The story of the man behind 40 of our most beloved TV series includng "The A-Team" and "The Rockford Files" - and his new career as a best-selling author
By Carl Kozlowski
Stephen J. Cannell writes in a concentrated rush, his pen stabbing the page as he sits behind the desk in his tastefully appointed office six stories above Hollywood Boulevard. His rapid strokes belie the thoughts racing through his head, of another tense scene in yet another thriller of his own creation. He asks a new guest to wait just a moment, but the words keep flying onto his notepad for another ten minutes before he unfurrows his famous eyebrows and declares himself finished.
The moment comes as a surprise, for as a TV producer who created more than 40 series including the blockbusters “The Rockford Files” and “The A-Team,” Cannell ensured that the public knew what the man behind the writing looked like. Each week, every episode of every series he produced ended their credits with a shot of Cannell typing briskly at a typewriter before flinging a completed page into the air. To see him turn even more retro by handwriting his next novel is a revelation, and a symbol of how the media giant has fully reinvented himself as a crime novelist whose books have proven to be as successful as his small-screen work.
In fact, just as 13 of Cannell’s series hit the blockbuster benchmark of five seasons on the air, so too have all 12 of his novels thus far managed to hit the New York Times best-seller list. His likely lucky number 13 is the new novel “Three Shirt Deal,” the sixth novel following another investigation in the adventurous life of Shane Scully , a rule-breaking and quick-witted LAPD Detective who uncovers a massive wave of corruption that ties together murderous cops, gang bangers, an LA mayoral candidate and the son of a powerful lawyer. While six of his novels have followed Scully’s adventures, the six others were stand-alone thrillers.
“Sorry, but you’ve gotta write it all the moment inspiration hits,” he says, bounding out of his chair and across the room filled with awards from his nearly 40-year writing career to offer a handshake that’s surprisingly strong for a 67-year-old.
That strength comes from both an inner focus that has driven the lifelong Pasadena resident to the heights of the television industry and from the daily 4 a.m. workouts that have propelled him through both his career and an unusually well-balanced private life that includes a 49-year marriage to his high school sweetheart Marcia and three thriving adult children (a fourth died in an accident at age 15 in 1981). It also comes from the core moral principles he learned from his father, who owned a successful furniture and interior design business but more importantly invested his son with bedrock moral principles that helped lift him head and shoulders above the stereotypically scandal-plagued denizens of Hollywood.
“My dad was my best friend, the most powerful and important relationship in my life with the exception of my wife. This guy taught me how to think, behave and be the right kind of person and I constantly try to live up to the high standards that he lived and he set for me,” recalls Cannell, who settles down to a daily five-hour writing regimen even before he heads to the office. “I had severe dyslexia and school was a really hard thing for me, but the idea of being a writer was something I really cherished and did well at in school.”
He’s done well with writing his entire life since then, reinventing the cop show formula of tough and stoic heroes solving cookie-cutter mysteries to incorporate characters whose quirks made them pop-culture standard-bearers rather than two-dimensional drones. But after building a TV empire by creating his own studio – taking on all the risks and rewards of his hits and failures rather than just drawing a nice salary from the big studios like David Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Legal) and Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) – Cannell chose to sell his studio in 1996 and reinvent himself as a novelist.
“I think novels are much more fun to write and the reason for that is you have the wonderful omniscient tool where you can go into a character’s thoughts, while everything in a screenplay has to come out of characters’ mouths,” explains Cannell, who developed his affinity for the crime genre because it was the easiest way to break in at his first studio, Universal. “The process is still the same, writing five hours a day. I draw my ideas by trying to make connections in real events that nobody else might catch, and weave those together into the fictional crime plots of my novels.”
Despite his using longhand to craft some of his writings, Cannell’s approach to marketing his novels is cutting-edge. At his websites, http://www.cannell.com/ and http://www.threeshirtdeal.com/, he has launched a four-part series of webisodes – short scenes that tie in with the novel and are intended to bridge the events of his previous novel ______ and the new one. Amid an age in which teens and twentysomethings are launching their showbiz careers with similar short episodic tales that can be viewed globally online, it shows that Cannell is still maintains a cutting-edge rather than curmudgeonly mindset.
Another site feature, “Shane Scully’s Tour of Duty,” features minute-long videos plus photos of prominent locations from each of the previous five Scully novels. The idea is to give readers an extra layer of entertainment while also offering a realistic setting for the tales as they unfold. In keeping with that spirit of always staying new, he names his fellow mystery novelists such as T. Jefferson Parker, Joseph Wambaugh, Dennis Lehane and especially Janet Evanovich rather than a list of dead authors when asked whose work he regularly reads and admires.
“I’m not a guy who goes on the Today Show and when Matt Lauer asks who else he’s reading only lists dead authors so they won’t knock me off the New York Times bestseller list,” laughs Cannell.
Just as Cannell doesn’t begrudge giving his competition an endorsement, his sense of loyalty extends far beyond his marriage and into the lives of his employees. For instance, he has had the same boat captain for his Mediterranean-based yacht for 23 years, and also kept his first secretary with him for 28 years prior to her retirement. But perhaps his closest employee is Michael Potter, who has served as Cannell’s personal assistant and chauffeur for 24 years and offers an inside glimpse of the producer’s private character.
“He started needing a driver because in those days he had six or seven shows on the air, and his wife suggested having a VCR in his car with a driver would save him 90 minutes a day as he watched dailies to and from home instead of stuck in the office,” recalls Potter. “It was born out of functionality, to reduce time away from his family, rather than a show of status. I believe that what happens in the limousine stays in his limousine, but I’m 56 and I’ve met five great men in my life. Stephen’s one and his father was another.”
Cannell’s desire to help others learn from his success even spills over into the interview, as he animatedly spells out the specific steps he would advise aspiring actors to take in launching their career and offers fascinating examples of others he has seen break the usual Hollywood career mold, including Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss.
“Over-preparing is the key to everything in life,” he says, when asked for his core philosophy. “You have to be so good and so much better than everyone else that no one can turn you down.”
That philosophy has paid off in spades throughout his novel-writing career, with reviews that have been appreciative beyond the confines of his genre. The Los Angeles Times stated about his first novel, “The Plan”: “Sharp dialogue, tight pacing…the work of a pro who hasn’t forgotten any of his old tricks” and the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted “Cannell certainly knows how to tell a story…You’ll probably read the entire book with a smile on your face.”
The novels are driven by the same strong moral codes that suffused his TV series and all his subsequent novels: most cops are good and the good ones will root out the bad ones through the system. Yet overall in Cannell’s TV series and books, America’s justice system still works and the people who work for it engage in truly heroic efforts, and the heroes like Scully who are married always stay true to their spouses. .
“I was raised Episcopalian and was confirmed at All Saints, but really my moral code comes from my parents. It’s one thing to have religious examples, it’s another to watch a man you respect and love live morally and see it works to be straightforward, not to lie, to live the Golden Rule,” he says, referring to his father. “I’m certainly not perfect in this regard at all, nobody is, but I try really hard in my own life to live by those same principles.
“Life’s all about choices. I also believe in prioritizing. Most people aren’t good at it. But if I decide I want to accomplish this goal, I will accomplish it.”
Cannell’s new novel “Three Shirt Deal” is in bookstores everywhere.