"I don't struggle because I was always the stupidest kid in the class and the idea that I would ever be brilliant was knocked out of me in the third grade. So I'm not sitting around trying to be brilliant, or Shakespeare. I'm just trying to get the work I have in my head down on the page in the best way I possibly know how without putting that horrible pressure on myself of saying 'I'm going to write it today and in 200 years at Princeton they will be studying these words.' Yeah, I want my stuff to be as good as I can conceivably make it, but I am not going to put that on my head."
About This Interview
Stephen J. Cannell (1941-2010) was interviewed for three-and-a-half hours in Pasadena, CA. Cannell talked about the challenges of battling dyslexia and using his innate storytelling ability to break into the television business. He described his work with Jack Webb on the series Adam-12 for which he served as head writer/ story editor. He discussed his continued work in series television as a creator/ producer, on such series as Toma, Baretta, Baa-Baa Blacksheep, and one of the biggest hits of the 1970s, The Rockford Files. For Rockford, he talked about creating the series, selling it to the network, and working with series star James Garner. He spoke in great detail about his hit series of the 1980s and 90s, which included The Greatest American Hero, The A-Team, 21 Jump Street, Wiseguy, and The Commish. Throughout the interview, Cannell spoke about his approach to storytelling and characterization as well as the processes involved in producing a series for television. The interview was conducted by Stephen J. Abramson on June 23, 2004.
STEPHEN J. CANNELL. Born in Los Angeles, California, 5 February 1941. University of Oregon, BA 1964. Married Marcia C. Finch, 8 August 1964; children: Derek (deceased), Tawnia, Chelsea, Cody. Began career as television writer in late 1960s, selling story ideas to Desilu Productions; joined Universal Studios as Head Writer, Adam 12, 1970; creator, writer, producer of other Universal action-adventure programs throughout 1970s; founded Stephen J. Cannell Productions, 1979. Recipient: Mystery Writers Award; 4 Emmy Awards; 4 Writers Guild of America Awards.
TELEVISION SERIES (writer-producer)
1970 Adam-12 1973 Chase 1973-74 Toma 1974-80 The Rockford Files 1976-78 Baa-Baa Blacksheep (The Blacksheep Squadron) 1978 Richie Brockleman, Private Eye 1979 The Duke 1980 Tenspeed and Brownshoe 1980 Stone 1981-83 The Greatest American Hero 1982 The Quest 1983-84 The Rousters 1983-86 Hardcastle and McCormick 1983-87 The A-Team 1984-86 Riptide 1984-91 Hunter 1986 The Last Precinct 1986-87 Stingray 1987-88 J.J. Starbuck 1987-90 21 Jump Street 1987-89 Wiseguy 1988 Sonny Spoon 1989 Unsub 1991 The Commish 1995 Marker 1996 Profit
Stephen J. Cannell emerged as one of television's most powerful producer-writers in the 1980s. A prolific writer, he would eventually also become a series creator, an executive producer, a director, a station owner, and the head of his own studio, Specializing almost exclusively in crime shows and action-adventures, Cannell's work, by its sheer volume, played a significant role in redefining the parameters of those genres. Early in his career, he created and produced programs with such other crime show auteurs as Jack Webb, Roy Huggins, Willlam Link and Richard Levinson, and Steven Bochco.
Like many other aspiring television artists in the 1960s, Cannell got his start at Universal Television, where he joined the writing staff of Adam-12 in 1970. After a few years of writing for several of the company's other series, he began to create and produce his own shows for Universal, including Chase, Baretta, City of Angels, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Richie Brockelman, Private Eye, The Duke, and Stone. The Rockford Files, which won an Emmy for Outstanding Drama in 1978, was by far his most commercially and critically successful series of this period. The show exhibited all the trademarks of the Cannell style: a facile blending of comedy and drama, up-to-the-minute contemporary vernacular dialogue, and a protagonist who was a likable outsider, in this case an ex-convict.
In 1979 Cannell left Universal to form Stephen J. Cannell Productions. He won a Writers Guild Award for Tenspeed and Brownshoe and achieved some modest ratings success for The Greatest American Hero, but it was The A- Team that established the company as a major force in Hollywood In 1983. Adding a heavy dosage of cartoon-like action to the familiar Cannell themes, The A-Team made Nielsen's top ten in its debut season. Three years later, Cannell had six series on the network prime-time schedule, including Hunter, Riptide, and Hardcastle and McCormick. Many critics who had praised The Rockford Files rejected this latest batch of Cannell's series, complaining that they were juvenile and overly formulaic. With the debut of Wiseguy in 1987, however, one of Cannell's shows once again earned critical respect for its intelligent dialogue, complex characterization, and occasional treatment of timely issues. Wiseguy also employed an innovative new narrative structure, the "story arc," whereby the season was in effect divided into several multi-part episodes.
In an effort to lower production costs, Cannell opened a major studio facility in Vancouver, British Columbia toward the end of the 1980s. One of the first series shot there was 21 Jump Street, the highest-rated show of the new Fox network's first season. Scene of the Crime, a mystery anthology series for CBS's late-night schedule, was also filmed in Vancouver and was hosted by Cannell himself.
-Robert J. Thompson
Christensen, Mark, and Cameron Stauth. The Sweeps. New York: Willlam Morrow, 1984.
Fanning, Deirdre. "What Stuff Are Dreams Made of?" Forbes (New York), 22 August 1988.
Freeman, Mike. "Man of the Hours" (interview). Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 25 January 1993.
Perry, Jeb. Universal Television: The Studio and Its Programs, 1950-1980. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1983.
Shindler, Merill. "Okay, Cannell, Come Clean." Los Angeles Magazine, October 1983.
Thompson, Robert J. Adventures on Prime Time: The Television Programs of Stephen J. Cannell. New York: Praeger, 1990.
Wicking, Christopher, and Tise Vahimagi. The American Vein: Directors and Directions in Television. New York: Dutton, 1979.