Today is a huge milestone in the world of teen dramas. It is the 19th anniversary of the premiere of Beverly Hills 90210, the show that started it all.
In honor of this momentous occasion, 90210 executive producer Charles Rosin, who now runs showbizzle, revisited the show’s early years and development thereafter.
TeenDramaWhore: What was your reaction when Aaron Spelling contacted you to be part of this show, then-called Class of Beverly Hills?
Charles Rosin: Curiosity. Mr. Spelling was a legend in this business whose deal with ABC had ended and who was struggling to re-invent himself and his company for a new generation of TV watchers. Truthfully, I was not a big fan of his most popular shows –“Dynasty,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “The Love Boat” — which all seemed very old fashioned and predictable. My taste was much more oriented to a more challenging and thought provoking television like “St.Elsewhere,” ” thirtysomething,” and “Northern Exposure,” of which I was the supervising producer for the first season and was working on when I first met “The Mister” in his office at the Warner Hollywood Studios.
TDW: As an executive producer, what exactly was your role? How were you involved in the episode process?
Rosin: In the TV business, a creative executive producer is known as a showrunner, who literally runs all the creative aspects of a show while being responsible for its financial vitality. On 90210 I would either come up with the ideas, or approve ideas brought to me; make sure my partners (The Spelling Company and Fox) approved of these ideas; supervise my staff in writing the story and scripts (or write the stories or scripts myself) based on these ideas; re-write scenes, etc. in my capacity as “the last typewriter” if I felt the material needed punching up; incorporate legal clearances and network notes into the scripts; have a concept meeting with the directors (who I hired); cast the actors for that week’s show; supervise a production meeting with all the department heads (wardrobe, art. etc); be available during production to deal with whatever situations might occur; work with the editors to cut the film which might require dropping scenes, changing the act breaks, changing the order of the story, etc.; then get notes from my partners; then work with my associate producer in getting the locked film ready for airing by adding music, sound effects, correct color, dub voices — and then being the final “ear” when the show is mixed….all while developing three-five scripts simultaneously and prepping for the next episode in line to shoot.
TDW: 90210 essentially started the primetime teen drama genre. What kind of challenges were you up against?
Rosin: Fox was all about edgy/raunchy guy-humor like “Married With Children” while 90210 was a show that not only celebrated girl-empowerment but had this wonderful character named Brenda Walsh [Shannen Doherty] who represented the notion that a teenager could be sexually active and not be a slut, but actually a role model. Unfortunately, my first set of network executives did not see the world as I did . Someday I will write a long article about the censorship that occurred after Brenda lost her virginity at the Spring Dance [ed. note: Episode 1.21, Spring Dance] to her boyfriend (who had been AIDS tested) because she was happy and not full of remorse.
TDW: When do you think 90210 crossed over that ‘initial hump’ and started achieving success?
Rosin: When the Gulf War started in February, 1991 the three networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) suspended all commercial activity to cover the invasion. Fox didn’t have a news department back than (hard to believe; wish they didn’t have one now. ha!) so Fox broadcast whatever was on their schedule. The 90210 episodes that aired during this time included “BYOB” and “Slumber Party” [ed. note: Episodes 1.11 and 1.13]. By the time commercial activity started up again some three weeks later with the re-activation of the Nielsen ratings, our show was no longer a bottom feeder. The network took notice; gave us an extended order for season two with the understanding that we would be producing summer episodes — and we were off.
TDW: In an interview last year with The New York Times, you said you went to Beverly Hills High. How did it compare to the fictional West Beverly?
Rosin: I graduated Beverly Hills High School in 1970 which makes me a child of the 60’s! Even though it was a time of political activism and emerging youth culture, there were many traditions from the 1950’s that were a vital part of my high school culture — and which ultimately were incorporated into the series. We meet Emily Valentine [Christine Elise, ed. note: see related interview] in season two at “Hello Day” where each class welcomes new students through parodies and funny skits [ed. note: Episode 2.8, Wildfire]. The dance where the cheerleader is date raped by a football player in “Teenline” in season one was called The Pigskin Prom, which was a big thang back in the day [ed. note: Episode 1.9, The Gentle Art of Listening]. And, of course, episodes in the third year season dealing with ditch day and the senior yearbook poll all were part of school life at BHHS [ed. note: Episodes 3.26 and 3.25 respectively, She Came In Through The Bathroom Window and Senior Poll]. Oddly enough, I played baseball for Beverly against Torrance High School, which was our location for “West Beverly” and which later became the high school location for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” [ed. note: click here for photos of Torrance/West Bev] One other odd connection — we filmed our summer episodes at the same beach in Santa Monica Bay where the kids from Beverly Hills High School used to hang out — which was known as Tee’s, not the Beverly Hills Beach Club which was filmed at the old Sand and Sea Club right after it got condemned.
TDW: Let’s talk about the episode where Scott [Douglas Emerson] kills himself (Episode 2.14, The New Fifty Years). Was that a product of Douglas wanting to leave the show or was it precipitated by the direction of the storylines? Was there backlash to that episode?
