Cannell, Stephen J. 1941–
Cannell, Stephen J. 1941–
(Stephen Joseph Cannell)
PERSONAL: Born February 5, 1941, in New York, NY; son of Joseph Knapp and Carolyn (Baker) Cannell; married Marcia C. Finch, August 8, 1964; children: Derek (deceased), Tawnia, Chelsea, Cody. Education: University of Oregon, B.A., 1964. Religion: Episcopalian.
ADDRESSES: Home—CA. Office—Stephen J. Cannell Productions, 7083 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90028.
CAREER: Television producer, director, and writer. Universal Studios, Hollywood, CA, story editor, 1966–79; Stephen J. Cannell Productions, Hollywood, CA, chief executive officer, beginning 1979; founder of Cannell Studios, 1986. Creator, producer, and director of The Rockford Files, NBC, 1974–80. Creator and producer of numerous other television shows, including Chase, NBC, 1973; (with Juanita Bartlett) The Greatest American Hero, ABC, 1981–83; (with Lawrence Hertzog and Babs Grayhosky) J.J. Starbuck, NBC, 1987; (with Patrick Harsburgh and Steven Beers) 21 Jump Street, Fox, beginning 1987; (with Frank Lupo) Wiseguy, CBS, 1987–89; and Sonny Spoon, NBC, 1988. Producer of television shows, including Dr. Scorpion, ABC, 1978; The Gypsy Warriors, CBS, 1978; The A-Team, NBC, 1983–86; Hunter, NBC, 1984–91; and Wiseguy, CBS, 1987–91. Executive producer of television series, including The Quest, ABC, 1982; (with Jo Swerling, Jr. and Frank Lupo) Riptide, NBC, 1983; The Rousters, NBC, 1983–84; (with Patrick Harsburgh) Hardcastle and McCormick, ABC, 1983–86; and The Last Precinct, NBC, 1986. Executive producer of television pilots, including Richie Brockelman: The Missing Twenty-Four Hours, NBC, 1976; Stone, ABC, 1978; (with Alex Beaton) The Night Rider, ABC, 1979; Boston and Kilbride, CBS, 1979; Nightside, ABC, 1980; Brothers-in-Law, ABC, 1980; Stingray, NBC, 1985; Broken Badges, CBS, 1990; Palace Guard, CBS, 1991; and Disney Presents the 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage, NBC, 1991. Director of television show Tenspeed and Brownshoe, ABC, 1980. Has appeared on television shows, including Charlie Hannah, ABC, 1986; Scene of the Crime, CBS, 1991, 1992; and Silk Stalkings, USA, 1992.
MEMBER: Writers Guild of America, Producers Guild, Directors Guild.
AWARDS, HONORS: Mystery Writers Award, 1975; Emmy Award for outstanding drama series, 1978, for The Rockford Files; Lifetime Achievement Award, Global Association of Independent Television, 2000; Saturn Award for lifetime career achievement, 2005; four Writers Guild Awards.
The Rockford Files (also see below), National Broadcasting Co. (NBC), 1974.
(With Stephen Bochco) Richie Brockelman: The Missing Twenty-Four Hours, NBC, 1976.
Scott Free, NBC, 1976.
Dr. Scorpion, American Broadcasting Companies (ABC), 1978.
(With Philip DeGuere) The Gypsy Warriors, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), 1978.
The Jordan Chance, CBS, 1978.
Stone, ABC, 1978.
The Night Rider, ABC, 1979.
Boston and Kilbride, CBS, 1979.
(With Glen A. Larson) Nightside, ABC, 1980.
Brothers-in-Law, ABC, 1980.
(With Herbert Wright) Stingray (also see below), NBC, 1985.
Booker, Fox, 1989.
UNSUB, NBC, 1989.
Top of the Hill, CBS, 1989.
Broken Badges, CBS, 1990.
Palace Guard, CBS, 1991.
The Commish, ABC, 1991.
Disney Presents the 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage, NBC, 1991.
Also author of television pilot The Dark.
Columbo, NBC, 1971.
Chase, NBC, 1973.
Toma, ABC, 1973.
The Rockford Files, NBC, 1974–80.
Baa-Baa Blacksheep, NBC, 1976.
Baretta, ABC, 1978.
The Greatest American Hero, ABC, 1981–83.
The Quest, ABC, 1982.
Riptide, NBC, 1983.
The Rousters, NBC, 1983–84.
Hardcastle and McCormick, ABC, 1983–86.
The A-Team, NBC, 1984.
Hunter, NBC, 1984.
(With Frank Lupo) The Last Precinct, NBC, 1986.
Stingray, NBC, 1987.
