Spelling, Aaron (1923–2006)


By: Eddie Watson

Type: Biography

Published: April 21, 2021

Updated: April 21, 2021


Aaron Spelling, film and television producer, son of David and Pearl (Walach or Wald) Spelling, was born on April 22, 1923, in Dallas, Texas. Both of his parents were Jewish emigrants from eastern Europe. His mother was born in Russia in 1884 and immigrated to the United States amid the Russian pogroms of 1903–06. Pearl arrived at the port of entry in Galveston, Texas, on April 20, 1906, a year before the Galveston Movement began, and settled with her father in Dallas. Pearl’s first husband, Sam Seltzer, was stabbed to death in 1911 and left Pearl widowed and poor with her two children, Max and Rebecca, to support. Her family wrote to David Spurling, a man in Poland whom Pearl had loved in her youth but had been forbidden from marrying, and proposed their union. With his name registered as David Spelling instead of Spurling, David entered the United States. They married and had three children: Sam, Daniel, and Aaron—their youngest.

During Aaron’s childhood, the Spelling family lived in an economically poor area of Dallas where his parents mostly spoke Yiddish. At movie theaters, his mother predominantly took him to watch Westerns, because the English spoken was brief and the plots relatively comprehensible to a non-English speaker. Years later, some of his earliest writing and producing credits were in Westerns. The small and sickly Aaron Spelling was often the subject of severe anti-Semitic bullying at school. According to Spelling, the trauma of this abuse caused him, when he was eight years old, to psychosomatically lose the full use of his legs for an extended period, and he did not return to school for a year. He was offered the chance to avoid being held back by completing book reports during his convalescence and became an avid reader of such authors as O. Henry, who would be a major influence on Spelling as a writer, and Mark Twain.

Spelling graduated from Forest Avenue High School in Dallas in 1940. He performed in the Little Theatre of Dallas where he garnered the attention of Hollywood talent scouts before enlisting in the U. S. Army Air Forces in 1942. He completed his basic training in Massachusetts and was sent to the Fort Worth Army Airfield (see NAVAL AIR STATION JOINT RESERVE BASE FORT WORTH), where he started submitting sketches to camp revue shows. He later submitted articles to Stars and Stripes, a newspaper for the armed forces, where he impressed enough to earn a job covering operations in France and later in Germany. While working as a cameraman in Bavaria, Spelling’s command car was shot by a sniper. Spelling was shot in his left hand and knee. He received Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals for the incident. During his recovery he toured in the play O Mistress Mine with Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt.

On his return from World War II, Spelling enrolled at Southern Methodist University in Dallas to study journalism on the G.I. Bill. However, he dedicated most of his time to theater rather than his studies. He served as president of the Arden Club, a dramatic society. He took up directing, becoming the first student to direct a senior class production at the university. He was also elected head cheerleader. Spelling graduated from Southern Methodist University in 1949.

Spelling stayed in Dallas and began directing full-time at the Edward Rubin Playhouse, where he produced thirty-six plays in three years and won several critics’ awards. He started dating stage actress Janice Carruth who starred in one of the plays that he had directed. They married on August 3, 1950. Their marriage was annulled in November 1951, reportedly after Janice informed Aaron that she was in love with someone else. Spelling had recently departed Dallas to ply his trade in New York City but left after just three months. Instead, he opted to move to California to try and make a career in Hollywood.

After finding a job in Los Angeles, Spelling began writing television scripts in his spare time but was met mostly with rejection letters. His first job in the entertainment industry in Hollywood was as a band boy for a local television show hosted by Ada Leonard on KTTV. Spelling, together with struggling actors among the station’s staff, rented a paltry theater and established a small theater company, with Spelling as director; they rented the Cahuenga Theater near the bus depot off Hollywood Boulevard. The group was subsequently hired by esteemed writer-director Preston Sturges to perform at his dinner theater. Carolyn Jones, a young and relatively unknown actress at the time, from Amarillo, Texas, joined the group, and she and Aaron Spelling soon started dating. Shortly after Jones’s divorce from her first husband was finalized, Spelling and Jones married in Los Angeles on April 2, 1953. The couple married in a synagogue, and Jones, who was raised as a Methodist, later converted to Judaism. They were married for eleven years until their divorce in 1964, and they had no children.

In the 1950s, while his wife’s acting career was gaining traction, Spelling worked as a director at the Ben Bard Playhouse in Los Angeles. He also landed minor acting roles in movies and as guest characters in television shows, such as the crime drama Dragnet, and he memorably appeared as an eccentric gas station attendant in an episode of I Love Lucy in 1955. His favorite role was in a 1956 episode of the Western television drama Gunsmoke, where he played a shell-shocked Civil War soldier named Weed Pindle. By then, however, he was looking to transition away from acting. Spelling claimed that, due to his small frame and bulging eyes, he was usually cast as a drunk, a pervert, or an outcast. Such was the case in his multiple appearances on Dragnet in 1953 and 1954, some of his first television roles. In 1955 he played a beggar in the film version of Kismet, but the experience left him disillusioned with acting. Encouraged by his wife Carolyn, he shifted his focus to writing. His first writing credit for television was a Western episode for Jane Wyman’s anthology series, Fireside Theatre, that first aired in 1957. Actor Dick Powell, president of Four Star Productions, hired Spelling as a writer for his Western anthology television show Zane Grey Theater, beginning in 1958. The following year, Spelling co-produced an episode which served as the pilot for his first television series, the Western Johnny Ringo, which he produced for its single season from 1959 to 1960. Afterwards, he became a full-time producer on Zane Grey and Powell’s successor anthology, The Dick Powell Show (1961–63).

