Stephen J. Cannell’s Greatest TV Achievement and How It Almost Didn’t Happen

Oct 12, 2010

stephen cannell.jpg

For any of us who have enjoyed TV since the 1970s, part of what we enjoyed was the work of Stephen J. Cannell, who died on Sept. 30–much too young at 69–of complications from melanoma.

He wrote more than 1,000 episodes of TV shows, and created or co-created some 20 TV series.

The list of shows he was responsible for, from “The Rockford Files” to “Baretta” to “The A-Team” to “The Commish,” is astonishing in its breadth.

With the sunset of the fin-syn rules, Cannell sold his production company, basically leaving the creation of TV shows to write novels, and he had a very successful second career doing so.

As The New York Times’ Bill Carter noted in his obituary for Cannell, “The Rockford Files,” which “was a hit for seven seasons, has since been credited with helping to signal a cultural shift away from the perfect physical and moral specimens of the movies and early television and toward more realistic heroes, the kind viewers had come to expect, given the harder-edged reality they saw on the evening news.”

Part of what made “Rockford” so popular was star James Garner’s easy-going wisecrack manner that the actor had perfected playing “Maverick” on TV years earlier, as well as the interaction Rockford had with the show’s great supporting players, including Noah Beery Jr. as Rockford’s dad, Stuart Margolin as the shady Angel, Gretchen Corbett as lawyer Beth Davenport, and Joe Santos as police detective Dennis Becker.

No doubt part of the sensibility we loved on “Rockford” stemmed from the show’s co-creator, Roy Huggins, who also created “Maverick,” “The Fugitive” and “77 Sunset Strip,” the latter being one of the shows that defined the word “cool” back in the late 1950s.

But I think Cannell’s greatest achievement was another show, whose concept was his alone. And it was a show that almost never made it on-air. And once it did finally get on-air, everyone wanted to keep Cannell’s vision of it from seeing the light of day.

The best person to tell this story is Cannell himself. The following is from the wonderful website that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has, its Archive of American Television that contains interviews of many TV luminaries, including Cannell. They interviewed Cannell in June 2004.

To begin his story, Cannell talks about a show he did not create, but for which he did write three episodes. It was back in 1980. The show was called “Stone,” starring Dennis Weaver as detective sergeant Dan Stone.

Here’s Cannell:

[It] was back when I was at Universal. I had written an episode of ‘Stone’ called ‘The Deep Sleeper.’ And what this episode was about was an undercover agent in the LAPD who had been put into deep cover in the L.A. criminal underworld.

And the idea was he was going to stay down for five to seven years with no contact and then come back and they were going to crash the whole underworld.

Well, he gets into the underworld and he ends up with a [Rolls-Royce] Cornish convertible, his children are at John Dye or Crossroads, he’s living in a mansion in Bel Air. But he’s really a $35,000-a-year guy, and all of a sudden he’s living like a prince. And it’s time for him to come home, and he doesn’t want to go. He doesn’t want to give up the lifestyle.

So that was the premise of this ‘Deep Sleeper’ episode of ‘Stone.’ And there were three people who knew he was undercover. One of them had died of natural causes. Stone was one of them. And the chief of police knew. So this guy has a job and he has to kill both Stone and the chief of police so he can remain undercover. And Stone manages to bust him at the end of the hour.

But I remember thinking at the time, what an interesting dilemma—to be a $35,000-a-year cop and to go undercover and being given all those things that the world says you should have—Ferraris, and Armani clothing and the right watches and rings and houses in the right neighborhoods—but you’re still really just a $35,000-a-year guy. What would that do to your sense of values and your moral compass?

It just intrigued me as a writer. So I came up with the idea of ‘Wiseguy.’

I would go and pitch it to the networks, and I’d say that I need 6 hours at least to tell one story [on the show]. Because as important as the plot is the seduction of [this cop who goes underground] Vinnie Terranova. That means the adversary has to be as important to the storytelling as the hero. And I need time. I just can’t have two scenes [with] the adversary … I need time to put the [adversary] face to face with the hero and have him seduce my hero, because that’s what this is about.

