Several hundred people in evening dress gathered inside the huge soundstage of the Disney-MGM studio complex in Orlando, Fla., for a giant welcoming party, complete with reels of film clips and guest stars such as Sid Caesar, Jimmy Smits and Bea Arthur, for this year’s eight new inductees into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Hall of Fame: Angela Lansbury, Edward Asner, the team of Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, Charles Kuralt, Stephen Bochco, MCA honcho Lew Wasserman, and the man who may have done more than anyone else to make television the medium of the people - Aaron Spelling.
A week earlier, I had chatted with Spelling about “Sunset Beach,” the newest product to come out of the prolific team of Spelling and E. Duke Vincent. The show, which will debut on NBC on January 6, 1997, marks their first foray into daytime soaps.
“I’ve worked with some of the best actors in Hollywood over the years,” Spelling said. “With very few exceptions, these people have impressed me with their talent and the pride they take in always giving their best performances. But until I started working with the people on ‘Sunset Beach,’ I never really realized how challenging the work is on daytime dramas. These actors do in one day what most actors do in a week for a series, or a month for a film. And,” he added, “they do it so well.”
Spelling first came to Hollywood in 1953 with a slew of accomplishments behind him. (He was the only student at Southern Methodist University in his hometown of Dallas to direct a major production.) He worked in over 50 TV shows and several films before turning his talents to writing.
“As an actor, I had big roles, such as knocking on the door and when they’d ask who it was, I’d say, ‘Telegram’,” Spelling said. “Sometimes, I’d get roles in which I’d have a full sentence; maybe even a full page.”
As a writer, he learned his craft well, and eventually moved into producing leading to being named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most productive television producer of all time. Over the course of what is now 3000 hours-plus of programming, he gave us some of the most sensitive and rovocative shows in TV history, including the Emmy-winning “And the Band Played On,” one of the first TV productions about AIDS; “Day One,” an Emmy-winning film about the atom bomb; “Best Little Girl in the World” which dealt with anorexia nervosa; and “Cracked Up,” a drama about America’s drug problem. His series include “Charlie’s Angels,” “Dynasty,” “Hotel,” “Fantasy Island,” “The Love Boat,” “Family” and etc. He is currently represented on screen with “Savannah,” “Melrose Place,” and “Beverly Hills, 90210” and, come January, “Sunset Beach,” joining the NBC daytime lineup.
With “BH 90210” and “Melrose Place,” Spelling broke through the barrier that often separated the generations and was able to produce shows that reflected what young people feel about their lives. He seems to have a special gift for tuning into their world and turning what he hears into successful television series that attract and keep younger audiences year after year.
“I first became aware of what young people have to say by listening to my own children,” Spelling said. “I’ve learned a lot from my daughter, Tori (who stars in ‘BH 90210’) and my son, Randy (who recently joined the cast of ‘Sunset Beach’).”
“I’ve also learned a great deal about young people from my children’s friends. For example, the school Tori and Randy went to was just two blocks from our house. Many of the kids whose parents would pick them after class waited in our home rather than the school yard. It was safer and nicer and they enjoyed coming over. And, I must tell you, I would sometimes eavesdrop on them. I learned so much about their lives that I couldn’t have known otherwise. There was this one little girl who said, ‘Gosh, I have to go see Dad this weekend.’ And she admitted she loved him but, she said, ‘Everytime I come, he’d ask me if Mom was dating and who she was dating. And then, when I come home, Mom asks me what Dad is doing and who is he dating.’
“I was so impressed by that, I would think - ‘These kids are very young, but they already have these traumas in their lives. So when it came time to do ‘Beverly Hills, 90210,’ I knew I’d be able to do it so that it reflected how young people see their lives.”
Whether Aaron Spelling is producing a glittering series like “Dynasty” or a series about young people whose “inner city” experience is in Beverly Hills, he applies the lessons of his past both to his life and to his work. Which is why it’s relatively easy for any of us to feel linked to the characters in his shows, even if the coupons we cut are for oatmeal and not for corporate bond issues.
“I grew up in a family that was poor by any definition,” he said. “But it was rich with love. For me, family was, and is, and always will be, the most important part of my life. Family is also at the core of much of what I produce.”
As I prepared to write up my interview with Aaron Spelling, I had a sudden insight that may explain his extraordinary success:
He loves what he does.