Television's Busiest Producer
Stephen Cannell celebrates his company's 10th year by adding two new series to three already running
WHAT do ``Wiseguy,'' ``Hunter,'' ``21 Jump Street,'' and the new fall TV series ``Booker'' and ``Top of the Hill'' have in common? They are all the creative offspring of Emmy-winning producer/writer Stephen J. Cannell. His last name rhymes with channel, and well it should. His series are on all the networks, and reruns of his ``Rockford Files,'' ``The A-Team,'' ``J.J. Starbuck,'' and ``Tenspeed and Brownshoe'' are on many channels.
This fall, the producer/writer has weekly hour-long series on NBC, CBS, ABC, plus two more on Fox Broadcasting. In terms of the number of hours on the air - five hours of prime time this season - his is the second largest independent company in the business.
``I formed my company in 1979,'' Mr. Cannell explains in an interview, ``so I would have creative control. Three years ago, I started the Cannell Studios.''
His studio has surpassed the $800 million production mark. Last month he opened North Shore Studios in Vancouver, Canada, where most of his shows will be filmed. The facility will also rent space to other producers. ``It will be Canada's largest full-service production facility,'' he says proudly.
But ``don't get the idea I'd forsake my first love, writing,'' he continues. ``I still take off time from running the studio to go to my writing hideaway. I'm at the typewriter - yes, I still use one - at 5 a.m. and finish at 1 p.m. Then I'm back at the studio to see if there are any fires that need to be put out.''
His studio is the only one I've encountered that is run by a writer for writers.
``I'll get an idea, write a pilot, and then get opinions,'' he says about his method of working. ``I don't want someone to agree with me just because my name is on the roof. There are writers in my building who read the script. Sometimes they flip; other times they respond, `I don't think this works.'
``On one level, I don't like to hear that; you feel wounded. On the other hand, it pleases me that people feel that secure in our company to say what they think.''
Cannell doesn't believe in fighting - with his co-workers or with the networks. As he explains, ``If you come on strong, the other person gets entrenched in his position, and you in yours. What have you got? A deadlock ... nothing. I try to keep that knot from getting tied. When I sense things are getting hot, I jump in with `Whoa, let's talk for awhile. There's always a solution.'''
The writer/producer had a lot of untying to do when he tried to sell ``Wiseguy'' to every network in town and was turned down - until last season.
It wasn't any easier working for six years to interest a network in a series on a young congressman. That series, ``Top of the Hill,'' finally debuts on CBS this season, starring William Katt.
Mr. Katt believed in the show so deeply that he quit ``Perry Mason,'' where he played the young detective, made the pilot, and then had to wait another year before it sold. That's the kind of loyalty Cannell inspires.
SIX years ago, Cannell's 15-year-old son, Derek, was killed in an accident. It was a hard time for Stephen, his wife, Marcia, and their three other children.
Marcia Cannell went back to school, and this year received a master's degree in family counseling. As she explained, ``I wanted to be able to help other families who had lost a child, and this seemed one way of doing it.''
``It's hard to comfort each other,'' Cannell admits, ``for each is grieving in a different way and at a different time. One day I went to my typewriter and began an episode called `Go for the Rainbow,' for `J.J. Starbuck,' which starred Dale Robertson.
``It was a father-son story, and as I wrote I began resolving a lot of my feelings. By the end of the script, tears were coming down my face.
``Isn't this an amazing way to make a living? I can have this kind of an emotional experience by myself, just putting these words down on a page. In a lesser degree, I feel it with every script.''
Soon after the loss of his son, the network cancelled Cannell's first show, ``Tenspeed and Brownshoe,'' after 13 weeks. He kept writing, however, even though finances were tottering, and he gradually came up with a string of winners: ``The A-Team,'' ``Riptide,'' ``Hunter,'' and ``22 Jump Street.''
After graduating from college, Cannell worked at his father's decorating firm until 5 p.m., then would go home to his bride and write until 10 p.m.
He sold a story idea to ``Mission Impossible,'' but it wasn't until four years later that he sold a script for ``It Takes a Thief.'' Then he quit the firm and began writing full-time.
He submitted a script to Universal for the ``Adam 12'' series, and they were so impressed by the unique story line and dialogue that they asked him to serve as head writer on the series.
A contract with Universal had him co-creating ``The Rockford Files,'' then ``Baretta,'' and ``Baa Baa Black Sheep.'' He made lasting friendships with the stars of each series, James Garner, Robert Blake, and Bob Conrad.
Recently, he took over Chasen's, Hollywood's landmark eatery of the stars, and celebrated his company's 10th anniversary. ``The great thing about this business is I feel just as excited today as when I first started writing. When I get to the place when I'm doing it just to be doing it, that's when I've got to change directions.
``Looking back on those 10 years, I've learned to take responsibility for myself. Don't blame your failures on others.
``The best rule is still the Golden Rule,'' Cannell adds. ``If you are functioning in the way that allows you to treat others the way you want to be treated, good things come.''