Well, the minute I would say I need five or six hours [to tell a story arc, the networks] would say, ‘Have you got anything else?’ And I’d then sell ‘Stingray,’ or I’d sell ‘Hunter,’ or I’d sell whatever else I had.

And I’d go to the next network and the same thing. I pitched it all over town. Five years I pitched that show. I’d pitch it at every place, and then I’d wait until somebody would get fired, and then I’d go pitch it to their replacement. Then somebody else would get fired, and I’d pitch to that replacement. And I couldn’t sell it.

Finally, Kim LeMasters showed up at CBS as head of programming, and he’d been an old friend of mine—I had done work with him in the past—and I went over and pitched it to him and he said, ‘That’s the best damn idea I’ve ever heard for a show.’ And that’s how I got it on CBS. I just found the right buyer. I found somebody who saw what I saw.

It was definitely different, and nobody wanted it for that reason.

So the show debuts on Sept. 16, 1987, with the first arc. In it, Terranova, played luminously by Ken Wahl, has to infiltrate and bring down a crime organization run by a character named Sonny Steelgrave, played, in a bravura performance, by Ray Sharkey. Cannell was asked if anyone had trepidation about ending the first arc. Again, Cannell:

Everybody but me. Ken Wahl didn’t want to lose Ray Sharkey. He loved acting with Ray. He’d call me up and say, ‘You’re ruining the show, man. You’re crashing the show. You drop Ray and we’re done.’

And Ray was working that on the other end. He wanted to stay aboard, so he was getting everyone to [call me]. The network was concerned, my other writer producers on the show were concerned. Everybody was telling me I was nuts. And I kept saying, this is my vision. I came up with this. None of you came up with this. I wrote the pilot. Actually I co-wrote the pilot with Frank Lupo. But it was from my concept, my story. [So I told everyone] I am going to do this [and end the arc].

And I was already writing the [next] arc. I had already written the first episode, which was called ‘The Independent Operator.’

And people were so angry with me for getting rid of Ray. And it wasn’t that I wanted to get rid of Ray. I could see what he was doing. But the fun of the show, at least to me, was to try and redevelop it every six weeks. That’s what made it challenging. Not to lock it in just to a crime story, which was the same heavy for a year. I didn’t think that worked, because after awhile you start saying, why don’t they catch this guy. But people didn’t want to let go of Ray.

So I sent in the first draft of ‘The Independent Operator,’ which was the first [episode] of the Kevin Spacey arc. We didn’t have Kevin yet, but it was the first hour of the Profitt arc. [Spacey plays drug smuggler Mel Profitt.]

I was at the beach. My writers and producers hated the script. They got in a car and came down [to the beach] to tell me that I was writing ‘Batman,’ because I had a scene in this thing where [a hood] Roger LoCocco who calls everyone ‘Buckwheat.’ They thought that was horrible.

There’s a scene where [LoCocco] takes Vinnie out and shows him a car. [LoCocco’s] sorta a hit man and no one knows who he belongs to and Vinnie is supposed to find out who this guy’s attached to. And the guy takes Vinnie out to this garage, and he’s got this old Dodge Charger and he’d put armor plating on the car, and he’s got submachine guns in the front lights, and he’d got a big Gatling gun in the trunk, so if cops are chasing him he can literally start firing the Gatling gun from the trunk and start taking out the grills of cop [cars].

I had gotten it from research. It’s called a work car. They had these things in New York. And they were used for bank holdups and stuff like that. And they had armor plating on the doors.

And [my] guys are reading this and saying this is like bad James Bond. And I said, no this isn’t an Aston, it’s an old primer painted Charger that looks like it belongs in a junkyard.

But we didn’t have any other script, and I was even halfway through the second script for the arc. We had to start shooting and I was really concerned because these were talented men and I thought if they hate this so much maybe I’m off the road here. But we cast it and shot it.

[Afterward] to their credit [all the guys] came in and said we apologize and said they we were so wrong and this is so bitchin’.

I think a lot of it had to do with trepidation over losing Ray, and I felt bad about that too, because I loved him, but this is what I wanted to do. This is what I had sold [to CBS].

