TV producer Stephen J. Cannell created 40 shows
STEPHEN J. CANNELL | 1941-2010: ‘A-Team,’ ‘Rockford’ chief was also a prolific writerOctober 2, 2010
He’ll be remembered for the unforgettable characters he created — Jim Rockford, Hannibal Smith, the Greatest American Hero, the Commish — but producer Stephen J. Cannell was just as colorful as his characters.
Despite a struggle with severe dyslexia, he managed to become a staggeringly prolific novelist and writer. He had a hand in creating nearly 40 television shows, including “The Rockford Files,” “The A-Team,” “Wiseguy,” “21 Jump Street” and even the flashy “Silk Stalkings.” Mr. Cannell, 69, passed away Thursday night at his home in Pasadena, Calif., from complications associated with melanoma, his family said Friday.Stephen J. Cannell, who signed off on every show with his signature typewriter routine, died Thursday at age 69.
During his TV heyday, Cannell became familiar from the logo that followed each of his shows: a shot of him in his office typing on his IBM Selectric, from which he would rip a sheet of paper from the typewriter’s carriage. The paper then morphed into the C-shaped logo of Cannell Entertainment Inc.
“He had a way of creating characters and backing them up with scripts — they were characters the audience could really identify with,” says Walter J. Podrazik, the Chicago-based co-author of Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television. “He comes from an era when the writer-producer was king.”
Judging by the success of the mob drama “The Sopranos,” Mr. Cannell’s 1987-90 series “Wiseguy” was ahead of its time. It starred Chicago-born actor Ken Wahl as an undercover agent who infiltrated organized crime. “People say, ‘How can the guy who did “Wiseguy” do “The A-Team”?’ I don’t know,” said Cannell in an interview with the Associated Press in 1993. “But I do know it’s easier to think of me simply as the guy who wrote ‘The A-Team.’ So they do.”
Joe Swerling, the supervising producer for Mr. Cannell’s company, commented, “I’ve never known anybody, or read about a character in fiction or in the pages of the news, that was anything like him. He was good-looking enough to be a leading man in films, and he was the world’s nicest person. He had a big ego, but there’s a big difference between someone who has a big ego and an egomaniac. He deserved to have a big ego because — and I know this is a cliche — he was a giant among men. If he didn’t have a big ego, there’d be something wrong with him.”
Swerling says something else set Cannell apart: “He’s the only writer I ever knew who actually enjoyed the act of writing. For most people, writing is very lonely and painful. Steve could play the typewriter like a piano. He was very manic, very upbeat. When he hired me, he told me, ‘My policy here is, if it isn’t fun, it isn’t worth doing.'”
Whenever he came through Chicago on book tours, he stopped in at the WGN-AM (720) studios for “The Steve & Johnnie Show.”
“He could walk down Michigan Avenue and turn heads,” remembers Johnnie Putman, co-host of WGN’s all-night show. “He was tall and lean and wore black clothes from head to toe. Black cowboy boots and silver hair. Your first impression was, ‘wow.’ “
“Even guys would have kind of a man crush on him,” says Steve King, the other “Steve & Johnnie” co-host. “He was masculine, cool. It was like you were instant friends with him.”
Mr. Cannell started his career writing scripts for “It Takes a Thief,” “Ironside” and “Adam-12.” He had a reverence for the history of television that showed in one of his episodes of “The A-Team,” recalls Podrazik: “Robert Vaughn by that time was a regular on the show, and Cannell actually staged the episode like ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,’ with Act 1, 2, 3, 4 [title cards], the swirling camera. He understood what was so much fun about watching TV.”
Mr. Cannell’s writing was about nonstop action, but with a wink. “Those were series that make really good use of the dialogue they have,” Podrazik says. “There is a sense of humor there.”
“I never thought of myself as being a brilliant writer, and still don’t,” Mr. Cannell said in the AP interview. “I’m a populist. With ‘Rockford,’ we were never trying to be important. And as thoroughly hated as it was by critics, I loved ‘The A-Team.’ I thought it was really cool.”
He was a producer of the feature film updating of “The A-Team,” released earlier this summer.
Putman and King say Mr. Cannell wrote out his scripts longhand. Dyslexia didn’t stop him from writing books, either. His 16th novel, The Prostitute’s Ball, is scheduled for release this month.
Younger viewers may recognize Mr. Cannell’s face rather than his work; he played one of the poker buddies on ABC’s “Castle.”
But his own shows always ended the same way: with a shot of him typing on his Selectric and then ripping a sheet of paper out of the typewriter.
I met him at a book signing at the Museum of Television and Radio – creator of my favorite childhood show, Greatest American Hero, and the groundbreaking, literate Wiseguy. A wonderfully generous and warm man.
In this week’s New York Times Magazine article about video games in the classroom, Sara Corbett asks:
What if teachers gave up the vestiges of their educational past, threw away the worksheets, burned the canon and reconfigured the foundation upon which a century of learning has been built? What if we blurred the lines between academic subjects and reimagined the typical American classroom so that, at least in theory, it came to resemble a typical American living room or a child’s bedroom or even a child’s pocket, circa 2010 — if, in other words, the slipstream of broadband and always-on technology that fuels our world became the source and organizing principle of our children’s learning? What if, instead of seeing school the way we’ve known it, we saw it for what our children dreamed it might be: a big, delicious video game?
We’ve invited James Paul Gee, an expert on how video games fit within an overall theory of learning and literacy (and how they can help us in thinking about school reform), to take readers’ questions this week.
Here is how Ms. Corbett introduces Mr. Gee and his work in “Learning by Playing”:
James Paul Gee, a professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University who grew interested in video games when his son began playing them years ago, has written several seminal books on the power of video games to inspire learning. He says that in working through the levels of a complex game, a person is decoding its ‘‘internal design grammar’’ and that this is a form of critical thinking. ‘‘A game is nothing but a set of problems to solve,’’ Gee says. Its design often pushes players to explore, take risks, role-play and strategize — in other words putting a game’s informational content to use. Gee has advocated for years that our definition of ‘‘literacy’’ needs to be widened to better suit the times. Where a book provides knowledge, Gee says, a good game can provide a learner with knowledge and also experience solving problems using that knowledge.
Please leave your questions about teaching and learning with video games in the comment section below. Mr. Gee will post his answers to a selection of reader questions on Sept. 20.