Prolific showrunner ran thriving indie studio in 1980s and '90s
He was a rare breed of creative entrepreneur, a prolific writer who leveraged his track record as a TV hitmaker into the foundation of a thriving independent studio in the 1980s and ’90s.
Stephen J. Cannell, who died Thursday of complications from melanoma at age 69, was revered in the creative community for his achievements as a scribe and a businessman. A generation of [No Paragraph Style]Text (Text Styles)writers, directors, actors, producers and numerous industry execs came up the ranks working on Cannell productions, from his early Universal TV hits (“The Rockford Files,” “Baretta”) to his mid-1980s heyday as an indie mogul with a string of slick action/mystery dramas such as “The A-Team,” “Hunter,” “Riptide” and “21 Jump Street.”
Cannell’s dedication to his craft was legendary — he often rose at 5 a.m. or earlier to ensure he’d have hours of uninterrupted writing time — and impressive in light of the fact that he suffered from dyslexia not diagnosed until he was in his 30s. During his 30 years in TV, Cannell created or co-created more than 40 series, penned more than 450 episodes and produced more 1,500 episodes of television.
In his appearance and demeanor, Cannell looked the part of the cool-cat characters he wrote. Lanky and tan, with an ever-present goatee, he often favored tight jeans, dark turtleneck sweaters and leather boots. In his later years he occasionally appeared on camera in his shows, and he most recently had a recurring role as himself on ABC’s “Castle.”
Friends and colleagues remembered Cannell as a man of great talent, warmth and integrity in business.
“His extraordinary talents both as a writer and an industry leader made him, deservedly, enormously successful in the entertainment business, but it was his character, generosity, kindness and humanity that separate him from all others,” said Warner Bros. TV prexy Peter Roth, who spent six years as prexy of Stephen J. Cannell Prods.
Cannell’s bustling offices, located at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, fostered a family atmosphere among the staffers on the shows.
“It wasn’t competitive,” said Carol Mendelsohn, exec producer of CBS’ “CSI” and “The Defenders,” who got her start in TV on Cannell’s “Hardcastle and McCormick.”
“Whatever show you worked on at Cannell, you were proud if anything good happened for another Cannell show,” she said. “If the writers for one show had a couple of weeks off, they’d wander down the hall and ask, ‘Do you want us to write a script for you?’ It was a family … and that just doesn’t happen anymore.”
Cannell grew up in Pasadena, Calif., where his father had an interior design business. He struggled in school, particularly with writing and spelling. But his high school yearbook listed his primary ambition as “author.”
He attended the U. of Oregon and was encouraged by an English professor to pursue his interest in writing. After marrying his junior high school sweetheart, Marcia, Cannell went to work for his father’s business but wrote scripts incessantly in his spare time. He finally made his first freelance sale to the Universal TV drama “It Takes a Thief.” That got him in the door at Universal, where he met producer Jack Webb and became a story editor on “Adam 12.”
Soon, Cannell was one of the rising stars on the lot that also boasted such future heavyweights as Steven Spielberg, Steven Bochco, David Chase, Charles Floyd Johnson and Don Bellisario. Cannell’s key mentor at U was writer-producer Roy Huggins, creator of “Maverick” and “The Fugitive.” The two went on to co-create the show that made Cannell a superstar showrunner and brought him his only Emmy, “The Rockford Files.” The show, created in the chaotic aftermath of the 1973 Writers Guild strike, starred Huggins’ former “Maverick” leading man, James Garner, as an ex-con-turned-private eye who was the antithesis of the square-jawed hero of that era’s detective fare. It also established the Cannell style of mixing heavy doses of humor with action, intrigue and close-ended plots.
“Rockford,” which ran on NBC from 1974-80, was an overnight success and became one of the defining skeins of the 1970s. It won the Emmy for drama in 1978.
By 1979, when his contract with Universal was up, Cannell’s stature in the biz was great enough that he decided to gamble on going it alone. With the help of lawyer Ken Ziffren (who would rep Cannell for the rest of his career), he set up Stephen J. Cannell Prods. as an independently financed entity. The company’s fate hinged on Cannell’s ability to deliver successful shows for the then-Big Three networks.
