Tribute: Remembering TV Producer Stephen J. Cannell

by | October 2, 2010 at 9:45 AM | Celebrity Deaths, TV News

Producer Stephen J. Cannell after receiving the Paddy Chayefsky Television Laurel Award in 2006. (David Livingston/Getty Images)

Producer Stephen J. Cannell after receiving the Paddy Chayefsky Television Laurel Award in 2006. (David Livingston/Getty Images)

Prolific television producer Stephen J. Cannell died last Thursday at his Pasadena home. Only 69, he succumbed complications from melanoma, his family said. In a way, the news didn’t surprise me. I interviewed Cannell in January 2009, and he was tanned the color of rich leather. With all the information about skin cancer, who does that anymore? Well, he did. But he was also a fitness buff who lifted weights and worked out every morning before sitting in front of his keyboard, a daily ritual he kept with monk-like devotion, though Cannell, as he readily admitted, was no monk. He relished the good life. He smiled as if he had figured out all of the secrets. Maybe he had. He kept a magnificent yacht in Europe (there was a photo of it behind his desk), and following our chat about his 15th novel and his prolific TV writing and producing career, he hopped on a private jet for a dinner in San Francisco. “It’s a good life,” he said. Cannell’s long career included writing in the 1970s for ‘Adam 12,’ creating ‘The Rockford Files’ and ‘The Commish,’ and producing ’21 Jump Street,” among others. Here are some excerpts from my interview with one of television’s great talents and good guys.

How did you break into the business of writing TV?
It took me five years of writing for five yours after a day at a regular job. I was married – I’m still married to the same woman – and I would sit down and write from 5 in the evening till around 10:30 at night. That was my life. I did that year after year after year. I wrote on the weekend, too – a half day on Saturday and a half day on Sunday. I wrote about seven hours. So it was a major investment in time. I really had this desire to do it.

Your first big regular job was on Adam-12. What’s your take on that show? I thought it was an amazing show. It informs most of what I’m doing still.

How so? I ended up getting very close to police work while I was doing that show. Jack Webb insisted that as the head writer of the show I would go out at least once a week in a squad car, and it was never in the Valley. He wanted me in University Division, Rampart, the tough spots. I got in a couple of shootings. I got in code 3 rides. I saw police work from the back seat of a squad car. And I developed an immense respect to what police officers do, how difficult that job is how much is required of them, and how criticized they are for doing something that’s almost impossible. As I said, it informs a lot of what I’m still writing.
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How did The Rockford Files main coming into being?
I was producing a show called ‘Toma,’ and we had been on strike. I came back in after the Writer’s strike and the network did not push back their premiere, and we didn’t have any lead time to get our scripts ready. We began to realize that our 5th episode of Toma was going to be in the lab – actually, it was still going to be getting developed – when it was supposed to be on the air. We had no post production time for it at all. So we went to ABC and said you’ve got to back up this and give us a little more lead time on these scripts and our post production. They said we can’t. We’ve got to get on the air. We went to Universal and we asked them to help us and they said we can’t help you because we’ve got this problem on six other ABC shows. We’ve got to hit the air date.

Roy Huggins was the executive producer on ‘Toma.’ One day I was walking behind him back from this meeting at the tower of Universal. I was 28 years old, in my first producing job. The 5th episode wasn’t going to be ready for its air date, and I thought I was going to lose my job. As we walked along, I said Roy, what do we do, what do we do? He goes, well why don’t we just create our own preemption. I said, can we do that? He goes, I don’t see why not. So he goes back to his office, sits down behind this desk, and he takes out the universal phone directory. He starts reading the phone directory. I’m thinking we’re in trouble, what is he doing? Who is he trying to call?
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He stops on a name and he says Tom Rockford. Do you like that name? And I went, yeah, it’s fine. We later changed it to Jim. And he says, okay, this thing is called The Rockford Files. And he said, Toma is going to get a case and it’s going to get closed by his Inspector Spooner, and he’s going to know it’s a murder. Even though Spooner thinks it’s a suicide and takes it away from him. So he goes to his friend Rockford who only handles closed cases, those are the files Roy tells me, and then we do the Rockford and we shoot it simultaneously with the 5th episode of Toma, shoot it on the air ahead of the 5th episode of Toma and we buy 7 days on our post production schedule and get that 5th promo on the air afterward.

And I’m going, that is so fucking – I said, can we sell – well let’s see. So he picks up the phone and he calls Steve Gentry at ABC, and Gentry says yeah, fine, that works. So now he says you’ve got 5 days to write this thing called The Rockford Files. I went home that night, and I don’t know – nobody has asked me who Rockford is. Nobody has asked me anything. Who is the character, what the story is? I mean, the network was in such chaos because of the strike. So I was thinking well who is this guy?

That night I happened to be watching an episode of Mannix, and in this episode of Mannix, a little black girl comes in and tries to hire Mannix because her mother is missing. She’s about 7 years old. And after she gives him this sad woeful tale about her mom being missing, she asks how much do you cost? He says, how much have you got? She opens this little plastic purse and dumps out some quarters and candy on his desk, and he goes, that’s just the right amount.

