He looks like one of those sad Hollywood cases of missed meals and deals, returned checks and unreturned phone calls. The classic saucer-eyed worrier waiting for that one breakthrough property that never breaks, a man woefully in need of rest, reassurance and chicken soup. He could, in short, still play those derelict roles in which he got typed in his old acting days on series like Dragnet. But don’t be deceived by the fidgety 5’10½”, 140-pound exterior. Aaron Spelling is the heavyweight champ, the incredible hulk of television. He produces more prime-time hours—Charlie’s Angels, Starsky & Hutch, Love Boat, Fantasy Island and Family—than MGM, 20th Century-Fox, Columbia and Warner Brothers put together. If NBC, rather than ABC, had had an exclusive contract with Aaron, it probably wouldn’t have needed to raid away Fred Silverman. Spelling works not for ABC but for his own two companies—which is why the knowing and envious estimate his net worth at $300 million.
It couldn’t have happened to a more nervous individual. “Aaron is absolutely fraught with fear,” says his supportive second wife, Candy. “He thinks his entire empire is going to crumble momentarily. Every morning the first thing he does is call to see if one of his shows has dropped a rating point. If it has, it’s enough to send him back to bed. For days.” Around his empire Aaron is a spider king, keeping a feeler on the minutiae of each production. “He sees every daily of every show and every rough cut,” says Duke Vincent, his second-in-command. “A week after he’s seen the dailies, when he’s watching the rough cut, he’ll say, ‘Where’s the two-shot [a take showing two actors] that came right after that shot?’ When he reads the financial books, he can spot an error, a waste, at 100 paces.” (But he never cuts the wrong corners. Guest stars are welcomed with flowers and champagne. At the final wrap they receive presents, handpicked by Candy.)
The one anxiety he doesn’t suffer from is guilt over the “product.” Except for his one class act, Family, perhaps TV’s most sensitive evocation of contemporary American life, Spelling is the first to admit that his art is “fast-food entertainment. But so be it,” he argues. “I enjoy it. Other people seem to.” As for the threatened boycotts by PTA groups and sponsors like Sears-Roebuck because of gratuitous prurience and violence, Spelling says that Charlie’s Angels is not to blame but rather “all the imitations. We honestly believe there is no more sex in Angels than you see strolling down any beach in Southern California. None of our girls has ever even had an affair on the show.” After a pause, he adds wryly: “Now there’s an idea for next year. Maybe we’ll do a show called Charlie’s Virgins.”
The only thing that has kept Spelling from a bleeding ulcer is the capacity to laugh at his own work and, especially, at his own hang-ups. He attributes them to a childhood that might serve as a script for a Charles Dickens miniseries. “I was born in the ghetto in Dallas on April 22,” he begins—coyly omitting the year “because I’ve lied about my age so long in this town, like everybody else, that I really can’t remember.” (Candy, part of the act, tattles that he is 48, but Aaron’s actually 53.) The youngest of five children of Russian immigrants, he grew up in wrenching poverty. His father was a sweatshop tailor who sewed 12 hours a day. The main pleasure in the boy’s life was passes to the Palace vaudeville house his father got for repairing costumes. The first new suit Aaron ever had was his World War II Army uniform. In addition to the hand-me-down clothes, he also shared a bed with his two brothers “face to feet,” he recalls. “My mother told us it was fun sleeping that way. I thought everyone did.”
One of Aaron’s early traumas concerned Christmas. A Dallas store held a poetry contest with a bicycle as first prize for the youngster who wrote the best poem about the meaning of the holiday. “I wrote 15 pages’ worth of poem,” he recalls. “It won, but the store wouldn’t give me the bike. They said it would be inappropriate for a non-Christian to win first prize.” It didn’t exactly compensate that a Christian neighbor “used to let me come over on Christmas morning and watch him open his presents.” Now, reports Spelling’s wife, “he’s like a little child about Christmas. As the season nears, he calls every day to find out who sent cards and gifts. It really delights him.”
Aaron was otherwise a precocious kid. “No one ever taught me to read, I just read. So I was eager to get to school. I promptly skipped two grades. It was wonderful until I had a nervous breakdown when I was about 7. I refused to go to school anymore. I told my mother my legs wouldn’t work.” That was the beginning of his compulsive fears: “I lived in a very tough neighborhood and, being the skinniest and the most afraid of fighting, I was always getting beaten up. Finally it just short-circuited me emotionally.” Fortunately, an understanding teacher brought him books and passed him on the strength of his book reports. After two years in bed he was coaxed back to school and graduated at 15. A succession of jobs—washing greasy brake shoes in his brother-in-law’s auto parts shop, stamping names in hatbands and boxing groceries—all ended in ignominious firings and a new phobia. “I was a disgrace. My father said I was a no-good bum.”
