No matter how successful, TV giant stayed true to his roots

They weren’t called “showrunners” when Stephen J. Cannell was in his heyday in the 1980s. But he was one of the giants of the TV biz who defined the term.

Cannell, who died Sept. 30 at the age of 69, made his mark as a prolific writer-producer of skeins ranging from “The Rockford Files” and “Baretta” to “The A-Team,” “Wiseguy,” “The Commish,” “21 Jump Street” and the cult fave “Profit,” considered a forerunner of the cable-style dark drama.

Cannell took his career a step further and built a thriving indie studio. But the boss of Cannell Entertainment still rolled up his sleeves and worked in the writers rooms on his shows.

In an era of industry consolidation and mega-congloms, Cannell’s reputation as an independent maverick has only grown, even after he turned his focus to novels (16 titles published since 1995).

“CSI” exec producer Carol Mendelsohn, one of the many industryites who came up through the Cannell shop, got a first-hand look at how his legacy has extended to the next generation. After she mentioned in the writers room that she’d recently had lunch with her old boss, the “CSI” scribes insisted that she set up one for the group.

In May, the entire “CSI” writing staff and their assistants dined with Cannell at the Universal commissary, learning at the knee of a master.

“He talked about discipline, about how he always got up early to write and how he balanced work and family,” Mendelsohn says. “You could just tell that he loved to write, and he always wanted to be able to pass that on.”

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