Aaron Spelling: The Lowering Genius

Smoke a pipe! It’ll look intellectual!

April 22 is the natal day of television magnate Aaron Spelling (1923-2006). Because I have already written about some of his productions, and plan to write about others, it made sense to dash off a brief squib that can serve as sort of homebase with links to the various posts.

Without putting too fine a point on it, Spelling was a man who plumbed new depths in the television landscape, setting back the frontier of dumb, cockamamie, preposterous, and “high concept” by hundreds of miles. It’s like Rockefeller discovering oil. No one suspects: there’s a fortune RIGHT HERE UNDER THE GROUND! You can NEVER be too sensationalistic or moronic! Ever! He was the one who dared to go there, much farther than anyone had ever gone before. A squad of hippie cops! A squad of supermodel cops! A ship of sex! An ISLAND of sex! If you swallow an Aaron Spelling show without laughing, you will swallow anything.

Spelling literally holds the record for “most television shows and made-for-tv movies produced” so I won’t even attempt to name them all, just some ones that I thought notable.

Like many tv producers he began as a writer. The early shows were mostly westerns. He wrote for Wagon Train in the ’50s, and produced Zane Grey Theatre (1959-1961) and Johnny Ringo (1959-1960). The he worked on Four Star Theatre a.k.a Dick Powell Theatre (1961-63). Coming off that assignment, he decided to hang out a shingle and create his own shows. Previously he’d been a line producer. Now he would be an executive producer, initially partnering with guys like Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard. Some of the shows below were driven by other producers; Spelling wasn’t always the driving force, but almost all of them reflect his aesthetic of pandering excess. After all, the Spelling imprimatur has got to stand for SOMETHING!

(An interesting tangent. In 1964 he divorced Carolyn Jones, his wife of over  a decade, just as she was about to step into her hit sitcom The Addams Family and he was about to begin independently producing. They both were moving on to new phases, and clearly moving on from each other.)

Spelling is High Concept coming right out of the gate as an executive producer. One of his first shows was Honey West (1965-66) in which Anne Francis plays a hip mod chick in a mini-skirt who inherits her father’s private eye business.  Then came The Smothers Brothers Show (1965-66), later renamed My Brother, The Angel. And a comedy western starring Tim Conway called Rango (1967). Then The Mod Squad (1968-73), The Rookies (1972-76),  S.W.A.T. (1975-76), Starsky and Hutch (1975-79), Charlie’s Angels (1976-81), Family (1976-80), The Love Boat (1977-1987), The San Pedro Beach Bums (1977), Vega$ (1978-81), Fantasy Island (1979-84), Hart to Hart (1979-84), Matt Houston (1982-85) and T.J. Hooker (1982-86).

Then came a whole bunch of soap opera shows I’ve never had any interest in and will likely never blog about beyond this list: Dynasty (1981-89), Hotel (1983-88), Glitter (1984-85), The Colbys (1985-87), Beverly Hills 90210 (1990-2000), Melrose Place (1992-99), Models Inc (1994-95), Savannah (1996-97) etc. 90210 of course starred his daughter Tori Spelling. 

There are some anomalies in here: There was Life with Lucy (1986), Lucille Ball’s attempt to return to the sitcom game after an absence of over a decade. And 7th Heaven (1996-06), a heartwarming family show I used to have a real affection for until Stephen Collins turned out to be pretty creepy.

Spelling also produced memorable tv movies in most of the profitable genres. There are the comedy westerns The Over the Hill Gang (1969) and The Over the Hill Gang Rides Again (1970), which we wrote about here and here, the thriller How Awful About Allan (1970), the horror movies A Taste of Evil (1971), and Satan’s School for Girls (1973), and disaster movies like Hijack! (1973), Murder on Flight 502 (1975), and The French Atlantic Affair (1979). And let us not forget the weepy The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976). And Little Ladies of the Night (1977) — this was back when child prostitution was in.

At any rate, no one ever went broke, etc. Today we salute you, Sir!