Saturday, October 2, 2010

Stephen J. Cannell Passes On

"In 1972 a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team." (The opening of The A-Team)

Prolific television writer and producer Stephen J. Cannell passed Thursday at the age of 69. The cause was melanoma.

Stephen J. Cannell was born on February 5, 1941 in Los Angeles, California. Throughout school Mr. Cannell suffered from dyslexia, which affected his performance at school and even resulted in him losing a football scholarship at the University of Oregon. Fortunately, a professor recognised his skill as a writer and encouraged him in his efforts. Stephen J. Cannell began trying to break into television writing.

Mr. Cannell made his first sale to television with a 1970 episode of Ironside. He went onto write several episodes of Adam-12, an episode of Columbo, and episodes of Toma. It was while he was writing an episode that he conceived of the character of Jim Rockford. Along with Roy Huggins (creator of such shows as Maverick and The Fugitive), Stephen J. Cannell created The Rockford Files. The series debuted in 1974 and ran for six years. Mr. Cannell would go onto create several series, including Baretta, Baa Baa Black Sheep, The A-Team, Hardcastle and McCormick, Wiseguy, 21 Jump Street, Silk Stalkings, and The Commish. He also served on producer on several shows, starting with an associate producer credit on the series Chase. He was also a producer on Toma and every show which he ever created (which was a considerable number).

It was in 1996 that Mr. Cannell sold his first novel, The Plan. Over the next many years he would publish sixteen more novels. Many of them centred on Shane Scully of the Los Angeles Police Department.

There can be little doubt that Stephen J. Cannell was one of the most successful writers and creators in the history of television. Granted, many of his series bombed (Stone) and some were not of a very high quality (Renegade), but the number of shows he created which were hits that were actually quite good is matched by only a few other television writers. With The Rockford Files he turned the private eye genre on its ear, with a detective who preferred wry humour to fist fights. With The A-Team he created the perfect popcorn TV show, a series with plenty of explosions and gunfire but no deaths. While many of his shows were escapist fare, Mr. Cannell could be versatile. Indeed, one of his shows was positively revolutionary. Wiseguy was the direct ancestor of serialised dramas such as The Sopranos, Lost, and Mad Men. Along with Roy Huggins and Sam Rolfe, Stephen J. Cannell created some of my favourite shows of all time. It is very sad he left us so soon.

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