Stephen J. Cannell

(1941- 2010)

Stephen J. CannellIf he had never written a single book, television writer/producer Stephen J. Cannell would still rank a huge spot in the P.I. Hall of Fame. It's no mistake he was given the PWA Lifetime Achievement Award back in 1994.

Cannell's contributions to the crime genre, even before he started writing novels, are awesome. In his own way, Cannell helped modernize (and humanize) the private eye every bit as much as Ross Macdonald, Dennis Lynds, Bill Pronzini or Robert Parker, and paved the way for everyone from Sara Paretsky to Walter Mosley to George Pelecanos. He was by far the single biggest contributor to the TV eye genre ever (his occasional partner in crime, Roy Huggins, is the only one who even comes close).

He'll always be remebered for having created private eye Jim Rockford, the beloved character played by James Garner in The Rockford Files for seven years, but he also created close to forty other series (and written over 350 TV episodes), including The A-Team, 21 Jump Street and The Commish and such classic (and, okay, not-so-classic) PI shows as City of Angels, Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, Sonny Spoon, The Duke, Hardcastle & McCormick, Riptide, J.J. Starbuck, Booker, Palace Guard, and Richie Brockelman, Private Eye.

He did well enough, in fact, that he founded his own production company and studio, located in Vancouver, British Columbia, years before anyone else in Hollywood even knew where Canada was. So, sure, blame him for runaway production, too.

Over the years, he managed to appear in several of his own productions, in cameos and bit parts. His photo was used as the author's portrait of Mark Savage on the books Lionel devoured in Tenspeed and Brownshoe, and he's appeared in small (and even occasionally recurring) roles in Renegade, Silk Stalkings and Scene of the Crime.

Over the course of his long and varied career, he won an Emmy (for The Rockford Files), Edgars, a Writers Guild Award, and numerous international film and television awards.

Not bad for a kid born in 1941 in Pasadena who had a hard time with school, repeating several grades and flunking out of at least two schools, before he was finally diagnosed with dyslexia.

"I was a classic case," he's said. "A real slow learner. It took a lot of understanding and therapy to overcome my problems." In fact, Cannell himself has once pointed out that his dyslexia -- and the difficulties it caused as far as reading went -- was instrumental in developing his fondness for television.

He did overcome those difficulties, though, and he went on to serve as National Chairperson for the Orton Dyslexia Society. And become involved in some of the most popular and influential television shows of the seventies and eighties.

During his teen years, having (finally) graduated from high school, he went to work for his father's interior design company, but rushed home to work on TV scripts. His first break was to sell "script ideas" to the producers of Mission Impossible. Desilu, the producers, felt he was "too young" to actually write scripts. Cannell kept at it, though, and eventually sold a script to It Takes a Thief. At this point, he quit the interior design racket, and decided to concentrate completely on his writing. His next sale was to Jack Webb's Adam-12. Webb was so impressed by the script, that he soon made Cannell head writer on the show.

Cannell soon gained a solid rep, and by the 1973-74 season, was working on two other cop shows, Chase and Toma. He was the creator of the first, and a producer and writer for the second. It was Toma, in fact, where he first worked with Roy Hugins, who was the producer, and it was a rejected script for a Toma episode that eventually became the pilot for The Rockford Files, which was co-created by Huggins and Cannell. Cannell also served as the supervising producer for the show.

With the wild success of The Rockford Files in 1974, and the creation of Baretta, Baa Baa Black Sheep and City of Angels in the next two years, Cannell was well on his way.

And, in 1995, he followed a boyhood dream of becoming a novelist, and has started churning out novels. His first, The Plan, involved the Mafia and politics, and he's since gone on to write several more, all dealing with crime in one way or another. King Con (1997), a reworking of The Sting, was about a con artist who teams up with a female DA to outcon the bad guys, would certainly appeal to fans of Rockford or Tenspeed. He ended up writing 15 novels, but only one, 2003's Runaway Heart, featuried a private eye (Jake Wirta). By far his greatest success was LAPD homicide dick Shane Scully, whom he introduced in The Tin Collectors (2000).

He certainly left his mark. He created or co-created almost forty television shows, many of them long-running hits and cult favourites, and he'd becoming a bestselling novelist. By his own estimation, he had more than 450 episodes, and produced or executive produced over 1,500 episodes.

His production company's closing sequence -- a short filmed bit showing Cannell tapping away at his typewriter before yanking the page out, whereupon it becomes the letter C, part of the company logo, had become so ubitquious in pop culture that it was spoofed on The Simpsons, Family Guy, and 30 Rock. He'd even become something of a success in front of the cameras, appearing regularly on the TV show Castle as one of Rick Castle's mystery writing poker buddies, alongside Michael Connelly, James Patterson and Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly.

After his death in September 30, 2010, due to complications associated with melanoma, an empty seat at the poker table is described as Cannell's, and remained empty for the entire season, and the first episode that aired after his death showed Cannell's production company sequence with the words "Colleague, Mentor, Friend" and "We'll miss you, pal" superimposed over the screen. The single page floats down towards the bottom and out of sight.



