Remembering Stephen J Cannell

“So that’s it. Cue the end music. Roll the production logos. Bring up the final end card and we’re at: The End.” The final words in Stephen J Cannell’s last novel, The Prostitutes’ Ball

There’s been something missing on this blog for a while now, something I’ve been acutely aware of but which, thanks to time pressures, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do justice to: a tribute to TV producer Stephen J Cannell.

It was last September that the man who created/co-created/produced/wrote/directed series such as The A-Team, The Rockford Files, Hunter, The Greatest American Hero, Stingray, Wiseguy, The Commish and many, many more died at the age of 69.

I’ve noted before that one of my earliest TV memories is watching The Greatest American Hero at the age of five while in Brisbane, Australia. My family had emigrated there in 1982 for what would turn out to be a very short time (we didn’t see the year out Down Under), but certain things linger in the mind. Barbeques. School assemblies. Ralph Hinkley in the red jammies.

A combination of Joey Scarbury’s annoyingly brilliant music and some fast-paced action with a healthy dose of humour meant that to my mind it was televisual manna from heaven, far better than most of the cartoons being thrown my way. At least, I assume that was the thought process. After thirty years things get a little hazy.

A few years later, now back in Scotland, we had a weekly adventure for The A-Team on ITV to look forward too. These days I’m a big Doctor Who fan and I now realise that I was missing the good Doctor each Saturday on BBC1 as I waded through the adverts on The Other Side to see what Hannibal, Faceman, BA and Murdock were getting up to. But The A-Team was shiny and fresh and you could play with the toys in the garden or at being the characters at school. Nobody spoke about Doctor Who back then.

Since then I’ve stumbled across various US series that grabbed my attention and stuck in the mind, usually thanks to their wit and action scenes. Episodes of Hunter and Renegade, mostly only half-watched, screened late night while at school. James Garner in the Rockford Files on weekday afternoons while at university. Repeats of Riptide at 3am on weekends on Channel 5, again while at uni.

What I didn’t realise for a long time was that all of these programmes had something in common, namely Stephen J Cannell. Born in Los Angeles in 1941, Cannell may have had severe dyslexia but he graduated from the University of Oregon in 1964 with a degree in journalism.

It was in 1968 that Cannell sold his first TV script to Universal for the Robert Wagner series, To Catch a Thief. After a few years as a jobbing scriptwriter, Cannell rose through the ranks of TV to end up one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, running his own independent studio and bringing numerous hit series to our screens.

I spent some of Christmas 2010 watching the Archive of American Television’s excellent interview with Cannell, which takes around three hours to get through but which offers a fascinating look into the mind of the man and his dedication to the writing process.

I could go on for multiple blog posts about the skill behind Cannell’s work and the way he makes it all look so simple. He admitted that much of his action/adventure output was targeted at the average Joe who gets home after a hard days work and who wants to be entertained by his TV set. Cannell was happy with being part of mainstream and so were his viewers.

Interestingly, while my love of Cannell shows hasn’t wavered over the years, my own interest in the mainstream has. It’s dangerous to generalise about TV in 2011, but I’ll have a go anyway. While the odd piece of scripted television still comes along that has the power to entertain, excite, scare, chill or in some other way engage the audience, much of it is simplified to the point of being offensive.

A Cannell show may have been dumb fun, but it was never dumbed down. Cannell was happy to keep things looking simple on the surface, but there was usually something more going on beneath. Just watch one of his Rockford’s, where a plot may begin like a standard private eye show before spiralling off into something much odder and always unique.

Give me a TV show made for a mass audience by a production team that puts TLC into every script and I’ll come back for more. Give me a series merely churned out as fast as possible to fill a gap in the schedule and I’ll not be back in a hurry. Cannell and his team on Rockford Files were firmly in the former camp, and it shows in every scene.

The death of Steve Cannell was a shock to me, a realisation that nothing lasts forever, even in the Hollywood Dream Factory. I’d always hoped to one day meet and interview the man, and I tried to do just that while in Los Angeles in early 2000 on the way back to Australia. My email requesting a meeting was picked up by his secretary, who politely told me he was mostly on his yacht writing his novels. I did pass the Cannell studios on the off-chance he was home, but they were shut.

Last year also saw another of my heroes pass away, Robert Culp, the man who played Bill Maxwell in Greatest American Hero. At this rate I’ll soon have no heroes left. For more on Culp I’d also recommend his Archive of American Television interviews (and check out my previous James Garner post while you’re in the mood):

I mentioned above that I could write multiple posts on Cannell’s work. So, starting in the next few weeks, I will.

A bit like one of Cannell’s pilot episodes, in which he’d throw in various elements and ideas with the hope that the best would make it through to the series-proper, I’ve been throwing things at this blog over the last few years, trying to see what sticks. The aim has always been to highlight series I’ve an affection for, getting my own thoughts down for future reference and perhaps encouraging one or two people to try them out.

Now, with my Cannell DVD collection looking pretty healthy, the time has come to watch them all. Starting with 1975’s Baretta, a programme created by Cannell, I’ll be making my way through his output. It might not be in strict chronological order, and I can’t promise how long it will take to watch each series, but it only seems right to enjoy his work rather than try to remember it through a haze of fond memories.

Not everything is out on DVD, and very little has made it to iTunes, but I’ll search out what I can.

In the meantime, here’s Cannell on the genesis of the end credits sequence which acted as a stamp of quality on so many 1980s TV shows:

Here are said logos in full:


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