Saturday, 2 October 2010

Stephen J. Cannell RIP

TV Producer Cannell Dies

For three decades, Stephen J. Cannell was television's most prolific presenter of car chases, stunts and shootouts.

Mr. Cannell, who died Thursday at age 69 of complications from melanoma, created dozens of series, including "The Rockford Files" in the 1970s, "The A-Team" in the 1980s, and "Silk Stalkings" in the 1990s. Through his A-Team character B.A. Baracus, played by Mr. T, he introduced the phrase "I pity the fool."

Mr. Cannell's productivity was the stuff of legend. He created or co-created more than 40 shows and scripted 450 episodes from a beat-up IBM Selectric. He appeared pulling a sheet of paper out of the typewriter in a brief "vanity card" at the very end of some shows.

Not content to merely churn out scripts, Mr. Cannell in 1979 established an independent production company. He later opened Cannell Studios to shoot the series he wrote. At their height, his enterprises employed 2,000 people.

Mr. Cannell grew up in Pasadena, Calif., where his father was owner of an interior design firm. He attended the University of Oregon on a football scholarship, and after college worked moving furniture for his father's company. At night, he began writing freelance TV scripts, and in 1968 sold his first, an episode of "It Takes a Thief." He soon became an editor on the police show "Adam 12," and a protégé of the series creator, Jack Webb.

In 1974, together with "Maverick" creator Roy Huggins, he created his first series, "The Rockford Files," starring James Garner. The show was a new angle on the private investigator genre, portraying the hero as disheveled and living non-glamorously in a trailer on the beach. When he punched people, he sometimes broke his hand. The show was a hit on NBC, and Mr. Cannell was off and running, creating "Baretta" in 1975, "The Greatest American Hero" in 1981, "21 Jump Street" in 1987, and "The Commish" in 1991, with lesser hits in between. Most of his shows featured outcasts or oddballs as protagonists, and nearly all were heavy on action.

The National Coalition on Television Violence once complained that it found 34 offensive acts an hour on "The A-Team," versus seven on other prime-time series. Mr. Cannell responded, "The A-Team is not to be taken seriously."

Mr. Cannell's profusion of words and action was perhaps doubly astonishing because Mr. Cannell suffered from dyslexia. He said that he typed phonetically and was a terrible speller. He felt that the condition improved his visual imagination.

Syndication rules that required networks to purchase many of their shows instead of creating them were abolished in 1993, and Mr. Cannell's business suffered. He began scaling back his production company and reinvented himself as a novelist. His 16th mystery, "The Pallbearers," appeared in March, and a 17th is slated to be published later in October.

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