  • Private Eye (and Private Eye-ish) Shows Stephen J. Cannell Was Involved In
    He has had a hand in both writing, creating and/or developing/producing a number of top-rated (don't mind thew cheese) series, including (chronologically):
  • The Rockford Files
    (1974-1980, NBC; co-created with Roy Huggins)

  • City of Angels
    (1976, CBS; co-created with Roy Huggins)

  • Richie Brockelman, Private Eye
    (1978, with Steven Bochco)

  • The Duke
    (1979, NBC)

  • Tenspeed And Brown Shoe

  • Hardcastle & McCormick
    (1983-86, co-created with Patrick Hasburgh)

  • Riptide

  • Stingray
    (1986-87, NBC)

  • J.J. Starbuck

  • Sonny Spoon

  • Booker

  • Palace Guard

  • Renegade
    (1992-97, syndicated/USA)

  • Other Shows, both crime and non-crime, that Cannell created
    (Not all of these are confirmed. Does anyone know?)
  • Madigan (1972-73)
    Co-created with Peter Allan Fields, a writer on Columbo, and starring Richard Widmark.
  • Chase (1973-74, NBC)
    Cannell created this one, about a special police unit dealing in unconventional crimes.

  • Baretta
    (1975-78, ABC)
    Creator, writer of the pilot, produced by Roy Huggins

  • Baa Baa Black Sheep (AKA Black Sheep Squadron)
    Tales of an American World War II bomber crew, starring Robert Conrad.

  • Stone
    Dennis Weaver as a Joseph Wambaugh-type homicide cop/writer.

  • The Greatest American Hero
    A spoof of superheroes.

  • The Quest

  • The Rousters
    Another barely remembered, series. Chad Everett starred as Wyatt Earp, a modern-day bounty hunter who works for a circus.
  • The A-Team
    Ah, who knows what those whacky , fun-loving mercenaries will do next?

  • Rolling Thunder

  • Hunter

  • The Last Precinct

  • Werewolf

  • 21 Jump Street
    Mod Squad meets Tiger Beat! Cute young cops battle crime. This begat Booker, which was 77 Sunset Strip meets Tiger Beat.

  • Wiseguy
    A Fed goes undercover-way, way, way undercover) to bust the mob. This was a huge, huge success. Of course, I completely missed it.

  • Top of the Hill

    This was simply one of the best things Cannell ever did, about a team of forensic specialists called in on some of the most grisly of crimes. It predated the entire forensic craze, including Patricia Cornwell, Silence of the Lambs, and the exceeedingly lame CSI and its endless spin-offs. But, in its dark, moody quick-cutting tone, it may have helped inspire the first few seasons of Homicide: A Life on the Streets. I may have been the only one who saw this.

  • The Commish
    A big city cop become police commisioner for a small, but rapidly growing town. An appealing mixture of crime and domesticity.

  • Silk Stalkings

  • The Hat Squad

  • Cobra

  • Marker

  • Profit
  • Two
  • As an actor...
  • Scene of the Crime (1992; as 'the host')
  • Renegade (1992-97; as Lt. Donald "Dutch" Dixon)
  • Silk Stalkings (1991)

  • Other Shows that Cannell, or Stephen J. Cannell Productions, was affiliated with:
  • Mission Impossible
    Reader Alex Garcia notes, though, "I've often seen this credit, but I don't remember ever seeing him credited in an episode guide or on screen credits - could be he sold a script that was never used, or something like that." As it turns out, Alex is right. Cannell only sold them "script ideas.' The producers, Desilu, felt he was too young to actually sell them scripts.

  • It Takes a Thief
    (1968-70 ; writer)
    This show was the first one to actually buy a script from Cannell.

  • Adam-12
    (as a writer)

  • Toma

  • The 100 Lives Of Black Jack Savage

  • Columbo
    (wrote one episode : "Double Exposure", aired December 16, 1973)

  • Chase
    (1973 , writer & producer)

  • Murder, She Wrote
    (1983-95; writer)
    "I'm missing a lot of writer credits for this one, so I can't be 100% sure, but I highly doubt he worked on it..." (Alex again)

  • Scene of the Crime
    (1992, producer)

  • Broken Badges
    (executive producer)

  • Jake Lassiter: Justice on the Bayou
    (1995, TV movie)
    This 1995 NBC movie was an unsuccessful pilot for a series about Paul Levine's ex-linebacker turned rough-edged criminal lawyer. A Stephen J. Cannell Production.

  • Also, Cannell possibly has connections with these shows, although I'm not clear in what capacity:

  • Street Justice (Distributor only?)
  • Missing Persons (1992)
  • Traps (1994)
  • Hawkeye: The First Frontier (1995)



  • Stephen J. Cannell
    Cannell's official web site, maintained by Michael Allen. Also home of Stephen J. Cannell's Free Online Writing Seminar, wherein Rockford's creator lets us in on his secrets. If you've ever dreamed of writing novels or screenplays, here's your chance to learn from the best. Cannell is offering free online writing classes which will be updated bi-weekly. You'll learn how to create memorable characters, a three act structure and techniques to keep your audience on the edge of their seats.

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Alex Garcia for his help with his page, and trying to keep me honest. Check out his Web Headquarters.

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