Friday, July 7

Farewell to a legend

David Davies says goodbye to the man who did more than anyone else to shape television in the last half century

Obituary: Aaron Spelling (April 22nd 1923 - June 23rd 2006)

"The knocks by the critics bother you…you have a choice of proving yourself to 300 critics or 30 million fans. You have to make a choice. I think you're also categorized by the critics. If you do something good they almost don't want to like it." - Aaron Spelling

Aaron Spelling produced over five thousand hours of television in his lifetime. Alone, this is a remarkable feat; to be so prolific at a consistently high standard is exceptional. His body of work traces a timeline across quality, popular television of the past fifty years, including The Mod Squad, Starsky and Hutch, Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat, Hart to Hart, Dynasty, Twin Peaks, Beverly Hill 90210 and Melrose Place.

Spelling arrived in Hollywood in the 1950s penniless. By the 1980s Forbes were estimating his wealth to be in the region of $300 million. The key to his success was the innate ability to mix mass appeal with decent television. Critics often attacked Spelling for creating primetime soap operas dressed up as serious drama. As is often the case with critics, they missed the point. Take Starsky and Hutch: we all remember Huggy Bear, Sammy Davis Jr’s psuedo-pimp alter ego, and that cardigan, but what most forget is how dark the show could be. Witness ‘The Fix’, where Hutch goes cold turkey after being forced into heroin addiction after being kidnapped. This is dark stuff, and was only shown on British television in 1999 as part of a theme night. On the flipside, Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson were able to take the format and make a buddy movie out of it. It’s a trick Spelling pulled off throughout his career. Where else could you see a CV that includes vintage melodramatic fluff like Dynasty followed a year after its conclusion by Twin Peaks, still amongst the oddest, best shows ever made? Spelling was no stranger to the so bad it’s good rule either, as proven by the "did he actually just say that to her?" brilliance of early morning Channel 5 highlight, Sunset Beach. Being a good producer entails an understanding not only of the industry in which you work, but also the audience that you work for. For five decades, Spelling had his finger on exactly what was making popular culture tick.

Then there was his ability to pick out new talent. He launched the career of Farrah Fawcett in Charlie’s Angels, employed John Travolta and Nick Nolte for debut roles in TV movies and is also credited for launching the career of Heather Locklear who co-starred with William Shatner in TJ Hooker. He also turned Luke Perry into a superstar. Everyone makes mistakes.

Spelling’s private life was as interesting as his on-screen work. It was an awesome case of nepotism that led to the casting of his daughter Tori in the only-sex-on-legs-need-apply Beverly Hill 90210. Rumours surrounding constant family in-fighting unfortunately impinged even upon his death, with media speculation rife as to whether Tori was there when her father died. It was the final fascinating chapter from a man who as a child of eight suffered what he termed a nervous breakdown and spent a year in bed watching television, triggering his lifelong infatuation with the medium.

In 2001 Spelling was diagnosed with oral cancer. In June 2006 he suffered a severe stroke, and died five days later at the age of 83. Spelling’s death is the end of an era, and the passing of a television legend. Jaclyn Smith, star of Charlie's Angels, said in a statement: "Aaron's contributions in television are unequalled. To me, he was a dear friend and a truly genuine human being."

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