Stephen J. Cannell had a lot in common with many of the iconic characters he created. He was cool, charming, handsome, a natty dresser, savvy, fast on his feet and tremendously skilled at the profession he loved.
As news of his death at the age of 69 (click here for Variety’s obit) spread through the biz on Friday, friends and former colleagues recalled Cannell as a man of great talent and great integrity.
“Stephen was an island of calm in the stormy craziness of Hollywood,” said thesp Thom Bray, an alumnus of “Riptide.” “And always a gentlemen.”
Cannell was a wildly successful writer and showrunner whose prolific output was the envy of many of his peers. As emphasized on the trademark production bumper on his shows (click here for a collection of them), work for Cannell meant sitting at a typewriter, writing his way to fame, fortune and the respect of those who worked with him. (I recall David Chase, who worked on Cannell’s “The Rockford Files,” once marveling at Cannell’s discipline in writing for hours every day.)
After a decade of working on the Universal lot, where he delivered such hits as “Rockford” and “Baretta,” Cannell leveraged his track record and went out on his own in 1979 (with help from his lawyer, Ken Ziffren) as the proprietor of Stephen J. Cannell Prods. (which later evolved into Cannell Entertainment and Cannell Studios). He was that rare breed of creative entrepreneur who bet on himself — his ability to deliver successful series to the Big Three nets and his ability to run a business.
In a lengthy interview some years ago, I distinctly remember how proud he was in emphasizing that he and his wife, Marcia, were the sole owners of the company from the start until it was sold to New World Entertainment for $30 million in 1995. “We had no Wall Street cash coming in. We had no outside investors,” he recalled.
He wasn’t playing with Other People’s Money. The fate of the company was on him and the writers and producers he hired to help execute his slate of shows. To do that takes a certain kind of guts and derring-do, and you can count on one hand the number of writers who have managed to pull it off in a big way: Cannell, Norman Lear and Aaron Spelling.
“Entrepreneur and visionary, he 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,” John Wells, WGA West prexy and a fellow uber-showrunner, said of Cannell.
There were times during his long career when Cannell interests as a businessman clashed with his interests as a writer, i.e. during the 1981, ’85 and ’88 writers strikes. Publicly and privately, Cannell always supported the WGA.
“The writing community mourns his passing and offers our collective thanks for his years of effort on our behalves,” Wells said.