(With Lawrence Hertzog and Babs Grayhosky) J.J. Starbuck, NBC, 1987.
(With Lawrence Harsburgh and Steven Beers) 21 Jump Street, Fox, 1987.
(With Frank Lupo) Wiseguy, CBS, 1987–89.
Sonny Spoon, NBC, 1988.
Also contributor to numerous television series, including It Takes a Thief, ABC, and Adam-12, NBC.
Thunder Boat Row, ABC, 1989.
The Great Pretender, NBC, 1991.
Dead above Ground, 2002.
Hunter: Return to Justice 2002.
Hunter: Back in Force, 2003.
The Plan, Morrow (New York, NY), 1995.
Final Victim, Morrow (New York, NY), 1996.
King Con, Morrow (New York, NY), 1997.
Riding the Snake, Morrow (New York, NY), 1998.
The Devil's Workshop, Morrow (New York, NY), 1999.
Runaway Heart, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2003.
"SHANE SCULLY" SERIES; NOVELS
The Tin Collectors, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2001.
The Viking Funeral, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2002.
Hollywood Tough, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2003.
Vertical Coffin, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2004.
Cold Hit, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2005.
(And producer) It Waits (teleplay), 2005.
(And producer) Demon Hunter (screenplay), 2005.
(And producer) The Garden (screenplay), 2005.
(And producer) The A-Team (screenplay), 2006
(And producer) The Tooth Fairy (screenplay), 2006.
(And producer) Left in Darkness (screenplay), 2006.
ADAPTATIONS: Cold Hit has been adapted as an audiobook, St. Martin's Press, 2005; film rights to Riding the Snake have been optioned; film rights to Cannell's unpublished manuscript Love at First Sight have been optioned.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Producing the mystery movie The Yellow Wood.
SIDELIGHTS: Stephen J. Cannell has made a name for himself as one of television's most prolific purveyors of escapist programming. His success has been based on creating shows featuring a mixture of action, quirky characters, and disdain for authority. Among his hits have been The A-Team, Riptide, 21 Jump Street, and Wiseguy. The success of his action-packed programs led Harry F. Waters and Janet Huck of Newsweek to dub Cannell the "Merchant of Mayhem."
Cannell began his Hollywood career by selling a script for the television series It Takes a Thief, which featured Robert Wagner as a debonair jewel thief coerced into working for a secret government agency. Encouraged by the sale, Cannell rented a small office on the old Goldwyn Studios lot. He eventually entered into a lucrative creative arrangement with Universal Studios and, in 1979, formed his own production company. While many of Cannell's programs have been criticized for the violence inherent in their plots and protagonists, others have been praised for their innovative depictions of society's renegades. Cannell's response to his critics is simple and to the point. "I make television as well as I can make it," he told Waters and Huck. "If someone can make it better than me, then he should do it."
Although Cannell suffers from dyslexia (a learning disability that affects a person's ability to read), he has not let the condition hamper his writing career. While growing up, however, Cannell had a much more difficult time dealing with his disability. "I wrote backwards and couldn't spell," he related to Waters and Huck. "I was perceived as a dumb kid." After struggling through college, Cannell went to work for his father's interior design firm; he also wrote television scripts on the side and began collecting rejection slips from various studios. Finally, after four years of work, Cannell's efforts began to pay off. Executives at Universal Studios were so impressed by one of Cannell's submissions that they made the young writer a script editor.
While at Universal, Cannell worked on a number of the studio's most popular television series, including Adam-12 and Columbo. His first big creative and commercial success came in 1974, when he wrote and developed the detective series The Rockford Files. The show's plot revolved around Jim Rockford, a private eye who had gone to prison for a crime he did not commit. As played by actor James Garner, the Rockford character deviated from the "traditional" private eye mold in a number of ways: he lived in a trailer on the beach instead of a swanky apartment, had trouble finding work, and often found dealing with friends and family troublesome. Perhaps Rockford's biggest appeal lay in his vulnerability. He broke his fists in fistfights, fell hard for the wrong women, and had a hard time collecting his fee; he also ran afoul of law enforcement types on a regular basis. Audiences and critics responded enthusiastically to Cannell's awkward hero, and the show ran for six seasons.
