Remembering Producer Aaron Spelling’s Impact on Soap Operas on the Anniversary of His Death
Image: Tammi Arroyo, Jill Johnson, David Longendyke/JPI
A five decade career that helped transform soaps.
Born in Dallas, Texas in 1923, Aaron Spelling helped to shape the face of daytime and primetime soaps for decades as one of the most prolific producers in America. Over a career that spanned five decades, his influence on television history was broader than soap operas and included Charlie’s Angels, The Love Boat, Hart to Hart, The Mod Squad and nearly two hundred TV movies and other projects.
Spelling began his career as an actor, appearing in episodes of Dragnet, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and I Love Lucy. However, it was as a writer that he really started to make his mark on TV, thanks to a break given to him by Dick Powell. In this role, Spelling honed his ability to work in multiple genres with ease, crossing between westerns, cop shows, thrillers, and sitcoms with style and a sense for what the audience desired. By the 1960s, he was moving into the role of producer and quickly built a media empire that would have enormous presence, dominating the programming at ABC for decades.
In his 1996 autobiography, Aaron Spelling: A Prime-Time Life, he wrote that “My fantasy when I was poor in Texas was to live a glamorous lifestyle, and I think everybody wants that. That was my dream. We had some glamour on Burke’s Law, but I didn’t fully realize it all the way until Dynasty and The Colbys. I can list three trademarks of our most popular shows. Beautiful people in beautiful clothes in front of beautiful sets.”
Over the course of his career, Spelling managed to create a unique and popular vision of glamour and excitement, even if critics tended to regard it as exploitative trash. He even brought glamour and humor to the cop genre with Starsky and Hutch and TJ Hooker, and escapism with celebrity-filled anthology series like Love Boat and Fantasy Island.
However, it was Spelling’s primetime soaps that seem to have left a more lasting influence. Starting with Dynasty and its spin-off The Colbys, Spelling helped to bring the melodrama of daytime into primetime and accelerate the pace. Competing with CBS’ Dallas, Spelling’s soaps significantly upped the ante in terms of fashion, camp, and often absurd storytelling.
After the decline of Dynasty in the ratings, the producer’s relationship with ABC soured and he shifted to FOX, which was more than happy to accept his re-imagining of glamorous nighttime drama. While Models Inc. would trade on the formula that Spelling had already helped to establish, it was Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place that allowed him to reinvent soaps for a new generation with a whole new set of problems.
Geared to a younger audience and co-starring his daughter Tori Spelling along with Shannen Doherty, Luke Perry and Jason Priestly, Beverly Hills lasted a decade and focused on characters in their teens and twenties. Less campy than many of his other shows, the series also featured more topical social issues within its narratives, such as drug abuse, racism, eating disorders, date rape, and AIDS. In his autobiography, Spelling claimed that it was the show he was the proudest of. It was briefly rebooted in 2019 as BH90210.
Spelling claimed that Melrose Place was the more ‘adult’ spin-off to the series, and “with adultness comes campiness.” Set in an apartment complex and starring Heather Locklear (Dynasty) along with a host of soap actors like Lisa Rinna (Days of our Lives), Linden Ashby (Young and Restless), and Jamie Luner (All My Chidren), the series lasted seven years and carried on the glamorous tradition of The Colbys. At the same time as he was helping to revamp primetime soaps for a younger audience, Spelling also invested in daytime, producing Sunset Beach, which bore all the hallmarks of his sensibility.
In 2001, Spelling was diagnosed with oral cancer. He died at his 123 room Holmby Hills, known as The Manor, on June 23, 2006, five days after suffering a stroke.
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