Stephen J. Cannell, 1941-2010: Master TV drama craftsman

Senior Television Writer
10.01.10 28 Comments


I crossed paths professionally with Stephen J. Cannell exactly once. I was at the start of my career writing about television. He was coming to the end of his career writing for it. It was the summer of 1996, and I was doing a story about how the creation of UPN and the WB was killing the market for first-run syndicated dramas. Cannell was one of the most successful and influential producers of the 1970s and ’80s, but his most notable recent success had been in syndication with Lorenzo Lamas and “Renegade,” and he had a new syndie drama called “Two.” It failed – it was, in fact, the last new series he would produce before spending most of his remaining years writing novels (and occasionally dusting off an old TV property like “The Rockford Files” for a reunion movie) – but back then he was just looking to promote it, and was willing to get on the phone with some kid from a paper in Jersey who clearly didn’t know how to conduct an interview.

Again, I was only a few weeks into the job, and a few weeks out of college. I didn’t know what I was doing. But talking to Cannell only made me more flummoxed. How could I talk to the guy without telling him that I spent every school recess period in the third grade acting out scenes from “The A-Team” with my friends? (As the biggest, I was always B.A.) How could I run through the necessary questions for my trend story without telling him that I still owned my 45 record of the “Greatest American Hero” theme by Joey Scarbury, holding onto it just in case I ever bought another record player? (It remains, to this day, my kids’ favorite lullaby.) How could I exit our conversation gracefully without telling him how, every time I used my dad’s typewriter as a kid, I was sorely tempted to yank the page out and toss it in the air, as he did in the famous video at the end of all his shows?

I managed to make it through 15 or 20 awkward minutes without doing any of that. I wrote my story, “Two” debuted and failed, Cannell shifted to the literary world, and my own TV tastes quickly evolved beyond the kind of well-executed standalone mystery and action shows for which Cannell was so famous.

But hearing the news that Cannell died today at 69 from a battle with melanoma, all those childhood memories came flooding back. Of great theme songs (“The Rockford Files” theme is even more celebrated than “Greatest American Hero”). Of buddy shows with an “and” in the title (“Tenspeed and Brown Shoe,” “Hardcastle and McCormick”). Of catchphrases I knew by heart (“I love it when a plan comes together” from “The A-Team,” or “Works for me” from “Hunter”). Of gunfights where dozens of bullets could be fired without a single person dying (“A-Team,” “Riptide”).

Mostly, though, I just thought of good, solid craftsmanship. Cannell and his proteges (notably Donald Bellisario, who would go on to create the very Cannell-esque “Magnum, PI” and “NCIS”) could do highbrow (“Wiseguy” was a great cable drama more than 10 years before such a thing existed). They could do lowbrow (“The A-Team” was never high art). And they could do middlebrow (“Rockford Files” is still considered the gold standard for TV private eye shows). And they could do them all with a focus on putting a story together so all the pieces neatly fit together, and so that all the main characters got to do the things that viewers loved about them. (Again, see catchphrases.) Even TV snobs seemed to have a soft spot for at least one Cannell show.

In all, the man had one of the longest, most prolific, influential runs of any producer, and thanks to that typewriter gag at the end of every episode, he was one of the few producers of his era whom viewers could identify by both name and sight.

More recently, he had taken up a small recurring role on “Castle,” playing himself as one of the best-selling authors in Rick Castle’s regular poker game. It was both an easy gig for a writer who never seemed to have a problem putting himself on camera (most notably, he cast himself as Dutch Dixon, the main bad guy on “Renegade”) and a wink from that show to the man whose own work helped make the model for it, and so many others.

Here’s a look at just a few of the many highlights of the Cannell ouevre, along with some appropriate video clips, in chronological order:

“The Rockford Files” (NBC, 1974-80): The superhumanly charming James Garner played ex-con-turned-shamus Jim Rockford, who lived out of a trailer on the beach in Malibu, drove a gold Pontiac Firebird, fought dirty and seemed to get punched in the face at least twice per episode. The show was as effortless as Garner; never fancy, always entertaining, with the writers (including a young David Chase) often content to just sit back and let Garner banter with co-stars Joe Santos, Stuart Margolin and Noah Beery Jr. Mike Post’s guitar and synth-driven theme song is one of the catchiest ever written (the “Hawaii Five-0” theme is the only one I’d even consider against it). There was actually a long period where this was considered not only the best private eye show ever, but the best TV drama, period. Unsurprisingly, fans of the original were horrified when NBC began talking about remaking it a year ago.