Spacey was dazzling as Mel Profitt in the arc.

Cannell was right—the arcs are what made the show. Jerry Lewis, Paul Winfield, Patti D’Arbanville, Ron Silver; a whole host of talented performers in arcs that, for the most part, were smart and satisfying.

And while the ratings weren’t spectacular, it certainly proved that there was an appetite for what evolved into the limited series that’s been so successful on cable.

If you want to check out the first season of “Wiseguy,” which I highly recommend, you can find all the episodes, for free, on Hulu, if you click here.

At the end of the ATAS interview Cannell, who was 63 at the time, is asked what he thinks his legacy will be. Here’s what he said:

Oh, I don’t care. (repeats) I don’t care. You know what, I’m not about legacies and how people think about me when I’m gone. When I’m gone, I’m gone. I would hope that people would still read my books or look at my television, but if they don’t, (shrugs) that’s a choice.

I just don’t take myself that seriously. For me, all of those kinds of things tend to make you different than the person I am. I think when you start worrying about legacies, and how you are going to be remembered, it’s all about pretension, it’s all about how will they kneel at my altar when I’m gone. Who cares? That’s the way I look at it.

I’m just trying to do the best job that I know how to do every day, and I’m going to try and treat people in the most decent way I can. I’m going to try and live the Golden Rule. I’m going to try and treat other people the way I want to be treated, and when I fail to do that I’m going to apologize, and I do fail.

How it all comes out at the end?—you can’t force a legacy anyway, no matter how hard you try. If they don’t want to remember you, they won’t.

On that score, I don’t think Cannell has much to worry about. If you like TV, and care about great storytelling, you’re not likely to forget him.#

UPDATE, 8 PM, PT on Oct. 12, 2010…We found on YouTube the classy tribute to Cannell the folks at “Castle” ran at the end of their show on Monday, Oct. 11th:

16 Comments

  1. Agree wholeheartdly ;-)
    Reader from Germany => the reason the vote possibility does not work?
    I like the entry

  2. I was sorry to hear he had died. Our family watched anything with his name attached. We heard of his death by the dedication at the end of Castle.

  3. Thank you, Chuck Ross, for a little backstory about one of the entertainment industry’s true geniuses and good guys – Cannell and his work is simply unforgettable!

  4. Steven J., the best of the best. The man was amazing. Wrote all that, and dyslexic to boot. His staff adored him. They shielded and protected him like the national treasure he was. If every writer/producer had his class…yeah, fat chance.

  5. Thanks so much for this great story. I’m going to make a Cannell TV ToDo list and watch [re-watch] The Wiseguy.
    His talent will be missed for sure.

  6. While watching Castle last night I notice at the end Stephens famous showing ending and that is when I realize that he had passed away, it took me a moment to realize what it ment. We are coming to the close of an era and it made me sad to realize that, and it also made me smile because while he was here he not only entertained us but he made us day dream and think of the possibilities…. I will miss you Mr. Stephen Cannell and to his family and close friends do not be sad he has gone on to write the next chapter of his life

  7. “Nuf Said” brother. You can’t sell his stuff to anyone who was not already a fan retoactively because the tone of the shows and the culture of the era’s in which they aired is what made them so “hand in hand” brilliant! Only David E. Kelly and Aaron Sorkin can stand with Cannell.
    He will and should truely be missed.

  8. Stephen will be truly missed by those of us who wanted to be entertained. If reincarnation really exists, he may be back again down the road to continue what we all loved about his work.

  9. What a wonderful piece!
    I was so shocked and saddened when I learned of his death.
    As a WGA member, I had a chance several years ago to go see Stephen Cannell in a classroom setting at Hollywood High School, where, for an hour, we could ask him anything and everything about TV writing, the future of Hollywood writing careers, etc. He was insightful, candid, helpful, and very kind.
    So it’s not too much of a surprise of what he said about a legacy, because he was just doing his thing, but of course, in our eyes, his thing was HUGE.
    Wise Guys was my favorite show that he created. I especially liked the story arc in which Deborah Harry appeared. It was about a record company – well worth watching…again.
    I saw him pop up at the end of “Castle” last night.
    I’m certainly going to miss him, a lot.

