He has hundreds of millions in the bank and is in The Guinness Book of Records as the most prolific producer in prime-time history. Even today, at 75, Aaron Spelling has six shows on four networks—twice as many as his closest competitors. What’s more, the creator of Charlie’s Angels and Dynasty now has a dynasty of his own—daughter Tori, 25, starring on Beverly Hills, 90210, and son Randy, 20, a familiar face on Sunset Beach. So why should he care that critics have called him “the master of schlock” and “the king of T&A”? “Entertainment,” he says with a shrug, “is not a wicked word.”
Spelling’s stars have certainly never underestimated the consummate creator of over-the-top TV. Says Dynasty’s Joan Collins, 65, now a grandmother and living in the South or France: “Aaron has his finger on the pulse of what people really want to see.” Adds Hart to Hart’s Stefanie Powers, 56: “He’s constantly coming up with something that finds a new audience.”
Melrose Place’s Heather Locklear, 37, whom Spelling calls “my lucky penny,” has been on his payroll for much of her career. Along with starring roles on Dynasty and T.J. Hooker, she says, “I was on The Love Boat—Jamie Farr was my love interest—I was Loretta Lynn’s daughter on Fantasy Island, and I was Connie Stevens’s daughter on Hotel. Whether in the ’80s or the ’90s, Aaron brings glamor to television.”
“Aaron likes to have good-looking people to look at,” explains Dynasty’s Gordon Thomson, now 54 and a regular on Sunset Beach. “Family was the only exception. And I think Family was a wonderful show. It took itself seriously.” John Rubinstein, 52, who played Meredith Baxter’s estranged husband on that show and composed its theme, calls Spelling “a visionary.”
Fantasy Island, for example, “was supposed to be sexier,” remembers star Ricardo Montalban, now 78 and concentrating on voice-overs since a 1993 spinal operation left him unable to walk unassisted. “Aaron was driving home, and he had to stop his car and say, ‘Wait a minute, it doesn’t have to be sexual fantasies. It could be fantasies that come true!’ ABC said, ‘Good.’ But they also said they wanted a girl assistant. And Aaron said, ‘No, I want a midget! This is a strange place, and I want a strange look.’ ”
The idea for 90210 originated with Barry Diller, then head of Fox Broadcasting, who suggested that Spelling create a show about high school. “I said, ‘What in the hell do I know about high school?’ ” recalls Spelling. “Then I overheard this girl tell Tori, ‘I have to go visit my father this weekend. All he does is ask what my mother is doing. Then I come home, and all my mother asks is what my father is doing.’ I thought, ‘Wow, that’s an episode! Children go through so much more than we ever went through.’ ”
Spelling’s influence extends to the nitty-gritty details. “It never fails to amaze me, the things he notices,” says 7th Heaven star Stephen Collins, 51. “He oversees and approves all the casting. He sees Polaroids of every wardrobe piece—everything worn by every character. He looks at color schemes. No hairstyle is allowed to be changed without being okayed by him.”
Spelling is equally fierce in his loyalty to his stars. “There was a time not long ago as I was going through this major cancer event where there were some people in Hollywood who weren’t willing to take a chance on me,” says Vega$ star Robert Urich, 52, who is in remission from a rare form of soft-tissue cancer. Spelling offered him the role of Captain in the new series Love Boat: The Next Wave. Says Urich: “He said to me, ‘I remember that twinkle you always had in your eyes, and I don’t feel like I’m taking a chance on you.’ ” And though Spelling lost a 1997 lawsuit for firing a pregnant Hunter Tylo from Melrose Place, he “was just great,” says Josie Bissett, 28, when she decided to leave the show in 1997 to concentrate on her marriage to Rob Estes, now 35 and a member of the Melrose cast. “He worried about us,” Bissett says, “and he was like, ‘If you ever want to come back, I want you to, so we’re not going to kill off your character.’ ” She returned last year.
The son of Russian and Polish immigrants, Spelling grew up in Dallas, where his father worked as a tailor for Sears. “We lived in a house that cost $6,000 and had one bathroom,” recalls Spelling, who began his career as a director and actor, earning his first credit as a producer on Zane Grey Theatre in 1956.