After writing and producing a number of other shows in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cannell scored a major success again in 1984 with The A-Team. Following Cannell's established pairing of action and anti-heroes, The A-Team featured four unlikely protagonists—Colonel Hannibal Smith, Face Man Peck, B.A. (Bad Attitude) Baracus, and "Howling Mad" Murdock. (There was also a female member of the group, played first by Melinda Culea and later by Maria Heasley, who rarely participated in the actual team escapades.) On the lam from a military tribunal, the four adventurers advertised themselves as "guns for hire," taking on only the most hopeless of cases. Many critics lambasted the show, largely due to the number of violent acts the stars engaged in per episode. According to Jeff Jarvis of People magazine, the National Coalition on Television Violence "found thirty-four offensive acts per hour on The A-Team (versus an average of seven on other primetime series)." Despite these numbers, both the show's stars and Cannell himself defended the series. "I may be conservative about law and order, but I don't believe in vigilante justice," Cannell told Jarvis. "We don't have guys being blown away in slow motion. It's a fantasy…. The A-Team is not to be taken seriously."
Cannell followed The A-Team with three more hits: Riptide, featuring the adventures of two handsome detectives, their nerdy sidekick, and a pink helicopter; Hardcastle and McCormick, which explored the often explosive relationship between a hardliner judge and his ex-con assistant; and Hunter, in which a "Dirty-Harry"-type male police detective was paired with an equally trigger-happy female partner. All of these shows offered a heavy dose of escapism mixed with the requisite car chases, shoot-outs, and stunts. In the midst of all this overt action, Cannell created what many critics have considered his best series, Wiseguy. Wiseguy told the story of Vinnie Terranova, an undercover government agent who specialized in infiltrating organized crime. Unlike most hour-long television series, Wiseguy was presented in story "arcs," where assorted characters appeared in a succession of limited episodes with a finite plotline. Because of this format, Cannell and his writers were able to present a number of colorful characters and stories at a more leisurely pace.
Aside from its plot design, Wiseguy was also unique in that the series' villains got as much screen time as the good guys. The first season featured three well-drawn criminals: mob boss Sonny Steelgrave and drug merchants Mel and Susan Profitt. From the start, the relationship between Terranova and Steelgrave was complex and riveting. Steelgrave was a mobster who covered his nefarious dealings with a veneer of corporate respectability; Terranova's undercover assignment was to become part of Steelgrave's world and, if possible, get enough information to break his organization. During the course of his assignment, however, Terranova begins to see Steelgrave as both a friend and mentor—a factor that leads to tragedy, betrayal, and death. The Profitt twins presented an equally interesting challenge for the young agent. Incredibly rich and mentally twisted, Mel and Susan slowly seduce Terranova into their world, to the extent that the agent becomes a trusted family confidant and Susan's lover. Ultimately, the creaky facade of the Profitts' world crumbles under the weight of its own corruption, and Terranova once again finds himself torn between the demands of his government bosses and the people whose lives he has entered.
Wiseguy was conceived and written quickly, with Cannell and co-creator Frank Lupo working against a very stringent network deadline. "We told CBS that we would have the script to them on a Friday," Cannell told Elvis Mitchell in Rolling Stone, "and I'm in here writing an episode of something else…. CBS is calling: 'When can we have the script?' And I'm doing one of those famous Hollywood tap dances—'The dog ate my homework; it needs a little rewrite; there's nothing to be worried about.'" The extra time spent on preparing the Wiseguy scripts paid off; because they insisted on fine-tuning all aspects of the show, Cannell and Lupo were able to more fully develop the series' very important secondary characters, such as Terranova's gruff boss, Frank McPike, and hit man/government agent Roger Loccocco. In the process, they attracted a very diverse group of actors to the show, including Tim Curry and Jerry Lewis.
Many critics praised Wiseguy's mix of drama and action. Waters and Huck, for instance, called Wiseguy "deliciously weird … an irresistible case study for armchair shrinks." "Wiseguy has the straightforward rambunctiousness of the best American entertainment," remarked Mitchell. "[CBS] should be out banging pans and making blaring horns. Wiseguy deserves the noise." A reviewer for Variety concluded that the "production moves like an express train … despite the plethora of violence, there are human beings with feelings at work here."
Cannell's next police procedural was a broad departure from Wiseguy. 21 Jump Street was an update of the 1960s cult show The Mod Squad, which featured three unlikely—but very hip—police operatives who often operated on the fringe of society. Like its predecessor, 21 Jump Street highlighted the lives and case files of young undercover police persons. Under the watchful eye of gruff-but-caring Captain Fuller, Tom Hanson, Judy Hoffs, Harry Ioki, and Doug Penhall investigated crimes committed by and against teenagers. Because the nature of their work took them directly into high schools and teen hangouts, the team members often assumed false identities, with fear of detection keeping the show's tension at a high level. Many episodes focused on timely issues—gang violence, drug use, and AIDS—and the actors would sometimes step out of character at the end of the show to provide public service information.
