This month our ATV Icons strand celebrates the prolific American television producer Aaron Spelling who’s various and numerous credits include hits such as Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, Melrose Place, T.J Hooker and The Love Boat.
It is without a doubt that Aaron Spelling is the most prolific television producer ever to come out of America. His list of producing credits are long, varied with numerous hits and memorable dramas. Many of the most iconic programmes of the 1970s, 80s and 90s were produced by Spelling from dramas about female detectives to the greed and power of big business through to the angst of teenage years and the power of witchcraft; Spelling had shows in many genres and they were loved by their fans. Looking back some of his shows are mocked for being “popularist” or far-fetched and there’s no denying that some of the plots in shows such as Dynasty, The Colbys and Sunset Beach were far-fetched but you can’t deny that they were also lapped up by the fans. This month we salute Aaron Spelling as we make him an ATV Icon.
While Spelling is best remembered today for his producing work he started out as an actor and while in later years he concentrated more on his behind-the-scenes work he did occasional take acting roles. In the 1950s he appeared in The Lone Wolf, Soldiers of Fortune, I Love Lucy, Dragnet, Crusader and Gun Law. In later years he often took uncredited roles in his shows such as Burke’s Law, Beverley Hills 90210 and his final acting role was as Vincent Duke, again un-credited, in Sunset Beach in 1998. In the mid 1960s he formed a production company with Danny Thomas and so began his legendary producing career and long-term association with ABC. His 1960s producing credits include Burke’s Law, Honey West, Rango, The Lloyd Bridges Show and The Dick Powell Show.
In 1972 Spelling formed Aaron Spelling Productions, later renamed Spelling Television/Spelling Entertainment. It was in the 1970s that his list of producing credits really began to take off and also as he began to produce shows that would become legendary such as The Rookies, SWAT, Starsky and Hutch, Vegas and Charlie’s Angels.
Charlie’s Angels revolved around three female detectives, graduates of the police academy, hired by reclusive millionaire Charlie Townsend. The series was a huge hit and its three stars Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith were propelled to stardom. The drama was not popular with critics who dubbed it “jiggle tv” but audiences loved it. The format of Charlie’s Angels was simple; a client would hire the angels to prove someone innocent, to track someone down or to solve a crime the police were not able too. The angels would go undercover to solve the case, near the end their cover would be blown and one of the angels would be put in danger – the race would then be on to save the angel and capture the criminal. So convinced that Charlie’s Angels would be a hit that Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith were all under five year contracts – only Jaclyn Smith would remain for all five years.
Farrah Fawcett decided to quit Charlie’s Angels after just one season and Spelling sued for beech of contract and won. Under the settlement agreement Fawcett had to return to the drama for several episodes and these were spread across the shows third and fourth seasons. Cheryl Ladd joined Charlie’s Angels, as Fawcett’s replacement, at the start of the second season and remained until its cancellation in 1981. Kate Jackson departed the series at the end of its third season but there are conflicting reasons over her departure. There are reports that she was unhappy with the direction of the series but others claim Spelling simply didn’t ask her back. Actress Shelley Hack replaced Jackson for the fourth series but ratings began to drop and the fans were quick to blame Hack’s character. The fifth series saw Hack dropped and Tanya Roberts join the cast but ratings continued to fall and in the end ABC pulled the plug.
However, Spelling had several other television shows already on the go when the cancellation of Charlie’s Angels happened. In 1978 he launched Vegas, a detective drama set entirely in Las Vegas (bar a few episodes set in Hawaii) which starred Robert Ulrich. Interestingly Ulrich had a cameo appearance in the third season premier of Charlie’s Angels as the episode was set in Las Vegas – thus creating a small crossover between the two dramas. Vegas ran on ABC for three seasons until 1981. The Love Boat, also launched in 1977, was another Spelling hit; set on a cruise linger called the Pacific Princess the sitcom was a huge hit running until 1986. The Love Boat also featured small crossovers with other Spelling shows including Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island. Fantasy Island originally launched as two television movies in 1977 before being made into a weekly series and starred Ricardo Montalban. The drama revolved around and Island where people came to live out of their fantasies although for a price. The series ran for 158 episodes between 1977 and 1984 and numerous guest stars appeared such as Victoria Principle, Heather Locklear, Tom Jones and David Doyle.
Spelling often used actors familiar to him when casting either regular or guest star roles and many of the actors within his shows appeared in numerous of his productions. John Forsythe voiced the reclusive millionaire Charlie Townsend in Charlie’s Angels and in 1981 was cast as Blake Carrington in Dynasty. While Forsythe was not the first choice for the role Spelling cast him in it at the last minute because they had worked together previous and Spelling was familiar with him work. Heather Locklear appeared as a regular/guest star in several of Spelling’s shows. Locklear played Stacy Sheridan in T.J Hooker, Sammy Jo in Dynasty, Amanda Woodward in Melrose Place and guest starred in Fantasy Island and Hotel. Ricardo Montalban had regular roles in Vegas and The Colby’s while Stephanie Beacham starred in The Colby’s, Dynasty, Beverley Hills 90210 and guest-starred in Charmed. Barbara Stanwyck appeared in an episode of Charlie’s Angels which was designed to launch a spin-off series but ABC declined to order the spin-off and later Spelling would cast the actress as Connie Colby in his Dynasty spin-off.
In 1981 perhaps by far Spelling’s most famous show was launched; Dynasty. It was obviously inspired by the success of Dallas on CBS and revolved around Blake Carrington (John Forsythe) and his old company, Carrington Oil. The three-hour pilot of Dynasty focuses on his marriage to Krystal (Linda Evans), his former secretary, much to the disapproval of his daughter Fallon (Pamela Sue Martin) while gay son Steven (Al Corley) reluctantly returns from New York. Dynasty was created by Esther and Richard Shapiro and the first series focused on more “real” issues such as money problems affecting Carrington oil, Krystal’s struggle to fit in and the affair between Claudia (Pamela Bellwood) and Steven.
The first series of Dynasty was not a ratings success and ended with Blake being arrested for the murder of Steven’s former boyfriend Ted – it was an accidental death. The big cliff-hanger is the arrival of a mysterious woman in the courtroom to give evidence against Blake. In the second series the woman is revealed to be Alexis Carrington (Joan Collins), the ex wife of Blake. The arrival of Alexis put Dynasty on the map; her schemes, revenge plans and bitchy put downs drove up the ratings as she became locked in a bitter feud with her ex-husband and new wife. Dynasty’s ratings rose as new outlandish plots were introduced an a multitude of long-lost relatives appeared in Dynasty; Adam Carrington (Gordon Thomson), Amanda Carrington (Catherine Oxenberg) Dominique Deveraux (Diahann Carroll), Carress Morrell (Kate O’Mara) and countless other relatives who suddenly appeared. If long-lost relatives became the norm for Dynasty so did recasting characters; Al Corley quit Dynasty after two seasons unhappy with his character and in season three Jack Coleman joined as the new Steven. The change in appearance was at least explained in this instance through plastic surgery – other recasts were not explained. Pamela Sue Martin left Dynasty at the end of its fourth series with Fallon presumably killed. but the character was re-introduced at the end of series five played by British actor Emma Samms. Catherine Oxenberg left as Amanda in 1986 and was replaced by Karen Cellini for a brief time.
The peak of Dynasty’s fame was its fifth season which ended with the infamous Moldavian Wedding Massacre. Pretty much the entire cast were gathered for the wedding of Amanda to Prince Michael of Moldavia (Michael Pread) when terrorists launch a coup in the small European country. The terrorists burst into the wedding ceremony gunning down all present in a hail of bullets and the final shot is all of the cast lying on the floor covered in blood. The cliff-hanger was designed to top that of Who Shot JR in Dallas as producers hoped millions would tune in to see who survived. It was also a useful plot device to write out anyone who did not wish to renew their contracts. For a time it looked as though Joan Collins would be written out, via the massacre, as tense talks went on between the actress and producers over her salary – in the end though Alexis survived. The entire cast survived the massacre bar two characters introduced in the fifth season; Lady Ashley (Ali MacGraw) and Luke Fuller (Bill Campbell).