Rosin: Given our low license fee from the network, we were always trying to cut costs — and Doug Emerson was a nice young man, but not a gifted actor. I still wanted to find a memorable way to write him off the show — and that was when I read about an accidental killing of a high school student on Prom Night in a hotel room at the Disneyland Hotel. So while David Silver [Brian Austin Green] was getting cool and into the Brenda/Kelly/Steve Beach Club crowd, I sent Scott to hang at his grandparents house in Oklahoma off-camera for six episodes as a way to show these two old friends drifting apart before our eyes. It should be known that this was the only story line that the network and Mr. Spelling worked together to try to squash — but they could sense my passion for the story, were very supportive of [our] script and were very satisfied with the episode, which also was highly promotable and did well in the ratings.
TDW: You were there during the high school to college transition, which all the teen dramas are doing these days. What do you think that change added to the show?
Rosin: Not only was I “there” for the transition from high school to college, but I must take credit — along with my late producing partner, Paul Waigner — for spearheading the drive to move on and let these kids grow up. Part of the problem was that our cast looked to old/were too old to play believable high school students anymore — and I convinced network president Sandy Grushow that doing a high school show that did not deal with the prospect of college was bogus. Aaron was nervous about the change, of course. He was nervous about everything. But once I agreed to let all the kids go to the same college, he let them graduate — which allowed me to write a senior year in “real time”. You ask what this added to the show? How ’bout four-five seasons worth of new episodes that would probably wouldn’t have been ordered if they stayed in high school.
TDW: Your wife also worked on the show, right?
Rosin: Karen’s first professional writing credit was for “Isn’t It Romantic?,” the AIDS episode where Brenda and Dylan [Luke Perry] first go out — and where an enraged Dylan slams the flower pot into the pavement before chasing after Brenda [ed. note: Episode 1.10]. Although Karen was never offered a staff position, chances are she wrote, or co-wrote your favorite episodes, including all the ones set in Paris [ed. note: Episodes 3.3-3.5], the condom in school episode [Episode 2.21, Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘Bout It ], the one where Scott accidentally shoots himself, the one where Dylan meets his inner-child [Episode 3.22, The Child Is Father To The Man], the Christmas episode with the angels answer Donna’s [Tori Spelling] prayers by preventing a school bus from crashing bus [Episode 3.16, It’s A Totally Happening Life], and the graduation episode [Episode 3.29, Commencement], which we wrote together. You can hear our commentary for “Commencement” on the third season DVD. Karen, a former actress and playwright, has a great ear for dialogue. My strength as a writer was (and is) always story and story structure — so we were great collaborators. If Mr. Spelling and I had anything in common it was our love and appreciation of nepotism.
TDW: Your daughter is just a bit older than me. Did she watch the show growing up? What does she think knowing her parents played a big role in one of the biggest shows of the 90s?
Rosin: My eldest daughter Lindsey was five when I started working on the 90210. She’s the cutie-pie who asks Brandon to dance the hookelau at the end of summer luau at the Beverly Hills Beach Club [ed. note: Episode 2.6, Pass/Not Pass]. Growing up she never bragged about my job, in fact, didn’t tell her teen-aged camp counselors about me until the last day of the session. Lindsey knew at a young age she wanted to be a director, and is currently developing an hour pilot with CBS Paramount — in addition to be the creative force behind showbizzle.
TDW: You have said you left the show because it was “killing” you. Can you elaborate on that?
Rosin: For the first two seasons, Beverly Hills 90210 had the lowest license fee in broadcast television — meaning that Fox paid the Spelling Company less money to make our show than any other show in prime time. One of the ways we cut costs was to assemble a small writing staff composed of mostly new writers, but once our production orders increased to anywhere from 28- 32 hours a year (a standard network order for a hit show is anywhere from 13-22 episodes a year; a cable show much less than that) the lack of a big staff took its toll and I found myself working 12-16 hours a day, 6 1/2 days a week, 11 1/2 months a year. Six weeks after I mixed my last episode, “P.S. I Love You” [ed note: Episode 5.32], one of my arteries shut down. I was 43 years old. We caught it early. I dodged a bullet. And 15 years later, I catch waves and feel great.
TDW: Did you keep up with the show after you left?
Rosin: I was a non-exclusive script consultant for the 6th season where I read outlines and offered my suggestions — most of which weren’t followed. I do remember watching one episode that year where NFL star quarterback Steve Young was a guest star [ed. note: Episode 6.12, Breast Side Up] because it was written by Larry Mollin and directed by Dave Semel, who both remain good friends today. I did not watch after that — and felt that show lost much of its cultural currency and degenerated into a more pedestrian and predictable soap opera– the kind of show more aligned with the traditional Spelling aesthetic.
TDW: Your last season–the fifth–was also Carol Potter’s last. Did you agree with the decision to get rid of Jim [James Eckhouse] and Cindy? (Ed. note: see my related interview here.)
