Friday, October 1, 2010

RIP - Stephen J. Cannell

Stephen Cannell, the prolific writer and television producer whose greatest successes became part of a generation's pop cultural memory, has passed away from melanoma. He was 69.

In his early years, Cannell struggled with dyslexia, and eventually overcame the disorder well enough to become a sought after television writer in the late 1960s. After stints writing for Ironside and Columbo, he became the story editor for Jack Webb's police procedural series Adam-12.

While he had been working steadily, in 1974 he co-created what would be only the first of many mega-successful television series when The Rockford Files debuted. A charming series about affable if long-suffering ex-con turned PI Jim Rockford (James Garner), the series was a critical and popular favourite, buoyed by a central character that seemed to be the antithesis of the cliched hard-boiled cool PI. Rockford had the tried and true noble code, and he was definitely world weary, but he took far more punches than he gave, and lived in a trailer on the beach and was constantly getting a raw deal. The series became a beloved classic for its wit and reliably artifice-free style, combined with Garner's immense charm.

But it was by no means Cannell's sole hit, nor was it his sole hit big enough to indelibly leave its mark on pop culture. The Greatest American Hero was another successful series, less so during its original run, but in the year since it has acquired a powerful cult status, and is fondly remembered by people who watched the series in reruns as kids.

The A-Team was a phenomenon, becoming one of the signature series of the 1980s, and running for five seasons. Following the adventures of four Vietnam war vets falsely accused of a crime they didn't commit, the series was juvenile and campy, but its high action quotient and infectious sense of fun connected with a generation of kids, quickly becoming a classic. It made a super-star of Mr. T and reignited the somewhat stagnant careers of George Peppard and Dirk Benedict. A recent big-screen remake tried but failed to capture the spirit of the original.

Following the end of The A-Team in 1987, Cannell began his long association with the Vancouver film community by shooting his next two projects there. One, Wiseguy, was a dark and complex series following an FBI agent's (Ken Wahl) journey as an undercover operative. The series was not a huge hit, but its dark theme of the loss of identity, and its adult approach to the subject matter was miles away from his previous, campier fare, and it was a major critical success. The other series debuting in 1987 was 21 Jump Street, and once again, Cannell successfully captured lightning in a bottle. The show was a huge hit, and launched the career of a young actor named Johnny Depp. Although Jump Street was more light-hearted than Wiseguy, it also dealt with more serious subject matter and experimented with longer story arcs.

Throughout the 1980s, Cannell created show after show that resonated in some way; Hunter, Hardcastle and McCormick, Stingray and Riptide. He also created some series, that although they were not successful, are now seen as years ahead of their time; Unsub, Tenspeed and Brown Shoe and Profit. In the 1990s, Cannell moved away from network television and embraced syndication, with one of his series, Renegade, becoming the most watched syndicated series of its time after Baywatch. But Cannell moved away from television now, choosing to focus on another type of writing.

Cannell began to write mystery novels, many featuring detective Shane Scully. He found great success as a mystery writer, and even returned to television as an actor in Castle, playing himself as one of the eponymous character's poker buddies, all of whom were famous writers. Cannell is survived by his wife of 46 years, Marcia, and their three children and three grandchildren.

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