Remembering Stephen J. Cannell

Stephen J. Cannell was one of the most successful television writer/producers in the history of the medium.  His list of credits is amazing, everything from Columbo to Adam-12 to The Rockford File to the A-Team to Silk Stockings.  Using his success, he created a television production company, which was really a full range production studio and television station group.  Later in life, he found that writing, directing and producing television was not enough, so he wrote a series of bestselling detective novels. That’s how I met him.

On January 19, 2001, Cannell visited my city on a publicity tour for his latest mystery novel, The Tin Collectors. He spoke to the crowd about the book and answered a few audience questions before signing copies of his book. When it was my turn, he also signed something from The Rockford Files, and I asked him a writing question. He asked me to wait till he had signed the other books and then we chatted.  He shared his approach to the process of writing and offered general advice about working through writers block. I will always remember his genuine interest and his kindness in talking with another writer. He could have shooed me away with being on a tight schedule. Instead, he spent 15 or 20 minutes, when he had any number of other things to do.

Fromm his website bio, Cannell is credited with scripting more than 450 episodes and producing more than 1,500 episodes.  His first sold script idea was for either Mission Impossible and his first script for It Takes a Thief television series. That led to being hired by the studio to develop scripts for shows like Ironside, The D.A. (Robert Conrad series), Adam-12 (where he was script editor), Chase, Toma and City of Angeles (Wayne Rogers after he left M*A*S*H).

images (1)
The Rockford set: Cannell, far left; Garner, far right.

Then came The Rockford Files (1974), a pilot that Universal did not like, but after James Garner came aboard, everyone loved it.  Rockford was not the typical hard-boiled detective.  Garner played Rockford like his slightly cowardly character in The Americanization of Emily.  Cannell was co-creator with Roy Huggins, and wrote/produced the series. Rockford really punched Cannell’s ticket in Hollywood.  He went from writer to story editor to producer, all in about five or six years.

Cannell had many irons in the fire, writing television films and scripts for series he did not produce.  He had a number of short-lived series, but for three decades he was one of the largest content producers for network television. His scripts featured wisecracking, slightly flawed characters, who often talked fast and were not generally smarter than the people they were after, just more creative and more to lose. Later on, this characters became straighter, but never run-of-the-mill.

What most people didn’t know was that Cannell was dyslexic. A situation he was not even aware of until he was adult.  He learned to work around it.  Education and helping kids deal with dyslexia became one of  his charitable endeavors.

In the 1970s, Cannell created the Robert Blake series Baretta, which was based on the earlier series TomaBarretta ran for 82 episodes.  Cannell spun-off a character from Rockford, Richie Brockelman, Private Eye.  The series was not a success, but that did not deter Cannell. The star of that series, Dennis Dugan, went on to other acting roles but is more notable for directing many Adam Sandler films (Happy Gilmore, Grown Ups, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry).

To start the 1980s, Tenspeed and Brown Shoe (starring Jeff Goldblum and Ben Vereen), a fast-talking wannabe detectives, but it failed as well.  Hardcastle and McCormick (Brian Keith and Daniel Hugh Kelly) about a retired judge who solves crimes last 67 episodes. The Greatest American Hero (William Katt and Robert Culp) ran for 44 episodes, followed by the A-Team which ran for 97 episodes.  Ripetide (Perry King and Joe Penny), about three guys, a boat and a helicopter solving crime ran for 56 episodes. Stingray, 23 episodes and Booker, 22 episodes, Wiseguy (73 episodes) and then 21 Jump Street (102 episodes) closed out the 1980s. Cannell released Johnny Depp from his contract so he could take advantage of movie offers.  Who does that in Hollywood? The decade had a lot of hits and misses, but Cannell always had one or two shows on the air. How many variations of people solving crimes can you create? Apparently, a lot.

unnamed (2)
Cannell, center, with the Renegade cast.

In the 1990s, Cannell had several very successful series. Silk Stockings (176 episodes), Renegades (110 episodes) was independently produced, and The Commish, ran for 92 episodes.

When Cannell died in 2010, he had already sold his production and media company for $30 million. What he didn’t sell were the rights to all of his series. Stephen J. Cannell was as smart as he was gracious and genuine.

Stephen J. Cannell was a good guy in a business not known for good people. My interaction with him was brief, but memorable.  Every time you see one of his old shows on television, you see this production credit at the end.




Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s