saturday night well spent. There's something sweet about that.

CONAN: Matt Roush, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

Mr. ROUSH: Thank you.

CONAN: Matt Roush, a television critic for TV Guide, with us today from his office in New York City. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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