“Entrepreneur and visionary, (Cannell) changed television and did more than anyone to significantly raise the lot of writers in TV, almost single-handedly creating the modern television, writer-centric, production model,” said John Wells, a fellow uber-showrunner and prexy of WGA West.
There were times when Cannell’s business interests conflicted with the guild’s larger agenda for scribes, particularly during the WGA strikes of 1981, 1985 and the four-month walkout in 1988. But Cannell was consistently a strong supporter of his guild.
“The writing community mourns his passing and offers our collective thanks for his years of effort on our behalves,” Wells said.
His first indie productions, the short-lived “Tenspeed and Brown Shoe” (which featured a young Jeff Goldblum) and “The Greatest American Hero,” were done for ABC. His first big smash, “The A-Team,” went to NBC and was credited with helping to pull NBC out of a deep slump in the early years of Brandon Tartikoff’s reign.
“He was the cleanup hitter,” Tartikoff told Daily Variety in 1995. “When we had a slow period, we would go to Stephen and say ‘What have you got?’ “
Cannell burnished his image in the public eye with his famed production bumper, which showed him working away at a typewriter and pulling a sheet of paper out that would float off screen and morph into the “C” in the Stephen J. Cannell Prods. closing slate.
Cannell was famous for his speed at the Selectric.
“I try to write an act a day. I try real hard,” Cannell told Daily Variety in 1995. “I’ve learned over the years that when I write slow, I generally don’t write well. It’s not that fast is better. It’s just my engine.”
For more than 20 years, Cannell relied on his assistant, Grace Curcio, to “translate” all the pages he turned out by fixing the spelling errors that were a by-product of dyslexia, which he discovered only when one of his children was tested for the condition. In later years Cannell became a vocal advocate for awareness and treatment for children diagnosed with dyslexia. By the early 1990s, Cannell Entertainment had diversified into owning a handful of TV stations and a majority stake in the North Shore studio facility in Vancouver, British Columbia. Cannell was among the first U.S. producers to head north in search of cost savings and Canuck production incentives.
Cannell prized his independence and the fact that his company remained privately held by his wife and him. But as the marketplace for indie producers changed, as networks and studios merged and the FCC’s financial interest in syndication rules were repealed, Cannell struck a deal in 1995 with Ron Perelman’s New World Entertainment to buy most of his company for $30 million. (New World was scooped up by News Corp. two years later.)
But Cannell never did sell the library rights to the more than three dozen series produced under his banner. Today, Cannell Studios maintains a small distribution staff that sells rights to his more evergreen titles around the world. It’s also developing feature-film adaptations based on vintage Cannell titles; 20th Century Fox’s bigscreen take on “The A-Team” was released in June.
Cannell’s last major stab at a TV series came in 1996 with the uncharacteristically dark drama “Profit,” about an amoral corporate exec played by Adrian Pasdar. It was yanked by Fox after four airings but has since engendered a cult following.
Even 15 years after “Profit,” Cannell’s stature in the biz remained strong. When “CSI’s” Mendelsohn mentioned to her writers room that she’d met her old boss for lunch, the scribes pushed her to set up a group meeting. In May, the entire writing staff of “CSI” and their assistants joined Cannell and Mendelsohn in the backroom of the Universal Grill for a lively discussion of writing.
“He talked about discipline and about getting up early and how he balanced work and family,” she said. “You could just tell that he loved to write, and he always wanted to be able to pass that on.”
Cannell was feted in 2006 with the Paddy Chayefsky kudo from the Writers Guild of America. He earned lifetime achievement kudos the Mystery Writers of America in 2005, and the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award from NATPE in 2007.
In addition to his wife, Marcia, Cannell is survived by two daughters, Tawnia McKiernan, a director, and Chelsea; a son, Cody; and three grandchildren.
Donations may be made in Cannell’s name to the American Cancer Society for melanoma research or the Intl. Dyslexia Assn. A memorial service is being planned.