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Aaron Spelling

By RD Heldenfels Published: June 24, 2006

I crossed paths with Aaron Spelling, who died Friday, more than once over the years. How could you not?

As he recalls in his 1996 autobiography ''Aaron Spelling: A Prime-Time Life,'' as a producer he had a show on the air every season from 1960 to 1989. It was a great, dominating run, one so big that ABC, home to many Spelling shows, was at one point nicknamed ''Aaron's Broadcasting Company.''

When I was a semi-young TV critic on one of my first trips to Hollywood, ABC held a party showcasing only the stars of Spelling's shows. And it was a big party. That was around the time Spelling's company had, simultaneously on the air, ''Dynasty,'' ''T.J. Hooker,'' ''Matt Houston,'' ''Hotel,'' ''Glitter,'' ''The Love Boat,'' ''Finder of Lost Loves'' -- roughly one-third of ABC's prime time lineup. Some of them did not last long but, as Sam Spade would say, look at the number of them.

About five years later, it looked as if that empire was gone. Spelling did not have a show on the air. Still, he was in his sixties, extremely rich, someone who had dominated his industry and even picked up some good reviews along the way. (Although he accepted the sometimes grudging regard that came with Nielsen success, Spelling also wanted people to know that critics occasionally treated him well. He often brought up the ABC drama ''Family'' because it was critically acclaimed and made the Emmy lists.) He could have packed it in then.

''I would have quit,'' he said in his autobiography, ''but I like TV too much. .. People wrote me off, but I was dormant, not dead.''

And he came back, with ''Beverly Hills, 90210,'' and ''Melrose Place.'' More recent successes have included ''Charmed'' and the still-going ''7th Heaven.'' A lover of the ways of Old Hollywood -- which he paid tribute to by hiring former stars for his TV shows -- he managed never to seem like some fossilized representative of Old Television, because he always seemed capable of having another hit.

Not that he had forgotten Old Hollywood lessons. I have no doubt he was as tough as any ancient mogul when it came to cutting deals and keeping shows afloat. Actors who became difficult -- Shannen Doherty, Herve Villechaize, Lauren Tewes -- could find themselves without jobs on Spelling shows (although forgiveness was also possible).

But he also remembered the way the stars he loved would work the media, showing up and giving quotes. Spelling was not only formidably accessible, at press conferences and in less formal settings with critics, he actually seemed to enjoy talking. (I say ''seemed'' because one should never forget that Spelling had been an actor early in his career.) While my feelings about Spelling's shows have rarely been positive, I retain a fondness for him because of the way he would talk, including in one chat we had sometime in the early '90s.

Over the years I have off-and-on collected material for a biography of Jack Webb. I was in an ''on'' period when I attended a press meet-and-greet where Spelling was plugging a new show or two or three. Things were winding down, but Spelling was still talking; knowing his long history in TV, I asked if he had known Webb.

The eyes brightened. Spelling stepped into the Wayback Machine and began telling a story about being young in Hollywood, working as a writer and director, and being discovered by Preston Sturges. That great director backed a production Spelling was directing. Carolyn Jones -- yes, Morticia Addams -- was in the cast, and would later marry Spelling. (They divorced after about 10 years of marriage.) One night, Webb came to the show and offered Spelling a job -- but as an actor, not a director.

Spelling went on to do several ''Dragnets'' as well as some other acting. He tells the story in his autobiography, too, but it's not the same as it was to hear it from Spelling himself, realizing all the different names he's weaving together, and seeing the fun he's having in telling a great little story. He didn't have to do it -- another producer who had known Webb wouldn't even talk to me about his experience -- but it had a couple of show-biz legends, a twist, a longer tale to follow and a happy ending. It was a Spelling show in microcosm.

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