Sunday, October 03, 2010

Stephen Joseph Cannell 1941-2010 R.I.P.

Did you ever play superheroes? Myself and my buddy did that a lot. He had a blue shirt so he was Superman and I had a red one so I was The Greatest American Hero and we'd team up. I think I got the better deal because The Greatest American Hero was a lot cool than Superman, because he was on TV every week and wasn't like a "God" and was just an ordinary schmuck without his suit. which made him more interesting. After The A-Team came along in '84, I gave up being a superhero and embraced the world of guns. I wore a plastic gun on my person at all times for years. So to say that Steven J. Cannell, writer/producer and creator of both series had an influence on my childhood is an understatement, and it is with profound sadness I must announce his death at age 69 from melanoma.

Cannell was born in Los Angeles, California, and raised in a mansion in Pasadena by parents, Carolyn and Joseph, who owned a chain of furniture stores. He struggled with dyslexia in school, but graduated from the University of Oregon in 1964 with a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism. Cannell spent four years working with the family business before selling his first script to the Universal series It Takes a Thief in 1968. He was quickly hired by the television production branch of Universal Studios and was soon freelance writing for such other crime shows as Ironside and Columbo. Not long after he received his first full-time gig as the story editor of Jack Webb's police series Adam-12.

Cannell subsequently created or co-created nearly 40 television series, mostly crime dramas including but not limited to memorable shows like:
- 21 Jump Street where a group of young looking undercover cops infiltrated life in American high-schools and colleges to fight crime there, the show that launched Johnny Depp.
- Baa Baa Black Sheep an extremely loosely based chronicle of the exploits of real life Marine Corps fighter ace Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington played by Robert Conrad.
- The Commish, where Michael Chiklis plays an unorthodox police commissioner who balances catching criminals with a hectic family life.
- Hardcastle and McCormick where Brian Keith as a superior court judge enlists ex-con/race car driver played by Daniel Hugh Kelly to help him catch all the criminals that got off on technicalities.
- Hunter where Fred Dryer played a physically imposing, and often rule-breaking homicide detective with the L.A.P.D.
- Renegade featuring Lorenzo Lamas as a cop framed for murder who goes on the run and becomes a bounty hunter.
- Stingray [not to be confused with Gerry Anderson's puppet nonsense] which starred Nick Mancuso as a mysterious man who "helped people in trouble" in a 1965 Corvette Sting Ray.
- Wiseguy with Ken Wahl as an undercover agent of the FBI infiltrating organised crime gangs in a series which was one of the first to present the idea of "story arcs" to audiences and focusing as much on the sometimes unpleasant consequences of the protagonist's actions as on the mechanics of the detective work.
and of course the legendary:
- The Rockford Files, starring James Garner as Los Angeles based private investigator Jim Rockford who only handles closed cases and would just as soon duck a fight as swing his fists.

One of the most memorable thing about Cannell's shows was that his production company logo was very different from his contemporaries but easily the most memorable of all. The famous logo features him typing, before throwing the sheet from his typewriter whereupon it animates to become his company logo against a black screen. It was often updated, the main differences being Cannell's clothes and the constantly growing number of awards on the man's shelves in his office. Early examples are also notable for Cannell smoking a pipe as he types. The arrangement of the logo itself has been parodied on both The Simpsons and Family Guy.

Cannell sometimes tried his hand at acting, he had a cameo as himself in an episode of Diagnosis Murder but he hilariously portrayed himself as an over-the-top producer of action TV. He also had a recurring role on his own show Renegade and more recently made appearances in the Castle TV series along with novelists James Patterson and Michael Connelly, who happen to be Castle's poker buddies. In the 2000s, Cannell turned almost all his attention to writing novels. He wrote 17, half of which featured the character of detective Shane Scully of the L.A.P.D. His 17th and final novel The Prostitute's Ball is due for release on Oct 12.

Stephen J. Cannell has left an indelible mark on the history of action, adventure and crime on the small screen and will be sorely missed but through the legacy of his abundant work he will always live on in thousands of hours of TV broadcast in many countries worldwide daily.

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