We don’t really have popular culture anymore, so much as a fragmented market crowded with expertly segmented, mutually hostile opposing camps of various forms of unpopular popular culture. Spelling was one of the last masters of universal pop culture—shows offering fun for young and old. He discovered a ton of new stars—from Farrah Fawcett to Shannen Doherty—and gave a lot of older players a grand last hurrah—from John Forsythe to Joan Collins—and resurrected most of Hollywood’s Golden Age for somewhat improbable guest shots on The Love Boat: Lana Turner, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Ginger Rogers, Don Ameche, Lillian Gish.
Not so long ago, I happened to catch the tail end of Tales of Manhattan (1942), which I vaguely recalled having enjoyed on a rainy afternoon when I was nine or so. It’s about a rental tuxedo that gets passed from Charles Boyer to Henry Fonda to Edward G. Robinson and so on. Apparently it was Aaron Spelling’s favorite childhood movie, the one he never forgot, and the one whose principal elements—fancy clothes, star guests, multiple plots—stand for much of his oeuvre, as Spelling Enterprises rented out its tux from Gene Barry in Burke’s Law to Robert Wagner in Hart to Hart to Charlton Heston in The Colbys. T. J. Hooker and Starsky & Hutch varied the look a little, but those long woolly cardigans of Paul Michael Glaser started a fashion craze on both sides of the Atlantic. I was in a bar in London about twelve years ago when a predatory woman of a certain age said that even now what turned her on the most were “men in Starsky cardies.” I don’t mind being manacled upside down and flayed with a cat-o’-nine-tails, but some tastes are just too kinky.
Plots? Dialogue? Oh, to be sure, Spelling shows had those, too. Hitchcock liked to refer to the “MacGuffin”—the device, the missing papers, the secret formula that jump-starts the plot. But nobody ever put the guff in the MacGuffin like a Spelling show did: in The Colbys, Charlton Heston was obsessed with something called the “Imos Project"; for years on Dynasty, John Forsythe and Joan Collins feuded over a mysterious “pipeline” they and their various shadow companies exchanged gazillions of dollars’ worth of stock options over. There was as much plot as on St. Elsewhere or thirtysomething, but the shows managed to signal that none of it really mattered, which was just as well by the time we got to the late-season twists about Fallon being abducted by aliens. If you want an exchange that encapsulates the series’ cheery insouciance to plot, it’s Heather Locklear being reintroduced to Joan Collins: “Weren’t you my mother-in-law at one time?” Late in the Clinton era, I came across the president telling Susan Estrich, “They have no idea what we went through to save this marriage … Or perhaps how important it was that we did—not just for the country, but for the two of us.” And I realized The Clintons was the show Spelling missed, the D.C. version of Dynasty, in which occasional references to “the country” and “the government” and “Bob Dole” were merely the equivalent of “the pipeline” and the “Imos Project,” just a pretext for the extramarital sex. But by then Spelling had moved on—to the teens of 90210 and the twentysomethings of Melrose Place.
He was proudest of Family, the semicredible issue drama with Meredith Baxter and Kristy McNicol that ran from 1976 to 1980. But of all Spelling’s ’70s shows it’s the one that resonates least today—and I’ll bet he understood that. He changed with the times. For example, Charlie’s Angels was said to have ushered in the era of “jiggle TV,” an industry term deriving from the way Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and Jaclyn Smith spent most of their time running around while their finer points bounced around the screen like a primitive computer game. Jiggle has been in short supply in Hollywood since the hard-body look came in. When the gals on 90210 or Melrose ran around, heads, arms, legs all move, but the breasts stayed fixed on course with the precision of a cruise missile.
The 90210 life was a long way from Spelling’s own youth. Growing up as a child of Jewish immigrants in Texas, he’d always wanted a rocking horse, but his folks couldn’t afford one, and then one day his mom told him to look outside—and there it was! And he went out in the street and climbed up on it, and a photographer snapped a picture—and then they took the rocking horse away. Mom and Dad had paid a nickel for the photographer and another nickel to rent the horse. Little Aaron cried the rest of the day. When his daughter, Tori, was born, he went out and bought her a rocking horse.
Asked to recount his rags-to-mega-riches rise from Jewish schnook on the wrong side of the tracks in Dallas to Hollywood power broker living in the largest private residence in the State of California (56,000-plus square feet), Spelling had a string of anecdotes: the Variety writer who came up with the headline “Stix Nix Hick Pix” hires him as the band boy for his wife’s all-girl band; Preston Sturges comes to see his play; Vincente Minnelli casts him in Kismet as a dingy beggar and gives him only one line: “Alms for the love of Allah.” And it was such an unrewarding experience that the hick nixed the pix and moved from acting into writing, producing, and jiggling.
What a story. His life read like a script for one of his TV movies, adapted from Jackie Collins or Sidney Sheldon.
Or, anyway, it read like a treatment. Which he would have taken as a compliment.