If you grew up in the ‘70s, chances are you were hopelessly hooked on one or all of the television shows Aaron Spelling produced. For some of us, those shows were as much a part of our childhood as doughboy pools and anti-war rallies. Whatever Spelling did, however he did it, his shows were irresistible.
Starting with The Mod Squad and then Starsky and Hutch, to the absurdly addictive Charlie’s Angels, Family, Fantasy Island and The Love Boat. And of course, who can forget Dynasty, the cheesy Joan Collins nighttime soap that launched Heather Locklear’s career. He redefined himself in the ‘80s with Beverly Hills 90210, a television model still alive and well on the WB, and of course, Melrose Place, which re-launched Locklear as a star.
Spelling had a knack for knowing which shows would tickle America’s fancy maybe because he somehow knew what we all wanted to see when we wanted to see it – gritty cop-TV or shoulder padded cat fights or teens in a world of hurt. There was something for everybody.
In the ‘70s, when women were burning their bras and marching for women’s rights, Charlie’s Angels was the most popular show. These women were ultra-feminine but always got their man. It was not so much a sign of history but an escape from it. No one was going to give Spelling points for scratching an itch, or making us give in to our baser instincts but you have to hand it to him, he knew us almost better than we knew ourselves.
No matter what he did, how successful he became, how much power he had or money he made, the one thing that would forever elude Spelling was critical respect. Early in his career he was a playwright. He won the Eugene O’Neill Award for original one-act plays in 1947-48 at Southern Methodist University. It wouldn’t have been hard to follow that dream. But then, you know, say goodbye to the 56,500-square-foot French chateau in Holmby Hills.
Did he want critical respect? Did he care? Wasn’t it enough that he owned TV? Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. He told the AP in 1986, “The knocks by the critics bother you. But you have a choice of proving yourself to 300 critics or 30 million fans…I think you’re also categorized by the critics. If you do something good they almost don’t want to like it.”
Truth was, the only way the critics could explain the appeal of Spelling’s inexplicably addictive shows was to conclude that Americans are mostly stupid. And only stupid people would watch the trash Spelling produced. We’re not stupid but we are predictable. He was in the television BUSINESS. Like the ice cream business or the fast food business or the carpet cleaning business, give the people what they want.
Can there ever be another Aaron Spelling? It’s doubtful, even though there will always be room for the kind of indulgence he offered weary Americans. Even amid the reality-TV craze, Spelling would no doubt have continued to introduce us to characters we couldn’t forget if we tried.
Aaron Spelling died on June 23. He was 83. Open the Guinness Book of World Records and you’ll find he has produced more hit shows than anyone else, making him the most prolific producer in television history.
Lee Michael Cohn
Mirror Contributing Writer
Ask anyone who has ever made a movie, or attempted to make a movie, and they will, whatever their background and creative pretensions, pretty much all agree on one point: It’s really hard. Whether it’s a $100 million studio blockbuster, a low-budget Indy or a bunch of friends with a camera and barely enough money for lunch, it’s a bear. Just finishing a film is an achievement in and of itself.
If nothing else, Roger Corman made his movies. Some of them were good, some so-so and some laughably bad, but Corman, an adventurous dynamo of a filmmaker, cranked them out, and, critics be damned, never looked back. He is the undisputed Godfather of what is now ubiquitously referred to as the “Indy Film Movement,” not only as a hands-on filmmaker, but as a resourceful, canny businessman as well. Corman made millions of dollars with only minimal contact with the maddening Hollywood studio system; to this day he brags, and rightly so, that not one of his films have ever lost a dime.
But is it “art?” Well, sometimes. In addition to his mind-boggling array of genre flicks (crime, westerns, sci-fi, horror, biker flicks, babes behind bars, psychedelia, war, teen angst…you name it, he did it), Corman also distributed “art house” films by Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini and Truffaut, getting their pictures on more screens and earning them more money than the “majors.” He also gave a start to a who’s who of Hollywood directors: the list includes Scorsese, Coppola, Curtis Hanson, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, Joe Dante, and, somewhat ironically, James Cameron, the king of the mega-budget Hollywood blockbuster. The actors who worked for Corman on their respective ways up (or down) include Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Charles Bronson, Shelley Winters, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and enough other notable performers to fill several pages of this publication. Corman had an indisputable eye for talent, and those who worked for him praise his hands-off creative approach, even when the filmmakers were young and inexperienced. Of course, Corman was the opposite when it came to the purse strings – he controlled all financial aspects with a tight fist, but many of the aforementioned artists to this day praise Corman for his parsimony; it taught three generations of filmmakers that money is not the key to good filmmaking – creativity and ingenuity are far more important.
Erstwhile film scholars Alain Silver and James Ursini, whose previous works include several excellent volumes on film noir, as well as books on David Lean and Robert Aldrich, have meticulously collected every flick that Corman directed (over fifty films!), wrote and produced. They even tracked down his work as an actor; most of those films were, not surprisingly, directed by his former protégés. Roger Corman: Metaphysics on a Shoestring is a handsome trade paperback, with sharp black and white stills, complete major crew and cast lists and Corman’s own reflections. It’s a fun read, and a great coffee table book that puts Corman’s work into a larger cultural perspective.
Corman’s panache and showmanship are in evidence even in his “two day wonders,” which include such camp classics as Little Shop of Horrors. The book’s title refers not only to Corman’s underlying themes of the overwhelmed Everyman, women struggling for power and dignity and his own liberal politics, but also to his uncanny sense of capturing and staying current with the zeitgeist of American popular culture. And, of course, he made some really dumb stuff, too, but even such forgettable films as The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Serpent were fun inasmuch as there was plenty of eye candy, both in terms of the scenery and the voluptuous, scantily-clad actresses.
Mystery Science Theatre 3000 was a clever TV show that parodied many of Corman’s cheesier films. And yet, even his most slipshod, haphazard films had a profound effect on audiences. Roger Corman is a true American icon who manages the tricky tightrope walk between art and commerce. He has no illusions about which god he serves on a particular project and at the end of the day, whatever your opinion of his films, his greatest gift may be the simple message that you can go out and make a movie your way. Silver and Ursini have done a fine job of encapsulating Corman’s career, a career that many in the film business are just now attempting to emulate. Well, better late than never.
Alain Silver and James Ursini both reside in Santa Monica.