“The Greatest American Hero” (ABC, 1981-83): A high school teacher (William Katt) has an encounter with UFO aliens who give him a red superhero suit that gives him the power of flight, super strength, invulnerability, and a whole lot of other things he might be able to do if he hadn’t immediately lost the instruction manual that went with it. Like most Cannell hits, it was a buddy show (Robert Culp from “I Spy” played the FBI agent who unofficially partnered with Katt) where the action always came with a healthy dose of comedy. (The first time I watched the pilot for “Chuck,” my initial reaction was that it was a 21st century version of this show.) And again, the theme song is so great that George Costanza even used it for an answering machine message:

“The A-Team” (NBC, 1983-1987): Of all Cannell’s hits, this is the hardest to defend from an adult point of view, as the implausibility level is off the charts. (The contortions alone that were required every week to spring Howling Mad Murdock out of the mental hospital and drug the aviophobic BA Baracus so he would get on a plane must have taken more time and mental energy in the writers room than any of the larger plots.) But what boy of this period didn’t thrill to the introductory narration about the crack commando unit that was framed, escaped prison and now work as underground soldiers of fortune, closing with the line: “If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire… The A-Team”? “The A-Team” was also the show that helped create the idea that you could air a new show after the Super Bowl (in this case, the second episode) and turn it into a monster hit. The pilot itself doesn’t have Dirk Benedict, but it does have the moment that both made Mr. T into a star and sums up the Cannell action-comedy aesthetic. The A-Team is in some random Latin American country for their new mission, and inside a bar is the local tough guy. We’ve spent much of the pilot to this point building up Mr. T’s ass-kicking bonafides, so when he enters the bar, we expect him to make quick work of his opponent – only for him to be thrown back out through the swinging doors with one punch. (I’ve searched YouTube to no avail for it.)  In a Cannell show, the heroes are gonna win in the end, but they’ll take their lumps doing so, always.

“Hardcastle and McCormick” (ABC, 1983-1986): This drama – with Brian Keith as a retired judge who recruits an ex-con race car driver (Daniel Hugh Kelly) to track down bad guys who escaped justice on a technicality – is actually one of the less memorable, more formulaic of the Cannell shows, but I wanted to include it as an excuse to feature the show’s two different theme songs: one by Mike Post, and then one by Joey Scarbury that was dumped when everyone realized they preferred the original. The theme song, and the opening title sequence it accompanied, was always one of the hallmarks of a Cannell show, always so well put-together that you developed affection for the show even if the 58 minutes that came after wasn’t nearly as good as the credits.

“21 Jump Street” (FOX, 1987-1991): The brand-new FOX network wanted to make a splash with its first drama series, in a way that would make clear that this was a young-skewing network (back in the days when chasing young audiences wasn’t the be-all and end-all of the business). So they got Cannell to co-create and produce a cop show with a twist: all the cops were (at least in the first season) young and baby-faced enough that each week they had to pass for teenagers and investigate crimes at local high schools. Again, the plausibility level wasn’t super-high (I never figured out how big a city would have to be to have so many high schools that the cops almost never went back to the same place), but it did what it set out to do in mixing police procedural with teen issue stories, and it was another example of Cannell’s fine eye for spotting talent, in that its original (and quickly very reluctant) star was a young Johnny Depp.

“Wiseguy” (CBS, 1987-1990): Again, a show years ahead of its time, with a very unusual format for the late ’80s. FBI man Vinnie Terranova (Ken Wahl) infiltrates different criminal organizations for extended periods, so rather than the familiar Villain of the Week approach of most crime shows (including the rest of the Cannell stable), we would get story arcs lasting 10 episodes or more, giving various actors (most notably a young, unknown Kevin Spacey as incestuous, drug-addicted gangster Mel Profitt) showy parts they could sink their teeth into for long stretches. Its artistic ambition didn’t lead to big ratings, but after years of doing nothing but silly action shows, it was a reminder that Cannell’s talents extended beyond giving the hero a flashy car and blowing things up.

I’m sure I’ve skipped over one of your favorite Cannell shows or moments, so if you’re from the same era, feel free to share your own memories in the comments.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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