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June 26, 2006

Television Icon Aaron Spelling Dies at 83

Most Prolific Producer in the History of Television

Aaron Spelling

Los Angeles, CAProlific television producer Aaron Spelling died at his home in Los Angeles June 23 at 83, apparently due to complications suffered as a result of a stroke. His family held a private burial service today at Hillside Memorial Park, publicist Kevin Sasaki said.

With such prime-time series to his credit as the Love Boat, Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210, Starsky & Hutch, the Mod Squad, Dynasty, T.J. Hooker, 7th Heaven and many more, there is likely no television viewer on the planet who has not viewed at least one of his programs.

Johnny Ringo to 7th Heaven

For more than 50 years, Spelling built his name, company and considerable wealth—as represented by his storied, sprawling 56,500-square-foot Beverly Hills residence—producing more than 200 television series and movies.

His first series, a western titled Johnny Ringo, aired in1959. Now some 47 years later, the bit actor-turned mogul saw his current longrunner 7th Heaven make the jump from the WB to the newly-minted CW network.

Spanning every genre, from police shows to family dramas to glittering primetime soaps for adults and teens, Spelling holds the Guinness Book of World Records title for the most hours of television produced, clocking more than 3,000-plus hours of aired programs. During the 1970s and 1980s, Spelling shows covered as many as seven hours per week, or one-third, of ABC's prime-time schedule.

300 Critics or 30 Million Fans?

Inspite of his extraordinary success, critical disdain followed Spelling's work along with his enduring series' legions of fans. Whereas the New Yorker tagged the legendary producer a "schlock merchant," the New York Times reports that Spelling, on the other hand, deftly described his fare as "mind candy."

"The knocks by the critics bother you," Spelling conceded during a 1986 interview with Associated Press, "but you have a choice of proving yourself to 300 critics or 30 million fans. You have to make a choice." And as former partner and producer, Douglas Cramer, told the Los Angeles Times of Spelling's ability to connect with mass audiences, "Aaron has a legendary instinct for what the public wants to see."

Showing great pride in a handful of projects that did garner wide critical acclaim, Spelling often spoke of his work on productions like 1970s middle class family drama Family and Emmy award-winner And the Band Played On, the HBO film based on Randy Shilts' book about the AIDS crisis in America.

Dallas-Born Veteran Heads to Hollywood

Truly a rags-to-riches journey, Aaron Spelling was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1923 to a struggling Jewish family. On top of enduring bitter social prejudice—"I grew up thinking 'Jew boy' was one word," he wrote in memoir Aaron Spelling: A Prime-Time Life—he was struck with a nerve-related condition and lost the ability to walk for several months at 8 years old. Bed confinement, however, fueled his appetite for books and creative urge to write.

After serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II and attending Southern Methodist University, Spelling found his way to Los Angeles. He found his first Hollywood breaks as an actor.

Aaron Spelling with Charlie's Angels stars Cheryl Ladd, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith
The Spellings: Randy, Tori, Aaron and Candy

He landed bit roles on series such as Dragnet, I Love Lucy and Gunsmoke. Soon enough, he focused on work behind the scenes, beginning work as writer and later a producer on the Dick Powell series Zane Grey Theater.

Spelling's first significant success, 1963 crime series Burke's Law, starred Gene Barry as a skirt-chasing, millionaire detective who traveled by chauffeured Rolls-Royce.

Burke's three-year run gave audiences a glimpse of the sparkling riches and juicy feud-filled stories which would come to dominate cultural phenoms Dynasty and Beverly Hills 90210.

One Door Closes...

When ABC pulled the plug on Dynasty in 1989, Spelling had no show on the air for the first time since the early 1960s and no network contract renewal.

A Variety headline read: "Spelling Dynasty Dead," as new ABC executive in charge of programming Brandon Stoddard proclaimed the net was no longer "Aaron's Broadcasting Company."

Spelling said that he was so depressed, he would have quit, but simply "liked TV to much." With his namesake, Spelling Entertainment, having gone public in 1986, he also bore responsibility to investors.

Though much of the industry had written him off, Spelling's second wind whirled several months later as then-fledgling Fox Television Network knocked on his door with the idea that would ultimately become Beverly Hills 90210.

Since 90210's launch in 1990, television hasn't seen a new season without a Spelling series on the air.

Aaron Spelling is survived by his wife Candy, his two children, Tori and Randy, and his brother, Danny Spelling.

Plans for an entertainment industry memorial service for Aaron Spelling are in the works, according to Sasaki.

In Aaron Spelling's Own Words: Special from the Archive of American Television

The Archive of American Television conducted an exclusive, three-hour interview with Aaron Spelling about his life and career just a few years ago in 1999.

Read outtakes of Aaron Spelling's own words on the art of casting, on critics, about that fateful call from Barry Diller and more in the AAT Blog Update.

You may arrange to screen footage of the entire three-hour interview at AAT's headquarters on the Television Academy campus in North Hollywood, California, by calling (818) 754-2800.

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