At Four Star, Spelling produced several series, including Burke’s Law (1963–66), Honey West (1965–66), and The Smothers Brothers Show, known as My Brother the Angel in reruns (1965–66). In 1966 Spelling left Four Star and established a production company, Thomas-Spelling Productions, together with actor and comedian Danny Thomas. That same year, Spelling started dating Carole Gene “Candy” Marer, an art student. Following his second divorce, Spelling had earned a notorious reputation as a playboy, but he retired his licentious habits upon beginning his relationship with Marer. They married on November 23, 1968, and had two children, Tori and Randy—both became actors.

Spelling and Thomas produced such shows as the Western The Guns of Will Sonnett (1967–69) and the police drama The Mod Squad (1968–73), the latter of which was Spelling’s first major hit. In 1969 he started his own production company, Aaron Spelling Productions, though he continued to produce with Thomas until the conclusion of Mod Squad. The company soon signed an exclusive contract with the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), which was airing Mod Squad, to develop television programs and movies for the then-struggling network. In 1972 Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, head of programming for ABC, formed an additional production company, Spelling-Goldberg Productions. In his two decades with ABC, Spelling produced some of his most famous works, including the police dramas The Rookies (1972–76), S.W.A.T (1975–76), Starsky and Hutch (1975–79), and T. J. Hooker (1982–86); Family (1976–80); The Love Boat (1977–80); Fantasy Island (1978–84); Hart to Hart (1979–84); Matt Houston (1982–85); Hotel (1983–88); and two of his most popular series, Charlie’s Angels (1976–81) and the soap opera Dynasty (1981–89). Such hits cemented Spelling’s reputation as one of Hollywood’s most successful and prolific television producers. While audiences gravitated to Spelling’s shows, critics were less enthralled. His shows became known for their focus on extravagantly wealthy characters and escapist storylines, with The New Yorker dubbing him a “schlock merchant.” Even though critical acclaim often negated him, he had, according to onetime producing partner Douglas Cramer, a “legendary instinct for what the public wants to see.” In the 1970s and early 1980s, he produced up to seven hours’ worth of programming per week on ABC, accounting for about a third of the network’s total primetime schedule. It was a common joke in the industry to refer to ABC as “Aaron’s Broadcasting Company.”

The popular appeal of Spelling’s shows amassed him and his independent production company enormous sums of wealth. In a 1982 deal with Warner Bros. Television Distribution, Aaron Spelling Productions secured the syndication rights for all future productions worldwide. By 1986 Aaron Spelling Productions went public after accumulating $80 million. Spelling bought Bing Crosby’s old house in Holmby Hills in Los Angeles in 1983, only to demolish and rebuild it as a 123-room, approximately 56,500-square-foot home known as “The Manor,” completed in 1988. Spelling also spent much of his fortune on philanthropic efforts. In 1983 he was presented with the NAACP’s Humanitarian Award for a life-saving charitable donation. In 1997 Spelling and his wife established the Candy and Aaron Spelling Foundation.

In 1989 Brandon Stoddard became the head of ABC Productions and publicly declared that the network was no longer going to be “Aaron’s Broadcasting Company.” In response, Spelling pulled out of his exclusive contract with the network. After Dynasty was canceled by ABC in 1989, Spelling did not have an ongoing show on the air for the first time since 1960. The following year, Fox Broadcasting Company offered him a position as producer on a soap opera on its recently-launched FOX network. The series, set in a high school and eventually titled Beverly Hills, 90210, premiered in 1990 and continued until 2000. It starred his daughter, Tori. His son Randy was also featured in fourteen episodes. Spelling also produced the soap operas Melrose Place (1992–99) and Sunset Beach (1997–99), 7th Heaven (1996–06), and Charmed (1998–06). He produced the 1993 made-for-television movie And the Band Played On, one of his most critically-acclaimed projects. The movie dramatized the American AIDS epidemic.

Spelling was diagnosed with oral cancer in 2001 after years of pipe smoking. He suffered a stroke on June 18, 2006. He died after complications from his stroke on June 23, 2006, at his home in Los Angeles. He was buried in Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City, California. In the course of his career, Spelling won numerous industry awards, including an Emmy, a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts), and a lifetime achievement award from the Producers Guild of America. On September 15, 1978, Aaron Spelling was awarded with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In her 2009 autobiography, his wife Candy wrote, “…his influence helped define pop culture for decades.” At the time of his death he held a place in The Guinness Book of World Records for the most hours of television produced, with more than 3,000 hours to his name.

James Pylant, In Morticia’s Shadow: The Life & Career of Carolyn Jones (Stephenville, Texas: Jacobus Books, 2012). New York Times, June 25, 2006. Aaron Spelling and Jefferson Graham, Aaron Spelling: A Prime-Time Life (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1996). Candy Spelling, Stories from Candy Land: Confections from One of Hollywood’s Most Famous Wives and Mothers (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009).

Categories:
  • Performing Arts
  • Peoples
  • Jews
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Eddie Watson, “Spelling, Aaron,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 16, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/spelling-aaron.

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April 21, 2021
April 21, 2021

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