We are a little late in offering our appreciation of writer-producer Stephen J. Cannell who died Sept. 30 at age 69 from complications associated with melanoma. But our intentions are no less heart-felt and, sometimes, one is just at a loss for words.
Cannell, which rhymes with channel, spent more than three decades as an independent producer offering action-adventure TV series and changing the focus of entertainment. He also found time to write 16 novels.
This multi-Emmy award-winning producer and writer was considered one of the most prolific in television history with at least 42 series to his credit. His series such as The A-Team, 21 Jump Street
and more were iconic.
The Rockford Files remains, at least to me, one of the finest TV series ever created. James Garner as the ex-con private eye was perfect.
On the surface, The Rockford Files may not have seemed like much, but it was how it was presented, not what.
In an interview I had with Cannell last year, he said that the concept of The Rockford Files not only didn't sound like great television, but it didn't sound like something that should have even been on the air.
“If I told you the concept for “The Rockford Files” – it’s not much. Here’s a guy who lives at the beach in a trailer and only handles closed cases. But it’s how we wrote that guy and his father and the other characters, and how we cast it, that made it exceptional," Cannell told me during the interview that ran in the Sun Sentinel during 2010.
And let's not forget Wiseguy, a terrific show that wasn't just about a guy undercover in the mob. It was about fitting in and living a solitary life. The first time I saw Kevin Spacey was in Wiseguy. Tim Curry's turn as a dog-loving murderer was unforgettable.
Cannell also enjoyed being in front of the camera, making cameo appearances in myriad TV shows. Lately, he had been making frequent appearances on ABC’s Castle as one of star Nathan Fillion’s poker-playing buddies, sharing the table with other mystery writers including Michael Connelly and James Patterson.
His 16th novel, The Prostitute's Ball, just hit the bookstores.
It was only the last week of Februrary of 2010 that Cannell was one of the guests of honor during Sleuthfest, the mystery writers conference sponsored by the Florida chapter of the Mystery Writers of America.
Looking fit and trim, he gave an entertaining lunch speech and was on hand for panels and to autograph novels.
My interview with him was a few weeks before he came to Florida. His assistants told me I would only be allowed a maximum of 30 minutes for the interview. Instead, he kept talking to me and we ended up chatting for nearly 90 minutes. He came across as gracious and knowledgeable, a true storyteller.
That he did as much as he did is impressive. That he did as much as he did with the severe dyslexia that he has had since he was a child is astonishing. He never let his handicap hold him back.
At the end of each of his TV shows, Cannell was always seen pulling paper out of a typewriter. That wasn't a gimmick. Cannell still used a typewriter to work. He had nearly 50 and always traveled with at least one, sometimes two. "A perk of having a private plane," he said, not bragging, but adding how lucky he felt about his success. He never worked on a computer, he said, because of his dyslexia.
Spell check wouldn't work, he said, as he spelled phonetically. Each script and manuscript had to be retyped.
"I can come up with the stories but they won’t come out of my fingertips spelled correctly,” he told me during that interview.
We'll all miss those stories.