By 1983, Stephen J. Cannell, creator of The Rockford Files, Baretta, TenSpeed and Brown Shoe, and Greatest American Hero, had earned a reputation as one of television's foremost writers of well-shaded, brilliantly flawed, stubborn individuals, and as the medium's most doggedly prolific practitioner.
But in 1979, he had sunk his assets into Stephen J. Cannell Productions, and now, four years later, he was badly in need of a hit.
Fortunately, his friend Brandon Tartikoff, president of NBC's entertainment division, had a series idea. But getting to the root of it would take some doing.
“Brandon's pitch was very strange,” Cannell remembers. “He said, 'Have you seen The Road Warrior with Mel Gibson?' I said yeah, Mad Max. He said, 'Yeah, but the idea, it's not that. Have you seen The Dirty Dozen?' I said, yeah, Lee Marvin. 'Well, it's kinda that, but, like Road Warrior, it's kinda not that.' And he said, 'You know that guy Belker on Hill Street Blues?' I said, yeah, the cop that bites everybody at the booking desk? He said, 'Yeah, he could be in this show. And you remember Mr. T from the Rocky movie?' And I said yeah. And Brandon said, 'Well, he drives the car.' And that was the pitch.”
When Cannell's writing partner, Frank Lupo, wondered, “What the hell is he talking about?”, Cannell said, “I think Brandon's saying to us, 'Just break all the rules you know and make a really out-there show with different kinds of leading men that you've never seen on TV before.' And in three hours, Frank and I created The A-Team.”
Cannell has spent a 38-year career breaking rules and creating characters that defy cliché, becoming a worthy recipient of the honor that bears the name of his close friend.
The friendship makes this Legacy Award that much sweeter for Cannell.
“Brandon meant a lot to my life,” he says. “He came along at exactly the perfect time in my career and was such a great guy on top of everything that he made working with him so much fun.”
Adds Stephen Bochco, a Tartikoff honoree last year, “We all grew up together; we were contemporaries, Brandon, Stephen and I. I can't think of anybody more deserving of that kind of association by award than Stephen. They shared many qualities: talent, honesty, sense of humor and incredible loyalty.”
Along with citing the great respect and affection Tartikoff had for Cannell, NATPE President/CEO Rick Feldman says Cannell fits the Legacy Award mold because “we look to honor independent thinkers, people who sometimes buck the system as need be, maybe zigging when other people are zagging.”
Cannell has long done that, driven by a love for, and dedication to, the craft of writing that is positively monk-like: He writes for at least five hours a day, almost every day. He has done that for more than 40 years.
“I was so impressed with his ability to write, and later on I was impressed with how fast he could write,” says Cannell's Rockford star James Garner. “God, he could turn out scripts.”
Cannell's dedication and unparalleled success springs from an unexpected source: his severe dyslexia, a condition that went undiagnosed until he was 33.
“That's responsible for pretty much everything right that has happened in my life, which is an interesting thing to say about a condition that caused me so much trouble,” he says. “It was a really hard thing to go through, but once you get through it and if it doesn't destroy you, you end up being comfortable with failure. Dyslexia made it possible for me to get up every morning and go to it again.”
After receiving encouragement from a college writing professor at the University of Oregon, Cannell had the courage to stop driving a truck for his father's successful furniture business and begin writing full time.
After five years of toiling, he sold scripts to Ironside, It Takes a Thief and Adam-12, where he was soon offered the job of head writer at age 28. It was the start of an incredible string of hits in Hollywood.
The list of shows he created would pack a résumé impressive enough for 10 careers: Hunter, Riptide, Hardcastle & McCormick, 21 Jump Street, Wiseguy, The Commish, Renegade and Silk Stalkings are among the highlights of his post–A-Team career.
In all, he has scripted more than 450 episodes and produced or executive-produced more than 1,500 episodes. And Cannell Studios, which he began in 1986, owns the worldwide distribution rights to more than 1,000 hours of Cannell-produced series and TV movies. The list of fellow writers and producers who honed their chops working for him is equally impressive and includes Bochco, David Chase (The Sopranos) and Don Bellisario (NCIS, JAG).
In the early 1990s, inspired by a longstanding dream of being a novelist, Cannell began applying typical vigor to what amounted to a new career. He released The Plan, the first of his 13 novels, in 1996 and has since produced the popular line of Shane Scully novels. Another book he's writing with Janet Evanovich comes out next fall.
“I never cared about the money; I came from a wealthy family and fortunately never had this terrible concern about dough,” says the 65-year-old dynamo. “For me, all of this energy toward doing this work was about having fun. The joy is in the process.”
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