Stephen J. Cannell: 1941-2010

Last hand: Connelly, Patterson, Cannell and Fillion

Stephen J. Cannell was one of the icons of American television. The prolific writer/executive producer lost a battle with Melanoma Thursday at his home in Pasadena, Calif. He was 69.
Castle star Nathan Fillion spoke admiringly about Cannell during a visit to the set of the ABC series in 2009. “He is an icon,” said Fillion, who shot three episodes which featured Fillion’s novelist character sitting around a card table with three other mystery writers—Cannell, who became more of a novelist in his later years, James Patterson (“Don’t Blink”) and Michael Connelly (“The Nine Dragons”).
Fillion said he loved hearing stories from Cannell about his days cranking out The A-Team or Rockford Files scripts. “You’re talking to a major source of Americana pop culture right there,” said Fillion.
The Edmonton-born actor was struck by how laid back and unpretentious Cannell always was on the set. “When you meet him,” he said, “he’s great and he’s relaxed and he’s fun and interesting and interested—you think, he deserves all his success.”
Cannell really was the great American success story. When I first started working at TV Guide back in the ‘80s there was no bigger name in television. Besides The A-Team and Rockford he wrote and/or co-created nearly 40 TV shows, including Barretta, Baa Baa Blacksheep, Greatest American HeroWiseguy, 21 Jump Street, Hardcastle & McCormick and The Commish. He brought millions of dollars worth of TV production to Vancouver when he produced 21 Jump Street there two decades ago as a cost-cutting move.
He was also an inspiration and mentor to many of today’s TV writers, including Castle executive producer Rob Bowman. You can see his stamp on several shows just emerging in the last year or so as TV takes a swing back to high octane action hours, especially shows like the new Hawaii FIVE-0, Human Target, The Good Guys and CBC’s Republic of Doyle.
Doyle’s Allan Hawco is a big disciple of Cannell; on the door of that show’s writing room in St. John’s is a Rockford poster.

Fans will recall Cannell’s cool little logo at the end of each series. It featured the writer seated, sometimes with a pipe, at a typewriter. As he bangs off the last page, it leaps in the air and forms the “C” for Cannell Productions. It even got goofed on once on The Simpsons.
Remarkably, Cannell continued to write scripts on a typewriter, apparently only using a computer for research.
I recall meeting him at a few press tour appearances over the years, probably when he was promoting The Commish or Renegade. He was always a warm and gracious presence and displayed the same humility and grace that impressed Fillion. He looked like a character from one of his shows, with that goatee giving him a bit of that Wolfman Jack menace.
Condolences to his wife and family; Cannell, remarkably, remained married to his high school sweetheart, Marcia, for 46 years.

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