He remembers having trouble selling the idea of Charlie’s Angels—about a trio of gorgeous detectives who take their sleuthing orders from an unseen boss. “Someone I talked to at ABC said to me, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself.’ One of the reasons they didn’t want to do it is because women weren’t stars on television,” he says. “Charlie’s Angels was the first show that had strong women characters.” That they happened to forget their bras was a hit with at least half the viewing public. “I’m here to thank the man for bringing me Charlie’s Angels,” says 90210 star Luke Perry, 32, catching sight of Kate Jackson at a PEOPLE photo shoot reuniting Spelling stars.
Jackson came up with the series name. “We didn’t have a title,” says Spelling. “We were talking to Kate about doing the show, and in my office at Fox there was a picture of some angels—my wife Candy and Tori have always loved angels—and Kate said, ‘Why don’t you call it The Angels?’ Don’t tell Kate, but I take credit for it all the time.”
For her part, Jackson credits Spelling with handing her a career. “Meet Mr. Spelling,” Jackson, now 50 and a fledgling director (Showtime’s Dead Man’s Gun), tells her young son Taylor. “He made Mommy famous.”
Mommy and many others. When The Love Boat’s Gavin MacLeod, a spokesman for Princess Cruises, dropped anchor at a Manhattan police station long after the show’s demise to report that his wife had been robbed, “all these cops were saying, ‘Captain, have a seat. Captain, what can we do for you?’ ” MacLeod, 68, recalls. “They grew up watching me.” John James, now 42 and living in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., with his wife and two children, remembers one particular trip abroad. “I was in Africa sitting around the camp-fire as the wildebeests were running by,” he says. “And the people were so excited to see me.” And Gabrielle Carteris, 38, who left 90210 in 1995 to focus on her growing family, says, “It’s very hard to travel overseas. I still need security.”
Pamela Sue Martin, 46, who bailed out of Dynasty at the end of its third season to “live out my personal journey,” blames fame for a personality crisis. “Having an identity in your 20s that is formed from a TV show can be threatening,” says the divorced Martin, who joined a polo team, raised horses and traveled the country with her now 8-year-old son in a Volkswagen minibus before settling in Hailey, Idaho. “I think I needed to replenish my inner self. But now I look at Aaron and go, ‘Wow, he’s affected all these people’s lives, and it’s cool.’ ”
Even Tori was dazzled by her dad. One of the perks of being the boss’s daughter, she says, “was visiting the Dynasty set. Joan Collins and Linda Evans would teach me how to put on lipstick.” Hotel star Connie Sellecca, 43, also has fond backstage memories. “Every week in the makeup room I was gaga over who I was sharing with. When we did the pilot, Bette Davis was in the cast. She thought I was the wardrobe girl.”
There’s now a whole new generation of Spelling stars, some of whom weren’t even in grade school when The Love Boat ruled the airwaves. They view their boss as a father figure. “I remember him giving me a really warm hug and saying, ‘Everything is going to be fine, sweetie,’ ” says Jennie Garth, 26, of her 90210 audition. “We call him Uncle A.” During Jack Wagner’s Melrose audition, Spelling pulled him aside and gave him some acting tips. “I was pretty impressed,” Wagner, now 39, recalls. Enthuses new 90210 addition Vincent Young, 33: “He’s one of the few people you can sit down with and have a regular conversation.” Brian Austin Green, 25, who has bowled many a game at the alley in the Spelling mansion, says jokingly, “I know what he sleeps in! Not many people can say that.” Melrose alum Alyssa Milano, now 26 and starring in Charmed, says she was intimidated before meeting Spelling, “but as soon as you see his little sweet face, it becomes very easy.”
No matter how thick his players may lay it on, Spelling is not at all shy about revealing his favorites. “What I’m most proud of,” he says, “is Tori and Randy. I know on my tombstone it’s going to say ‘Tori and Randy’s father did Charlie’s Angels.’ That’s my epitaph. I assure you that!”