‘Over-performer’ Stephen J. Cannell takes over mystery book writing much the way he conquered episodic TV
By Carl Kozlowski 03/11/2010
Stephen J. Cannell’s sonorous voice commands your attention while his expressive face and darting hands can keep you focused for hours at a time. These storytelling skills have served the fit and energetic 69-year-old television icon well, enabling him to convince America’s network executives to buy more than 40 of his TV series during a four-decade career that earned him numerous awards, including an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series for “The Rockford Files.”
In addition to Jim Rockford, played by James Garner, Cannell’s created many other memorable TV characters for shows such as “The Commish,” “Hardcastle and McCormick,” “The Greatest American Hero” and the ultimate badass group of all television — “The A-Team.”
Despite his mastery of the TV game, the lifelong Pasadena resident and devoted family man has shifted professional gears, authoring 15 crime novels over as many years, with nine titles built on the adventures of Los Angeles private detective Shane Scully.
All 15 of his released novels (with two more ready to go) have been New York Times best sellers, and that’s not likely to change with the release this month of Cannell’s newest Scully novel, “The Pallbearers.”
Cannell will be appearing this weekend at the Left Coast Crime Conference at the Omni Hotel in Los Angeles, where he’ll be discussing and signing his new tome — a story that has the hardboiled Scully facing some rough memories following the murder of his childhood mentor.
“My initial idea was to go back and deal with that part of his life that I had talked about in several of the novels but hadn’t really detailed. I had said that he was from a group home and decided to show the first chapter as a prologue, as a child, and show who Walter Dix was as a surrogate father for him,” explains Cannell. “I knew Walter was going to be a murder and not a suicide, so I started looking on the Internet for group-home incidents like corruption and graft, which led me into my plot. I wanted to show this guy who had given Shane and the other kids so much by reaching out to them and at the same time to be able to explore Shane’s early life and why he is who he is.”
The book also features bad guys who are mixed martial artists (MMAs), which is one field that Cannell knew little about. An incredibly disciplined and physically fit man, Cannell gets up at 4 a.m. each day and works out before engaging in a day of writing and meetings. His schedule is so intense that more than 25 years ago his wife, Marcia, insisted that he hire a driver so he could maximize his work time en route to his Hollywood Boulevard offices and get home at a reasonable time to be with his family.
“I was looking for some heavies at the front of this story that would be really frightening. I wanted some people at the beginning of the story who could pose a real threat to Shane and the pallbearers,” says Cannell. “They train all day long. It was almost like human cockfighting. I did speak to some MMA fighters before I wrote the book. It’s a very competitive field, and most don’t make much money.”
Cannell landed an unexpected bonus from his immersion in the world of ultimate fighting. It was there that he met heavyweight champion Rampage Jackson, who went on to become the choice to replace Mr. T as B.A. Baracus in the June feature film version of “The A-Team.” (Mr. T is in talks over a possible cameo in the film.)
That “The A-Team” is finally making it to the big screen after more than 20 years off the air has already created enough buzz to make the film a prime candidate as one of the summer’s leading box office moneymakers. The cast includes Liam Neeson, flexing the action-star cred he earned with last year’s “Taken,” as John “Hannibal” Smith, a role made famous by George Peppard. The cast also includes “District 9’s” Sharlto Copley as the lunatic “Howling Mad” Murdock, a role originated by Dwight Schultz, and “Hangover” star Bradley Cooper filling the shoes of Dirk Benedict’s smooth-talking “The Face.”
With all the money and effort behind the revival, it’s interesting to hear Cannell describe the freewheeling nature of the show’s conception.
“It was [former NBC chief executive Brandon] Tartikoff’s idea and he called me over and said I want you to create a show called ‘The A-Team,’ and I thought, oh my God, it’s right on the nose,” says Cannell. “He said, remember ‘Road Warrior?’ It’s like that, but not that. Remember Belker [actor Bruce Weitz, who did not appear on the show], that crazy guy on ‘Hill Street Blues’ — that guy could be in the show. And you know that guy, Mr. T in the ‘Rocky’ movie? He drives the car.’
