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R.I.P. Steven J. Cannell: Feb. 5, 1941 to Sept. 30, 2010


One of Stephen J. Cannell's many TV credits, Fox's 21 Jump Street, starred a very formative Johnny Depp (left in group photo).

Note to readers: Stephen J. Cannell, who died Friday at age 69, was an A-list television producer/writer whose credits ranged from The A-Team to The Rockford Files to Wiseguy. In his later years, he also found time to write 17 novels. The below article, originally published on June 19, 1997, is tied to his third book, King Con (which in the end never emerged as a planned feature film starring John Travolta). Cannell, who was in Dallas promoting the crime novel, also talked candidly about the state of the TV industry and his attempts to do both a remake of Hawaii Five-0 and an earlier feature film version of The A-Team. Both productions later became realities with different names attached. That's show biz.

By ED BARK
Watch even a modicum of television and you'll probably get a glimpse of producer Stephen J. Cannell.

Envision a graying, goateed guy pecking at a typewriter. In an instant, a finished page flies through the air and informs viewers that he created the preceding show. Give him an hour of your time and he's given you action-accentuated series such as The A-Team, Hunter, Wiseguy, The Commish, Silk Stalkings, Hardcastle & McCormick, Riptide, The Greatest American Hero, 21 Jump Street and Renegade, where he also hired himself to play a recurring character named Dutch Dickson. (He also wrote scripts for The Rockford Files, but never got the majordomo executive producer credit on that series.)

Lately though, Cannell is doing man-and-his-typewriter poses from the back of graphically written hardcover novels. His third, King Con, already is earmarked as a feature film starring John Travolta as a hustler named Beano X. Bates. If he plays the role as written, Travolta will be on the end of a savage beating within a few minutes of the opening credits. A nine-iron swung at point-blank range can be a "chip shot from hell" when the ball is Beano's jaw.

Writing explicitly for the printed page "isn't liberating for me in any way," Cannell demurs during a stop in Dallas. "It's just that I'm now able to write closer to what I hope is real . . . Maybe I'm a better novelist than I ever was a screenwriter."

Cannell writes his novels in increments spread over a year's time. And he always begins them on April Fool's Day, which seems "pretty appropriate" to him.

His first book, a political thriller titled The Plan, was published in spring 1995. ABC wanted to develop it as a miniseries, but the network's continuing game of executive musical chairs has waylaid any best-laid plans.

A year later, Cannell's Final Victim, about a serial killer, began moving toward the top of best-seller lists. This time he bypassed TV and made a movie deal with Morgan Creek Productions.

Cannell had a full-blown juggling act going by April Fool's Day 1996. It went like this: 15 days' work on King Con, during which he wrote a rough draft of the first 150 pages; fine-tuning the screenplay for Final Victim, which is still in the casting stage; shooting a Hawaii Five-0 pilot for CBS starring Gary Busey; a "couple of small acting gigs" and then back to King Con.

"I like to put the books away and go do something else," Cannell says. "Then when I come back, it's like somebody else wrote it. So I can look at it with really clean eyes and see where I screwed up."

His publisher, William Morrow and Co. Inc., briefly had him seeing red when initial shipments of his book were missing pages 121-152. Authors hate it when that happens.

"I freaked," Cannell says. "The computer must have hiccupped and grabbed the wrong chapter" when Morrow bound the books.

Filming of the pilot for a new CBS version of Hawaii Five-0 also had its downs and downs. Busey was "having bad nosebleeds while we were making it," Cannell says. He subsequently underwent surgery for a "plum-sized" tumor in his sinuses. Meanwhile, Hawaii Five-0 is beached.

Cannell's most famous TV series, The A-Team, is still on track to become a feature film with an all-new cast, he says. "It's going to be a little straighter. It's not going to be the cartoon the TV show was."

Cars rolled, punches flew, guns blazed but no one died on The A-Team. It likely would be rated TV-14 (children under 14 cautioned) under the current parental guidelines, which probably will be revised soon to include additional letters for sex, violence and language. Cannell gives Congress an F for forcing this issue and threatening legislation if the television industry balks.

"It's just real easy for these bozos in Washington to jump all over TV," he says. "I'd be perfectly willing to support all of this if they'd get off their rusty dusties and do something about what's really wrong with our society. If they'd shut the damn border down, if they'd devote some energy to knocking drugs out of our inner cities, if they'd do something about education. But you can't fix those so easily. It's easier to get rid of Churck Norris (star of the TV-14-rated Walker, Texas Ranger). I find the hypocrisy just baffling."

Adding letter grades for program content will give TV advertisers even more reasons to run scared, Cannell contends.

"They're basically a very frightened community. If there's anything that might bring any sense of regret on the part of the sponsor, they'll bail out on you and leave the networks with unsold spots that they have to give away at the last minute. That will hurt the overall profitability of a show and might cause the network to cancel it."

The prolific Cannell doesn't have anything to cancel at the moment. He's without any new or returning series on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN or The WB. And he's still miffed about Profit, his critically acclaimed 1996 series about a decidedly dark-hearted businessman. Fox quickly cut its losses and canceled the show when the early ratings spelled Profit and loss.

"It wasn't a clone of something else. It was completely fresh and needed time to grow," Cannell says. "Fox had a gold mine on their hands and they panicked . . . It really upsets me when I see a show go on the air and then get yanked after one or two episodes. If CBS is going to put on Public Morals (an adult comedy cop series from Steven Bochco that was canceled after one episode), then they should believe in the damn thing. They shouldn't air it once and then -- boom! -- it's gone."

That said, he empathizes to a point with today's harried TV executives. Increasingly beholden to mega-corporations, they are under immense pressure to score quick touchdowns in the Nielsen ratings.

"This business is running a lot faster now than it used to. The guns are cocked -- bang! -- like that. And these executives are getting threatened by people telling them, 'Hey, we want results.' Still, the way you bring people back to the TV set is to give them dramas or comedies that you can't live without. And those things do exist," he says, mentioning ER, Friends and The X-Files.

Cannell at heart is still a television maven who likely will step to the plate again and again in search of another big hit. But with several feature films in development and a fourth novel, about domestic Chinese crime, in its early stages, he can afford to put TV out of sight, out of mind.

"I don't turn away from anything. I'm a player," he says. "But I'm mot just going to do a show to do a show. I've created or co-created 40 of them. I don't need to get another one on the air for my emotional well-being."