It was the moment were many agreed Dynasty “jumped the shark” and from then on the ratings began the big decline which would ultimately spell the end of the series. Actor Gordon Thomson has since argued it was not the cliff-hanger or the storyline which was at fault but the resolution of it – something agreed by fans. The cliff-hanger and premise offered much but did not deliver on its promise and to many fans it was unrealistic for only a few ‘minor’ characters to have been killed. The sixth season saw spin-off The Colby’s launched; set in Los Angeles around the extended family of Jeff Colby (John James). The cast of The Colby’s included Charlton Heston, Barbara Stanwyck, Stephanie Beacham, Tracy Scoggins and Maxwell Caulfied with Emma Samms and John James crossing over as their Dynasty characters. Actors John Forsythe, Gordon Thomson, Diahann Carroll and Jack Coleman would also appear in The Colby’s but Joan Collins led a boycott of the spin-off; refusing to appear. The spin-off was not a success and was cancelled after two seasons ending with the infamous scene of Fallon being abducted by a UFO! Ironically it was The Colby’s top rated episode of its entire run but not enough to save it.
Emma Samms and John James rejoined the cast of Dynasty and later Stephanie Beacham and Tracy Scoggins joined for what would be its final series in 1989. Dynasty had tumbled down the ratings and in a budget saving move for the final series Joan Collins appeared in 13 of the episodes – Linda Evans exited the series after a handful of episodes. Had Dynasty been renewed Collins had already indicated she had no intention of returning as a regular cast member. To many though Dynasty’s final season was a vast improvement with the introduction of Sable (Beacham) and Monica (Scoggins) to the series and their feud with Alexis adding new life into the drama. However, despite the changes in the ninth series ratings did not improve and it was cancelled. Dynasty ended in 1989 with many storylines unresolved. In 1991 a special “reunion” movie was produced with Linda Evans and Joan Collins returning with Maxwell Caulfield reprising his role from spin-off The Colbys. It was hoped to continue Dynasty through television movies rather than a weekly series but the poor ratings of the reunion ended those plans.
As the 1990s began some may very well have written off Aaron Spelling as belonging in the past especially given the cancellation of Dynasty and failure of The Colby’s to take off. The 1990s saw Spelling continue to produce hit shows but also revive previous ones. In the lat 1980s came the first attempt at reviving Charlie’s Angels under the title Angels 88 and later Angels 89. The Colby’s actress Claire Yarlett was attached to the revival. While Angels 89 never materialised the later 1980s did see a revived Fantasy Island and the 1990s saw eight Hart to Hart television movies and a new Burke’s Law – all previous Spelling hits.
The 1990s saw Spelling launch the Beverly Hills 90210 franchise beginning in 1990 with the drama series of the same name. Beverley Hills 90210 was a teen-soap that created a whole new genre of which later shows such as One Tree Hill, Gossip Girl, The O.C and Hollyoaks would owe much to. Soaps tended to have a broad appeal rather than targeting one particular age group but Beverley Hills 90210 was targeted very much at teenagers – an emerging market in the 1990s who were desperate to have thier voice heard. Teenagers wanted characters, situations and storylines they could relate to and respond too and up until that point the teenage audience was mainly ignore in this respective. All that changed with the Beverley Hills franchise with teenagers the main focus of the series and its main audience – millions tuned in weekly for the new drama.
Beverley Hills 90210 starred Spelling’s daughter Tori Spelling alongside Jennie McGrath, Brian Austin Green, Jason Priestley, Luke Perry and Shannen Doherty. The series tackled now typical teen-soap stablements such as pregnancy, drug abuse, alcoholism, under age sex, harassment, homosexuality and bullying. The drama ran for ten seasons until 2000 when declining ratings finally spelt its end but before then it produced spin-off series Melrose Place. Launched in 1992 spin-off Melrose Place saw several cast members crossover for the new drama and tackled similar storylines to its parent series.
However, much as with Dynasty its ratings to begin with were not impressive but the addition of Heather Locklear as Amanda Woodward changed all that. Just as Joan Collins arrival in Dynasty had put it on the map so did Locklear’s Amanda. Amongst the cast of Melrose Place were Marcia Cross and Doug Savant who would later work together on Desperate Housewives. Also in the cast were Kelly Rutherford (Gossip Girl) and Jack Wagner (The Bold and the Beautiful). Melrose Place ran for seven seasons ending in 1999 but it too spawned a spin-off; Models Inc. The spin-off focused on a modelling agency in Los Angeles run by Hillary Michaels (Dallas actress Linda Gray) who was the mother of Locklear’s character in Melrose Place. The ratings for Models Inc were never high and the introduction of Emma Samms midway through its series failed too boos them – Models Inc became the first show in the franchise to be cancelled after just one series.
In 1996 another Spelling production was launched; 7th Heaven on the WB. The family drama would run until 2007 (its final year was on The CW); 11 seasons and 243 episodes. It is perhaps most notable for having Jessica Biel amongst its cast and when it was cancelled was touted as the longest running family drama produced by Spelling. Every episode of 7th Heaven’s 11th and final season was dedicated to Spelling who had died the previous year. In 1998 another Spelling programme was launched; teen witch drama Charmed. Starring Holly Maria Combs, Alyssa Milano, Shannon Doherty and later Rose McGowan Charmed revolved around three witches. The series was often compared to Buffy the Vampire Slayer because it mixed supernatural elements with every day issues such as relationships, affairs, betrayal ect. However, it’s fair to say that Charmed never achieved the fame or highs that Buffy did and throughout its later seasons it often dodged cancellation – at least that’s what the press said. Despite being eclipsed by Buffy and constant rumours of cancellation Charmed ran for eight season and 178 episodes – out running Buffy by a year.
In 1997 Sunset Beach launched on NBC; another daytime soap in a crowded genre that bemused Americans somewhat. Sunset Beach played to all the code and conventions of the American daytime soap genre with fantasy sequences, doppelganger plots, big disaster storylines and evil twins/long lost relatives. The difference is Sunset Beach subtlety sent up these code and conventions and in many ways was a pastiche of the genre. Such a show was mostly lost on American audiences who couldn’t see the soap was playing the codes of the genre rather than a serious attempt at launching a new series. The cast of the soap included Lesley-Anne Down, Susan Ward, Clive Robertson, Randy Spelling and Timothy Adams.
Amongst some of Sunset Beach’s most famous storylines were a serial killer storyline, cursed jewels, an earthquake/tsunami which resulted in characters being trapped on a cruise ship ala The Poseidon Adventure. The serial killer storyline played homage to the Scream movies of several years before. As Sunset Beach continued its storylines became more outrageous and ratings in America were never high. While the soap was not popular at home abroad it was a huge hit especially in Europe where countries such as Germany, Holland and the UK lapped up the storylines. When NBC announced it was cancelling the series UK broadcaster Channel Five offered to fund the costs of production as it was such a hit for it. NBC however were not interested in producing a soap solely for the International Market and pressed ahead with the cancellation offering Channel Five fellow soap Days of our Lives instead. The ending of Sunset Beach played homage to Dallas and the Wizard of the Oz as one of the characters awoke from a dream with the entire run seemingly being nothing more than her dreams (ala Dallas infamous return of Bobby Ewing) and all the ‘characters’ from her dreams were really people she knew in Kansas (ala Wizard of Oz). In one last twist that sequence was written off as a nightmare with Meg waking up in Sunset Beach.
Aaron Spelling died at the age of 83 in 2006 after suffering a stroke. A few months later at the 58th Annual Prime Time Emmy Awards a special tribute to the legendary producer was made with contributions from Joan Collins, Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith, Heather Locklear and Stephen Collins. In 2008 The CW revived the Beverley Hills franchise producing new series 90210 as a continuation of the original Fox drama. Original series stars Jennie Garth, Shannen Doherty and Joe E. Tata have all reprised their roles for the new 90210. The series has performed well on The CW and its currently in its third series. Owing to the success of 90210 a revival of Melrose Place was ordered and aired in the 2009/2010 season. Laura Leighton, Thomas Calabro and Heather Locklear reprised their roles in the revived Melrose Place. The drama however, was not a ratings success for The CW and a failed revamp attempt led the series to be cancelled after just one season.
More recently its been announced that ABC are working on a revival of Charlie’s Angels with a pilot episode ordered by the Network. In the same week it was also revealed that Dynasty creators Esther and Richard Shapiro were working on a prequel to the drama set in the 1960s around a young Blake. The revival of the Beverley Hills franchise and now the revival of Charlie’s Angels and Dynasty prove the enduring success and popularity of Spelling’s work – in the 1990s several of his previous shows were also revived. During his career Aaron Spelling worked on over 200 shows – a feat few other producers are able to accomplish in their time. There is no doubt that Aaron Spelling’s will never be forgotten thanks to his contribution to television producing some of the biggest hits in American television history and while they may not have been the darling of the critics they were loved by their fans and that’s all that matters.