“And that was the pitch. I was with [long-time producing partner] Frank Lupo. We went to the commissary and I said, ‘What the hell was that?’ And I said, ‘I think he’s telling us to break all the rules.’ I always wanted to do a show on soldiers of fortune and this was a chance to just cut loose and include everything from an invisible dog to rescuing an entire Mexican village. That was a huge show as it developed one hit after another and was the start of the NBC dynasty. We lit up that time period and gave them a promotion base, and the network roared.”
Over the years, Cannell has won accolades for his writing, including the Saturn Life Career Award in 2004, the Marlow Lifetime Achievement Award from Mystery Writers of America in 2005, the WGA Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television Writing Achievement in 2006, the NAPTE Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award in 2007 and the 2008 Final Draft Hall of Fame Award, recognizing entertainment industry leaders who foster the art of screenwriting and nurture and inspire the creative process.
Considering all the success he has enjoyed and the impact he’s had on American pop culture, it’s interesting to note that Cannell nearly took an entirely different career path: following his father and taking over his interior design and furniture business. Cannell, who is dyslexic, worked extra hard at writing while working for his dad throughout the first four years of his marriage to his eighth-grade sweetheart. Cannell stayed up late into the evenings banging out scripts for TV, sending them out to agents and learning from the rejection notices how to improve.
“I’d come home every night and I wrote for five hours, had a snack and wrote from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., and then had dinner. I’d work a half day as a writer on Saturday and a half day on Sunday. It was a high priority on the list of things I wanted to accomplish and I put it ahead of fucking around and going to the beach,” says Cannell. “I put it up there with my wife and kids. I believed in the concept of over-performing. I believe anyone can achieve their goals in life if they over-perform; that means you have to work 10 times harder than anybody you see. My agent would get me a meeting with a producer tomorrow and I’d say, ‘No, a week from tomorrow.’ She didn’t get it, but I wanted to get ready all day long for eight days for one 45-minute meeting.”
All the hard work eventually had a downside on his personal life. Once he got the chance, Cannell decided to establish his own television studio, competing against the likes of Universal to fill network airtime. However, that didn’t leave enough hours in a day for him to keep as close to his family as he now wishes he had been.
“My wife is my best friend. She’s put up with a lot of bullshit because this is not an easy business to be in. But I’ve been a good husband, I did not cheat on her, I don’t play around,” says Cannell, turning introspective and facing the floor as he takes a moment to continue. “I lost a son. My oldest, Derek, died when he was 15 ½,” suffocating at a beach after a sand castle he was building collapsed on him. Cannell has two grown daughters, Tawnia and Chelsea, and a grown son, Cody.
“That was a huge wake-up call. I was doing ‘Greatest American Hero’ in 1981,” Cannell recalls. “I never missed his games, or plays, things that were important to him. But I was getting home late at night, missing dinners and going in on weekends. All the time I thought I’d catch up with him later on, but it never happened. So I stopped that. And with the rest of the four children I decided: I will be home with you every night for dinner. But I did burn out around 9 o’ clock because of getting up so early.”
Cannell credits his father’s example and his own strong Episcopal faith as a member of All Saints Church with his ability to stay strong amid the temptations and frustrations of Hollywood. He stopped producing for TV in the mid-1990s, when the networks’ pay rules changed and he found he would start making far less for all of his efforts on a new series.
The move freed him up creatively to pursue writing novels, as well as establishing a secondary career as a character actor. He has appeared in more than 50 TV series and films and currently has a recurring role as himself on ABC’s “Castle” — the very type of lighthearted mystery series that he once would have created himself.
“I’ve done the hard work for decades and I still work hard,” says Cannell, relaxing recently in his wood-paneled and lushly carpeted office. “But there is something to be said for creatively stretching and enjoying it all, mixing it up and keeping it fresh. I might return to TV one day again, but for now it’s all about keeping things fresh.”