Pearl Harbor changed all that. “It was my salvation. I enlisted as soon as I could.” Sent to Europe, he finagled a job as a reporter on the Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes. Later he was wounded when the Germans shot up the jeep he was riding in, but talked the Army doctors out of amputating a nearly severed finger by explaining, “I am a concert pianist.” While recuperating, Spelling staged some musical revues for the patients and later toured Europe with the Lunts in O Mistress Mine. (His predecessor as the juvenile lead was Dick Van Patten.) “By the time I returned to the States in 1947,” Aaron recalls, “I’d decided I was an entertainer.” He enrolled in Southern Methodist University on the Gl Bill and became, incredibly, head cheerleader. Mostly, though, “I immersed myself in drama.” The immersion was so great that Spelling had little time for his classes, “but it was very hard for my instructors to grade me harshly when I was directing them in off-campus productions at night. I dreaded getting out of college. I was afraid of looking for a real job.”
Indeed, Hollywood proved to be as hardscrabble at first as the Dallas slums. Spelling claims he got meal money by stealing newspapers from front lawns and reselling them to news vendors. Eventually he formed a group theater, staging weekend productions in a loft. The leading lady, Carolyn Jones, caught Aaron’s eye, as well as the attention of some Hollywood types who saw her perform, and she landed a contract with Columbia Pictures. “A nice man who had seen our work, Meyer Mishkin, became Carolyn’s agent, and was determined to help me,” says Aaron. “He introduced me to Jack Webb, who gave me every deviated role that came along in Dragnet.” Carolyn and Aaron were married in Mishkin’s home in 1953.
She was the family’s main breadwinner during their four years together. “We never really had a chance,” Spelling says. “Our whole life was predicated on when our next job would come along.” Ironically, the divorce occurred just as Aaron’s career was taking an upturn. Between his bit roles in films and TV, he wrote incessantly. A script he sold to Jane Wyman for her TV show led to a contract with Four Star Productions, first as scenarist and later as producer of series like The Zane Grey Theater, Burke’s Law and The Dick Powell Show. “Dick Powell was my mentor and closest friend,” he says. “I was devastated when he died.” Another early supporter was Alan Ladd, who was so impressed with an all-night rewrite Aaron did on Guns of the Timberland that he forced Jack Warner to make him producer of the 1960 picture. At that point Spelling was at a career crossroads between films and TV. “I was tempted, but if I hadn’t decided on television,” he says modestly, “I probably would have been starving today like half the movie producers in town.” His choice was a TV partnership with comedian Danny Thomas. Their first production was Mod Squad. Anyone else’s worries would have been over for life.
But if Mod Squad made Spelling financially, it also brought a bugaboo that has plagued him through most of his subsequent hits. The three young stars were Clarence Williams III, Peggy Lipton and Michael Cole. They were virtually unknown when Aaron hired them, and they became his close friends in the early days of the series. Mod Squad rode to the top of the ratings, but after five years they departed in an eruption of broken contracts and recriminations. (Says Lipton: “As Aaron’s empire got bigger and bigger, he stopped relating to us as people or actors.”) “It was probably one of the biggest traumas of my life,” sighs Spelling. Or the biggest until the litigious defection of Farrah Fawcett-Majors from Charlie’s Angels. “I was pictured as a penny-pinching Simon Legree who insisted that this woman slave in my factory instead of going on into the wonderful world of motion pictures that she had so richly deserved,” says Aaron. In fact, Farrah is coming back this season for three guest shots at $70,000 apiece, and Spelling comments: “I suppose I should feel some sort of satisfaction that the people who leave me find it so hard to regain their stardom. But that’s the hardest thing of all.” He adds, with some justice, however self-serving: “I hate the fighting and I hate watching talent that I discovered mismanaged and finally disappear.”
Spelling’s bunker in the midst of his star wars is a 14-room Beverly Hills mansion with pool, tennis court and theater-size projection room, just two doors down, he notes, from where his late backer, Alan Ladd, lived. Aaron and wife Candy and their daughter, Victoria, 5, also have a beach house at Malibu. Ever since the crash of an Army flight that he just missed in 1943, Aaron has refused to fly. “Malibu is our Europe and Mexico and everything,” says Candy, but without complaint. In 1968, at 22, she abandoned a modeling career to devote herself to the role of wife, human tranquilizer, counselor and mother to Aaron. It was she who persuaded him to leave his partnership with Thomas and set up his own shop. Today Candy helps him cast his shows (Lauren Tewes, the Love Boat cruise director, was her inspiration), and every afternoon at 5 she brings wine and hors d’oeuvres to his office, aware that he might be working until midnight. When he does get home, Aaron at least appreciates what he has. “Sometimes I walk into this place and can’t believe I live here,” he marvels. “I thought my happiness was absolutely total when Tori came along, but now Candy is expecting another baby in December and, well, each year just keeps getting better and better.” Now if Farrah would just send him a Christmas card.