Sweet story, but I thought bullshit. I thought my guy is going to go wait a minute, hold it. Who sent you here? Did my father send…All of a sudden I’m starting to hear the dialogue of this guy. This guy is me if I’m a private eye. If I get threatened man, you can have my car, you can have my watch, you can have my wallet. Put the gun away, I’m not going to hurt you. I instantly had the take for how to do it. And so I start writing it. I had them running credit checks on the beautiful client. Her check bounces on him and all he wants to do, he said, you know your check bounced, and he’s talking about money all the time, and you know, he’s not like ‘Mannix’ at all. He would say, look I’ve got lights, I’ve got – hey lady I don’t work for nothing. Nobody on television had been saying stuff like that. And so I thought it was hysterically funny.

My script ballooned up to 90 pages from what it should have been, because all this comedy was in it. I brought it into Roy and like everybody, he turned to the last page and said the story pages are too long Steve. I go yeah, I know. I said you’ll just cut it for me Roy.

So he calls me at three in the morning and said it was the funniest script he had read in 5 years. And I said, well what are we going to do with the extra 30 pages? He said, we’re gong to shoot them. I said, well how are we going to do that? He said, we’re just going to shoot them. So we sent it over to ABC. They read the script and hated it. Hated it. We had the worst meeting there that I probably ever had in television, and it was early in my career. I thought I’ll never work again. Because I was just a new face in town. It was terrible. This desecrating piece of…Steve Gentry said, you can’t have a hero that runs credit checks on the vulnerable client and quits every time he’s threatened. His father thinks he’s a jerk, and I’m going no, no, his father thinks that he’s made a bad career choice. And they said, get all that out of there. And Roy said well we’re not cutting a word. And Steve Gentryr said, well then we’re not shooting, and Roy said suit yourself. And we left.

And I’m thinking oh fuck. I mean, my career. I was just trying to help out, you know, but I just got caught up in writing this character. God bless Roy, though. He knew it was gold. He knew it was gold. I didn’t think it was. I thought it was a good script. I thought it was funny, but I didn’t know it was gold. But he knew it was gold. Roy had done Maverick, and so he said, what you have written is a contemporary version of Maverick. He got this thing to Jim Garner, and Jim read and in 72 hours, and he agreed to do the part.

That was obviously key. He instantly saw it. So then the studio called NBC had said you’ve got a 90 minute movie, it’s called – because it’s now a 90, because it was 90 pages long. It’s called The Rockford Files. And it stars Jim Garner, yes or no? And NBC said, well send me the script. It sounds interesting. The guy at the studio said no. No, you can’t have this script. It’s called The Rockford Files. It’s 90 minutes long and it stars Jim Garner. Now tell me yes or no or we’re taking it to CBS. And finally J.J. McMann at NBC said okay, I’ll buy it. Send me the script. Well they hated it even worse than – but by then we had the order. They wanted to have story notes and rewrite shit, and Roy and Jim just said no. Jim absolutely refused. He said this is what we’re shooting. So it never would have been had it not come through that very strange process.
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What’s the story behind The A-Team? It was basically a concept that Brandon Tartikoff had and he sort of semi pitched to me. Frank Lupo and I took the bones of what Brandon was talking about, turned it into The A Team, went back and pitched it back at Brandon, and he bought it.

That’s funny. What was Brandon’s concept? We went over there to sell him something else and he said I don’t want to hear your idea. I want to tell you an idea. I said, okay. He said it’s called The A Team. Initially, I thought, gee I don’t like that title. It’s like as a football player – I was a serious high school player – I thought it just felt kind of athletic and sporty. I didn’t know what it was. But then he said, you remember Road Warrior, the Mad Max movie with Mel Gibson? I went yeah, yeah. He says, well it’s kind of that, but it’s not that at all. And he says, do you remember The Dirty Dozen? I went yeah. He said, it’s not a military show like that. Those skuzzy guys, Lee Marvin getting them out of jail and everything. There is something about it, but it’s not that. Don’t do The Dirty Dozen. And I went okay. Then he said, do you know the guy Belcher in Hill Street Blues? Bruce Weitz plays him. I said, yeah. He’s crazy, he bites guys at the booking desk. He bites them in the ankle like a dog. Brandon said, yeah, he could be in the show. And he said, you know that guy Mr. T. the corporate line guy in the Rocky movie? I go yeah. He drives the car.

Really. That was his pitch. And I said, well, okay. He said, see if you can work that up for me. So Frank and I left and we went down to the Universal Commissary. Frank goes what the fuck was he? It was my first meeting ever with Brandon, so I couldn’t read him as well as I learned to after we had done a lot of work together. But I said, I think this guy is telling us to break all the rules we know about leading men in television and about what an hour TV show should be. I said, I’ve always wanted to do a series about soldiers of fortune, those scuzzy guys that advertise in the back of mercenary magazines. Nobody – no network guy would ever let me develop that. But Brandon said to start there. So Frank and I sat there and we started to put these really desperate characters together. And we needed to come up with a pilot, because it was a mid season replacement show. Brandon was really out of time. He needed it tomorrow, you know. So we didn’t have time, so we said let’s just rip off a big Western – we came up with the Magnificent Seven. It was all plotted, we didn’t have to fuck with it. So that’s what we did. Frank and I pitched that to him a day or two later and he said that’s the show.