Don Merrill, writing in TV Guide, noted that 21 Jump Street was "very professional and may be just the ticket for teens." A large part of the series' appeal to teens was the show's cast. By the end of the first season, Johnny Depp, who played officer Tom Hanson, had emerged as a major sex symbol. When Depp left the cast, he was replaced on a semi-permanent basis by Richard Grieco as detective Dennis Booker, a brooding, independent, good-looking loner. Cannell later capitalized on Grieco's smoldering appeal by giving the Booker character a show of his own. Despite Booker's reliance on certain Cannell trademarks—a moody, disaffected hero rebelling against "the system," timely references to issues, and lots of action—the show barely lasted a full season. "Stephen J. Cannell Productions has come up with a somewhat novel setting," concluded a reviewer for Variety, "but then it produces it as a very conventional detective series … shot full of plot holes."
The failure of Booker and the declining popularity of 21 Jump Street did not stop Cannell from developing new shows with an emphasis on law enforcement. Broken Badges was an odd mix of comedy and drama that featured a rather eclectic bunch of eccentrics united by a common thread: all of the main characters were cops removed from active duty because of job-related stress. The leader of this mismatched group was a wily, ponytailed Cajun detective with a big mouth and an even bigger problem following departmental procedures. He was assisted on cases by a pathologist with a split personality, a tough-talking blonde addicted to danger, and a compulsive liar/ventriloquist. New York magazine writer John Leonard called the show a "perfect midseason replacement," full of "leftover story concepts of half a dozen other action adventure series."
Leonard was much more receptive to The Commish, which featured an overweight, balding hero whose main fault was a deeply sensitive nature. Police Commissioner Tony Scali took every case personally; as a result, he spent as much time in the field as he did behind his desk. When not chasing leads, Scali was a loving family man who listened to opera, spent quality time with his children, and worried about communicating with the men under his command. "We know [Scali] cares," wrote Leonard in New York, "because he's so compassionate and because he has such a hands-on management style."
The success of shows such as Wiseguy and The Commish have made Cannell one of the most ubiquitous writers/producers in television history. The expansion of cable service has also helped open first-run markets for Cannell's riskier syndicated programs such as the edgy Silk Stalkings, which he executive produced. While Cannell has had his share of failures, many of his successes have helped redefine the action-adventure genre for the small screen. Not all critics see this as a good thing, however. Waters and Huck noted, "With scant exception, what rolls off Cannell's current assembly line seems perfectly attuned to TV's mass sensibility …, which raises the inevitable question of whether Cannell feels any responsibility for upgrading prime time's dismal air quality." Other critics have been less harsh, noting that Cannell's prodigious output provides the television audience with what they want: accessible entertainment. As summed up by Leonard, "television is [Cannell's] paint box…. If he ever looks over his shoulder, I imagine it's merely to shrug. He enjoys himself."
During the 1990s, Cannell challenged himself in a new genre by becoming a novelist. "I just love novels," he told Julia Keller in the Chicago Tribune. "The whole process of writing novels is more entertaining to me than television." Cannell proved his ability in his new role as novelist by producing a successful string of action thrillers, including The Devil's Workshop and King Con, and he also began a series featuring Los Angeles policeman Shane Scully.
Cannell's Riding the Snake concerns an idle Beverly Hills playboy named Wheeler Cassidy, whose chief interests are drinking, golfing, and adultery. He is forced to become a man of action after his brother, a highly respected lawyer, dies and his secretary is subsequently found dead as well. Cassidy's unofficial investigation leads him to Chinese organized crime in California and Asia. People reviewer J.D. Reed praised this book's "crackling cast" and "explosive climax." Cannell followed Riding the Snake with The Devil's Workshop, described as a "quirky new action-driven nail-biter" by a Publishers Weekly reviewer. The plot concerns biological weapons capable of being genetically engineered to ensure the decimation of specific ethnic groups. A top-secret test of this deadly weapon is uncovered by Stacy Richardson, a graduate student married to a microbiologist involved in the project. Stacy's race to save the world leads her to make some odd personal connections while exploring the nation's railroad yards. Booklist writer Eric Robbins noted that the novel "has its share of flaws," but concluded that many readers will nevertheless "enjoy the face-paced adventure."
Reviewing the first entry in the "Shane Scully" series for the School Library Journal, Carol DeAngelo called it an "exciting" story with "compelling" characters. Readers meet Shane Scully in The Tin Collectors. He is a sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department whose career has brought him many professional rewards. Shane is contacted by the wife of his ex-partner, Ray Molar. Barbara Molar believes that Ray is trying to kill her, and Scully can believe it. While saving Barbara's life, Shane kills Ray and is surprised to find that instead of being supported by the police department he is now a suspect in the theft of case files from Ray's home. Shane winds up working with Alexa Hamilton, an investigator in the Internal Affairs department, with whom he has previously been at odds. A Publishers Weekly reviewer found The Tin Collectors to be a cut above Cannell's previous writing: "Exhibiting a new sensitivity to his characters' emotional depth, Cannell continues to improve as a novelist."