Rosin: Reluctantly, yes. Creatively, the show no longer evolved around the Walsh House — and although we certainly could have come up with new storylines that included the parents in a supporting capacity, both Carol Potter and Jim Eckhouse were taking home a fairly big pay check — and by writing them off the show, those monies could be applied to other things — like paying Jason Priestley [Brandon] and Jennie Garth [Kelly] to stick around.
TDW: I have to ask: Brenda and Dylan or Kelly and Dylan?
Rosin: Brenda was our favorite character to write; the scene where Dylan and Kelly hook up the night Jack McKay was released at the pool at the Bel Age in season three [ed. note: Episode 3.19, Back in the High Life Again] was perhaps the hottest scene we ever shot — in other words, it’s a draw…
TDW: Kelly and Dylan or Kelly and Brandon?
Rosin: I’ll always be partial to Kelly and Steve.
TDW: What was your reaction when you found out the season 10 storyline (Episodes 10.18-10.20) that Jack McKay (Josh Taylor) was alive?
Rosin: Well, I first found out about Jack McKay when I opened your e-mail. (Like I said, I didn’t watch the show once I left). But we purposely filmed the sequence in such a way as to leave this “return from the dead” storyline available. I guess they had to wait until Luke Perry returned to the series to revive this plot.
TDW: What was your reaction when you found out David and Donna were marrying in the series finale?
Rosin: It seemed about right; Karen and I and our three kids visited the set at the Beverly Hilton the day they were filming the wedding — and it was the first time I visited since I left the show five years earlier.
TDW: Do you have a favorite storyline?
Rosin: Lots of them — my favorite episode was Commencement because with all the clips that were incorporated into the two hour episode, it felt like a retrospective of the high school years.
TDW: Do you have a favorite memory from working with the cast? A favorite guest star? (There were a lot of them!)
Rosin: I loved watching Jason directing the episode “The Time Has Come Today” from the 4th Season [ed. note: Episode 4.25] where Brenda discovers a diary from the 1960’s in her bedroom. My favorite guest star would be my wife Karen, who played a lesbian in the episode “Girls On The Side,” [Episode 5.28] which she also wrote. Also Marcy Kaplan, who played TV star Lydia Leeds in the episode in which Brenda worked at the Peach Pit and became Laverne [Episode 1.16, Fame is where You Find It]. Karen and I wrote that one together.
TDW: What surprised you most while working on the show?
Rosin: Like most writers I have an active imagination — and there have been times that I thought that the script I had just written would catapult me onto a podium for an awards ceremony. But I never could have imagined being a creative force behind an international television sensation! Or that you would be asking me these questions almost 20 years from the time that I started work on the show…
TDW: Do you have any regrets or anything you would do differently?
Rosin: Biggest regret is that I didn’t establish a relationship with media executive (and visionary) Barry Diller when he was running Fox. As far as doing things differently, I would have tried to take better care of my health, and maintain a sense of humor when dealing with the network instead of getting caught up in a war zone.
TDW: Looking back on the show today, what do you think is its place in television history?
Rosin: A footnote.
TDW: Are you still in touch with any of the cast?
Rosin: Yes — Jason Priestley is a buddy. James Eckhouse too. And Ian Ziering [Steve] is a great guy with whom I recently chatted about his early years in the business which we posted on Inside The Bizzle at showbizzle. Check it out. It is a must see for 90210 fans. [Ed. note: I linked to one of the Ian interviews here but there are many more here, including ones with BH90210 producer-writer John Eisendrath]
TDW: Have you watched the new 90210? Do you have any thoughts on it?
Rosin: I watched it once. It’s a good looking cast. But to do a show called 90210 and not allow your young characters to have any socio-political context in the age of Obama speaks to the cynicism and cowardice of commercial broadcasting.
TDW: You also worked on Dawson’s Creek a bit. How did your role differ there?
Rosin: I was more involved with the business side of producing than the writing of scripts — though I certainly had a hand in the creative development of the first episodes.
TDW: How do you think the shows themselves differ?
Rosin: I leave that for your community of readers to comment.
TDW: You’re now working on a site called showbizzle. What is it, and how did it come about?
Rosin: showbizzle is a digital showcase and destination website I created with daughter Lindsey (the Hookelau girl) for emerging talent away from the immediate pressures of the market place. We created a cool show featuring 29 young actors performing 141 two-minute scripted monologues about what they are doing to jump start their careers in Hollywood as told to Janey, a fictitious blogger who hangs out at an LA coffee house. Our goal here to create a vibrant community of young actors, writers, comedians, and performers around our showbizzle content where members are encouraged to upload their original videos with the chance to be paid $$ to perform on our digital showcase. So check showbizzle.com, become a member, work with us, tell your friends — and see why Cynopsis Digital said that it “should be required viewing for kids thinking of moving out to LA LA land to chase their dreams of stardom as it delves into the frustrations of being on the outside looking in.”
TDW: Anything else you want to add?
Rosin: Hard to believe the show’s 20th anniversary is coming up . To get to know what the early days were like check out Rolling Stone Magazine’s article “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (issue 624) originally published February 20th, 1992.
For more on showbizzle, head over to the site.
Come back next Sunday for another exclusive interview!