Stephen J. Cannell (1941-2010) was one of the most prolidic screenwriters and producers in modern times, having written more than 400 scripts for television. This makes him one of the most influential figures the entertainment industry has ever had. Today would have been his 81st birthday had he lived.
His creations include The Rockford Files, The A-Team, Tenspeed and Brownshoe, Hunter,and Stingray. He was a role model for dyslexiacs, proving an inability to spell didn’t affect his ability to imagine and compose. At 6’1″ Cannell was a big man, with an even bigger imagination.
His contributions to science fiction/fantasy TV were the superhero show, The Greatest American Hero, about a schoolteacher who is given a supersuit by aliens, but loses the instruction book, and Disney’s ghost adventure, The Hundred Lives of Black Jack Savage, about a cheating millionaire who teams up with the ghost of a pirate to save one hundred lives to make up for the hundred murders Jack committed as a pirate and thus keep Jack’s spirit out of Hell, and not coincidentally try to avoid going Down Below himself.
His more mundane shows included Baretta, Black Sheep Squadron, Hardcastle and McCormick, 21 Jump Street, Renegade, and Palace Guard.
He also wrote scrpts for shows he neither created nor produced: Mission: Impossible, It Takes a Thief, Ironside, Toma, and Colombo, He was also story editor for the classic police show Adam-12 and wrote fifteen episodes for it.
Cannell was best known for action-adventure shows and mysteries, and specialized in creating characters that had a job to do. Sometimes it was private detectives, like in Riptide. Sometimes it was police, like The Last Precinct and The Commish. He also wrote WWII drama such as Black Sheep Squadron. Many of his heroes worked outside the system: The A-Team, Hardcastle and McCormick, and Stingray. Stingray was the show where the hero solved other people’s problems by trading favors.
“I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I was 16 years old; it was my dream in high school to be a writer and novelist. In my high school yearbook under ambition it says “author.” I always thought that being an author wasn’t writing television scripts; it was writing books, but because of my learning disability — my severe dyslexia — I never really felt that I would be able to achieve that ambition. But it was my ambition.
I was lucky enough when I was in college to run into a writing instructor — his name was Ralph Salsbury. He was the guy who turned all the lights on for me. It’s so incredible when you have somebody, a teacher, that can completely change the whole direction of your life. Which is what this guy did. He gave me such a great gift. He told me — he convinced me, actually — that despite all my bad spelling and everything that I had a talent. He said, “You know, you may not ever be a professional writer Steve, but this should always at least be an avocation for you. You should never stop writing”. Thank you, Professor Salisbury, for encouraging the young Stephen Cannell. If not for you, we might not have dozens of our favorite shows.
Advice for Writers
“Having a support system is huge for writers. My parents were always encouraging and told me they were behind me, whether or not I made it in the business. My wife was always there for my successes and failures. It’s easy to find hundreds of reasons to quit writing. Surrounding yourself with people that want you to succeed helps you to write on.”
He ended up writing eighteen novels, and won an Emmy two Writer’s Guild Awards, two Edgar Award Nominations and has a star on the Hollywood Blvd. Walk of Fame.
Stephen Joseph Cannell passed away on December 30, 2010 in Pasadena, California. He was survived by his wife Marcia, two daughters, Chelea Cannell and Shawnia McKiernan, and his son Cody Cannell. He was predeceased by his son Derek in 1991; Derek was only 15.
Stephen J. Cannell has contributed so much to modern popular culture that so long as there are reruns and DVDs exist, his name will be revered.
Susan Macdonald is the author of the children’s book “R is for Renaissance Faire”, as well as 26 short stories, mostly fantasy in “Alternative Truths”, “Swords and Sorceress #30”, Swords &Sorceries Vols. 1, 2, & 5, “Cat Tails” “Under Western Stars”, and “Knee-High Drummond and the Durango Kid”. Her articles have appeared on SCIFI.radio’s web site, in The Inquisitr, and in The Millington Star. She enjoys Renaissance Faires (see book above), science fiction conventions, Highland Games, and Native American pow-wows.