In The Viking Funeral the author traces a developing romance between Alexa and Shane, and Shane's mental stability is questioned after he thinks he sees an old associate who was presumed dead three years ago. Alexa and Shane discover a group of rogue policemen, who have been formally removed from the force and call themselves The Vikings. Drugs, smuggling, and even the tobacco industry are all exposed as being part of a massive money-laundering operation. A Publishers Weekly reviewer advised that in this book Cannell displays "a bent for drama that will satisfy even the most jaded thrill lover."
Hollywood Tough is set in the entertainment industry, which is certainly familiar territory for Cannell. In this novel, Shane and Alexa try to catch an organized crime figure by sponsoring a film production. Through numerous twists and turns, Shane's investigation uncovers layer after layer of crime and corruption in Hollywood. Even gang warfare is brought into the story, when his adopted son, Cooch, is caught up in a battle over a huge heroin shipment. A Publishers Weekly writer commented on the author's sure handling of his setting, and found a "wry, subtle humor" in the detective story, which functions as a satire on Hollywood. The reviewer also praised the characterizations and action sequences, concluding that Hollywood Tough is "a winner." Booklist reviewer Wes Lukowsky also praised the novel as "an entertaining mix of thrills, humor, and street justice."
In the more recent installment Cold Hit, Shane runs into difficulties related to the Patriot Act, the post-terrorist-attack legislation that expanded the powers of the federal government. As he tries to solve a series of murders, he finds himself stymied on many levels because of the Act. Reviewing Cold Hit for Booklist, David Pitt credited the author with showing "added depth and a new stylistic panache" in the adventure series.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
America's Intelligence Wire, August 17, 2005, interview with Stephen J. Cannell.
Booklist, June 1, 1999, Eric Robbins, review of The Devil's Workshop, p. 1740; November 15, 2001, Wes Lukowsky, review of The Viking Funeral, p. 524; December 1, 2002, Wes Lukowsky, review of Hollywood Tough, p. 627; July, 2005, David Pitt, review of Cold Hit, p. 1875.
Chicago Tribune, September 28, 2005, Julia Keller, interview with Stephen J. Cannell.
Entertainment Weekly, June 13, 1997, Gene Lyons, review of King Con, p. 60.
Hollywood Reporter, October 26, 2004, Nellie Andreeva, "Cannell Awaits Green Light for 'Dark' on TNT."
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2001, review of The Viking Funeral, p. 1564.
Newsweek, March 12, 1984, Harry F. Waters and Janet Huck, "The Merchant of Mayhem," p. 91; December 26, 1988, Harry F. Waters, review of Wiseguy, p. 70.
New York, October 8, 1984, John Leonard, review of Hunter, p. 80; November 26, 1990, John Leonard, review of Broken Badges, p. 78; September 30, 1991, John Leonard, review of The Commish, p. 62.
People, January 30, 1984, Jeff Jarvis, "Vigilante Video: With Mayhem Every Minute, the A-Team Explodes to the Top of the Ratings, but the Fights Don't End When the Shooting Does," p. 62; June 23, 1997, Cynthia Sanz, review of King Con, p. 38; November 16, 1998, J.D. Reed, review of Riding the Snake, p. 47.
Publishers Weekly, June 2, 1997, review of King Con, p. 39; July 12, 1999, review of The Devil's Workshop, p. 73; November 27, 2000, review of The Tin Collectors, p. 51; December 24, 2001, review of The Viking Funeral, p. 44; January 13, 2003, review of Hollywood Tough, p. 42.
Rolling Stone, March 23, 1988, Elvis Mitchell, review of Wiseguy, pp. 41-43.
School Library Journal, May, 2001, Carol DeAngelo, review of The Tin Collectors, p. 175.
TV Guide, November 7, 1987, Don Merrill, review of 21 Jump Street, p. 48.
Variety, September 23, 1987, review of Wiseguy, p. 148; February 15, 1989, review of UNSUB, p. 98; October 4, 1989, review of Booker, p. 102; October 4, 1990, review of Broken Badges, pp. 103-104; April 15, 1991, review of The Great Pretender p. 205.
Video Age International, February, 2000, "Stephen J. Cannell to Receive GAIT "Lifetime Achievement Award," p. 3A.