  10. Dear family, friends and fans of Stephen J. Cannell,
    My condolences and prayers for your huge loss. He did leave us so many gifts…smiles, tears, laughter, family and friend bonding over Rockford Files, the A-Team, Wiseguy…..
    Thank you Chuck Ross and TV Week for this incredible writeup that will continue his storytelling mentoring and fantastic memories he created for us. I still remember loving to watch the story develop with Blondie and Glen Frey on Wiseguy!
    When I met Stephen J. Cannell at a Learning Annex class in LA and an author’s luncheon in Phoenix, wearing all black and “looking distinguished,” I told him, he seemed genuinely flattered. Not what you’d expect from a guy who’s created 20 TV shows.
    At the class, he explained how to write a screenplay in 3 acts and what goes where, just like your paragraph, below. Writing and creating excited him! He made it exciting for his students, too. He took the time.
    I love your paragraph above:
    I would go and pitch it to the networks, and I’d say that I need 6 hours at least to tell one story [on the show]. Because as important as the plot is the seduction of [this cop who goes underground] Vinnie Terranova. That means the adversary has to be as important to the storytelling as the hero. And I need time. I just can’t have two scenes [with] the adversary … I need time to put the [adversary] face to face with the hero and have him seduce my hero, because that’s what this is about.
    I’m volunteering with the AZ Entrepreneurship Conference and am an entrepreneur. Stephen J. Cannell was all entrepreneur. And all about helping others.
    I hope everyone reads your writeup. Who has not seen one of his shows?!
    He will be missed by many.
    I only learned from last night’s episode of Castle that he passed.
    I’m glad they said
    Stephen J. Cannell
    Colleague, Mentor, Friend.
    (with his famous pulling the paper out of the IBM Selectric that rolls into a C.)
    We’ll miss you, pal.
    Roseann Higgins
    Phoenix, AZ

  11. He gave us entertainment I could share with my dad, and he gave us a template for the writer/creator/producer that kept my mom saying, “Couldn’t you just do what Stephen Cannell does?”
    No, ma. But he did it well enough for all of us. Stephen, as soon as you get off the escalator, say hi to my dad. He’ll recognize you.

  12. I was 20 years old when Wiseguy premiered and Stephen J Cannell forever ruined most of television for me from that moment on. The Ray Sharkey plot was great but Mel and Susan Profitt!?! Well, Mel and Susan Profitt still give me goosebumps – - so darkly twisted and it was Kevin freakin’ Spacey doing the seducing. Wowza! Little of what’s out there to watch ever compared to Mr. Cannell’s genius, his storylines or his heart.
    He always seemed like a classy guy.
    Rest in peace and my prayers are with his family.

  13. Creepy or not creepy – Mel’s relationship w/his sister?? Thanks for the chance to hear about Stephen Cannell from Stephen Cannell. I’ve enjoyed him also as an author – his creativity will be missed, but he’s more than left his mark on this world.

  14. In the early eighties, Juanita Bartlett hired me for a new (and short lived) series and through her I met Stephen; he was that rare Hollywood commodity, the endlessly creative, generous, Hollywood writer producer who liked people! It was a marvelous initiation into Tinseltown, for in that idea stealing, back stabbing, duplicitous world there was this oasis of creativity and decency, centered around Stephen, Juanita, Frank Lupo, the great James Garner, Noah Beery Jr. In retrospect it was probably the happiest period of my time there.
    Some writers have really only one story. Stephen was endlessly fecund. When his son died at the age of 15 he was heart broken but remained a pillar for those around him. No man recovers from the loss of a child but it is how he endures that is, perhaps, the deepest measure of the man. He had a golden spirit and a talent for friendship. He was good, creative and happy.
    It was a privilege to know you Stephen! My love and condolences to all the family

  15. Thanks for your kind remembrances of Steve, John. Working with you on Quest was a true pleasure for him and for me as well. We had a lot of fun….Jo Swerling

  16. They shielded and protected him like the national treasure he was. If every writer/producer had his class…yeah, fat chance.

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