For two decades, Stephen J Cannell was one of American television's most successful writers and producers. He claimed that his greatest successes, shows like The Rockford Files or The A-Team, came about "by mistake". Having created, or co-created, by his own count, 43 different series, and produced something like 1,500 episodes, he said he was bound to get the elements right occasionally and tap into something the audience liked.
Although his self-deprecation was sincere, and many of his hits were less than critically acclaimed, the incredibly prolific Cannell left a lasting impression on the TV landscape. His influence was strongest as a writer, which is how he saw himself. His production company's signature was a shot of him at a typewriter, crumpling and discarding a page of script. Through some 450 scripts, his trademarks included characters with questionable pasts and quirks which could be played for humour, and intelligent comic dialogue punctuated frequently by action – especially car chases and explosions.
Jim Rockford, played with casual affability by James Garner, was his prototype reluctant hero, and while Cannell drew shrewdly on the creative echo-chamber that is American television, his variations on familiar themes often influenced others. Wiseguy (1987-89), which starred Ken Wahl as an undercover cop infiltrating the mafia, drew on the extended storylines of Michael Mann's Crime Story, but proved a huge influence on Sopranos creator David Chase, whose breakthrough came writing The Rockford Files.
Cannell was born in 1941 in Los Angeles but grew up in Pasadena. His father ran a furniture business. His dream of becoming a writer was made difficult because of what was later diagnosed as dyslexia. His turnaround came when a creative-writing professor at the University of Oregon encouraged him not to worry about his spelling but to concentrate on telling a story. After graduating, he wrote scripts while driving a delivery truck for his father, and a sale to the series It Takes a Thief led to scripting for other Universal Studios shows like Ironside, and a job as story editor on the Jack Webb-produced LA cop show Adam-12.
His creative juices were spurred by his deal at Universal, which paid him the Writers Guild minimum for series scripts but huge fees for pilot episodes. One of his pilots, written with Roy Huggins, grew out of a character he'd created in an episode of the detective show Toma, who became Rockford. The Rockford Files ran from 1974-80. The next year, he borrowed the disguises which were a feature of Toma and turned Robert Blake into Detective Tony Baretta in Baretta, another big hit.
Another characteristic of Cannell shows was the use of the automobile as a character-definer, like Rockford's Camaro, or Baretta's car, the Blue Ghost. Cannell hit his stride after setting up a production company in 1979. Tenspeed and Brown Shoe was an off-beat flop which gave Jeff Goldblum his first break, but The Greatest American Hero (1981-83) could be seen as the forerunner of many current superhero dramas. In Hardcastle and McCormick, race-car driver "Skid" McCormick's car is more of a character than he is.
In 1983, Cannell brought these elements together in The A-Team, a larger-than-life parody of Mission Impossible complete with big vehicles, bigger explosions and Mr T as BA Baracus. At one point in the mid-'80s, Cannell had six one-hour dramas on network prime-time. Among his other hits were 21 Jump Street, which brought The Mod Squad up to date and introduced a young actor named Johnny Depp. Wiseguys was one of the rare Cannell shows which pleased the critics while not becoming a huge hit, but another offbeat series, The Commish, ran from 1991-96, alongside Renegade, which mixed The Fugitive with Chuck Norris-style action, and Silk Stalkings, a take on Hart to Hart.
Cannell occasionally directed, wrote for other series, and acted, with a recurring role in Renegade and, alongside the novelists James Patterson and Michael Connelly, as one of the poker buddies in Castle. He also hosted US Customs Classified. In 1995 he published his first novel, The Plan, following up with six more thrillers and nine novels featuring LAPD detective Shane Scully. The 10th Scully book, The Prostitutes Ball, is due to appear. In 2009, he was featured in a documentary, Disleksia.
Cannell is survived by his wife Marcia, whom he began dating at 13, two daughters and a son. Another son died in 1981, aged 15, in a beach accident.
Stephen Joseph Cannell, television writer, producer and actor: born Los Angeles 5 February 1941; married 1964 Marcia (one son, two daughters, one son deceased); died Pasadena 30 September 2010.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies