Saturday, October 2, 2010

Remembering Steven J. Cannell

So there I was lounging in the Hollywood Boulevard office of Stephen J. Cannell as we jawed on and on about the state of U.S. network TV.
The time was 1986 and Cannell had such hits on TV as The A Team (1983-87) and Riptide (1985-86).
And he had a dozen other ideas he was trying to turn into series.
I have to tell you of all the thousands of people I got to interview in L.A. during my 38 years as a newspaper TV critic I admired the writers the best.
I remember driving out to posh Bel Air for an exclusive with Ernest Lehman the great writer of Sweet Smell Of Success when his brilliant movie was about to be turned into a --gasp -- Broadway musical (it tanked).
And there was an entire afternoon on the set of Murder She Wrote with the elusive creator Peter Fisher who almost never gave interviews.
And right up there was the amazing Cannell who died Thursday at his Pasadena home from melanoma at the age of 69.
What a talent. Nobody could write dialogue like this guy.
Hits included Hunter, The Comish, Stingray, Hardcastle And McCormick, Black Sheep Squadron, Toma.
He'd created the fantastic series The Rockford Files for Jim Garner and he wrote the best scripts of that long running series.
First a description of his office. Unpretentious. A typewriter was at his desk with a half finished page of dialogue. Nice,comfy couches where one could really sink in and contemplate the walls adorned with plaques and the shelves of awards.
At his desk slouched the rumpled figure, a friendly grin on that lined face, and he offered bottled water and hours of brilliant talk.
Few people knew or cared that Cannell had struggled with dyslexia since high school days and was flunked by uncomprehending teachers several times.We talked about that, of course.
But he made it to the top of his profession through sheer talent. He came to regard his disability as a gift from God.
It made him listen closely to the way people talked and he had an uncanny ability to replicate that onto the page.
"Nobody will understand the heartbreak I felt as a teenager," he said simply.
And he loved writing for series TV. He loved exploring characterizations over many years. He was a hands on producer of his series --some of the others would set up a new series and then walk away to the next project.
Another thing, he loved actors.
During one of the press tours ABC held an all-star party for him to celebrate his 30 years in the business.
And everybody who'd ever been in a Cannell series was there. There was Ken Wahl from Wiseguy (1987-90) and he never went to parties.
There was Bruce Greenwood who'd been in a rare Cannell flop titled Legmen.
George Peppard came loaded with gifts and told me The A Team (1983-87) had saved his career. Robert Culp from Greatest American Hero was in a rare benevolent mood. It was quite a gathering. Hundreds of industryites showed up.
And then it all seemed to cave in for him. His type of show, action driven, male oriented was out and the likes of Hill Street Blues was in.
Cannell soldered on. The last time we spoke was on the phone when he had moved production facilities to Vancouver. He made 21 Jump Street and Wiseguy there and later had a deal with CTV to make the "Canadian" series Scene Of The Crime (1991) starring Barbara Parkins which ran late nights on CBS.
Cannell told me he felt out of it in the new Hollywood and was busy writing novels. A retread of Hunter flopped in 2003 and that was about it for the once mighty creator unlike contemporary Aaron Spelling who had enjoyed a big comeback(with Beverly Hills 90210).
Cannell was always grateful for his success. And eager to get back to his typewriter (he wasn't a computer kind of guy).

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