“Don’t play games that you don’t understand, even if you see lots of other people making money from them. ”
Stephen J. Cannell
Stephen J. Cannell arrived in a black stretch limousine for our interview at Southern California's Van Nuys Airport, where the novelist and TV show creator, writer and producer keeps his Gulfstream III and Learjet 55. The 68-year-old Cannell is handsome and elegant while also exuding a charm that can put anyone around him instantly at ease. In many ways he seems almost like a real-life character from one of his hit shows.
When he was young, Cannell thought he would take over his father's furniture-retailing business, but Hollywood beckoned. Over three decades, he has written more than 450 television scripts and produced or executive produced more than 1,500 TV episodes. His hits include The Rockford Files, Hunter, Riptide, Hardcastle & McCormick, Wiseguy, The Commish, Profit, Renegade and Silk Stalkings.
The Emmy Award-winning Cannell has also owned a major Hollywood studio. And today he is enjoying enormous popularity as the author of 14 best-selling novels. (A 15th-The Pallbearers, the latest in Cannell's Shane Scully detective series-will be published in March.) But he still knows how to deliver on screen, and is busy developing feature films of his successful TV shows The A-Team, 21 Jump Street and The Greatest American Hero. Cannell also acts and can currently be seen on the ABC drama Castle.
How did you become interested in writing?
I have severe dyslexia and was never a good student, but I always loved to write. I went to college and took a creative writing course. One day I handed in a story. I got a note to go see the instructor in his office. I thought he was going to throw me out of his class. Instead he closed the door and said, "I want to tell you something and I don't want you to ever forget it. You have a gift from God. I've been teaching at the University of Oregon for 15 years. You're one of the best writers I've ever been privileged to instruct."
How did you feel when he said that?
I was the guy they were having meetings about to decide whether to let me go to the next grade, and here was my favorite teacher telling me I had a gift from God. That was the moment I decided to be a writer. It ranks as one of the highlights of my life.
Do you write every day?
Every day-five hours. I get up around 3:30 or 4 in the morning and I lift [weights] for an hour and then start writing. If I'm doing a novel, I try to write a chapter a day. I plot my story before I begin, so I'm not struggling to figure out where I'm going.
Which of your TV series is your favorite?
The one that probably did me the most good was The Rockford Files. Jim [Garner] made my words sound better than they were. I had the greatest writing staff. It was just so much fun and we had such a great cast. It took me from being a nobody to an Emmy-winning flavor of the week. Everybody wanted to do business with me after that show.
How did The Rockford Files come about?
I was producing a show for Roy Huggins, who did Maverick, Run for Your Life and The Fugitive. He was sort of my godfather in show business. He came up with the concept for The Rockford Files. He got the name Rockford out of the Universal [Studios] phone directory. The guy was a grip in the electric department.
I had one week to write [the pilot]. I decided I would break all the rules of private detectives, so I gave him a dad who wasn't convinced he was doing the right thing with his life. He was always running credit checks on people to make sure their checks would clear-all this stuff that you didn't see private eyes doing on television.
After I wrote it, I handed it to Roy. He flipped to the back and said, "God, it's 30 pages too long." And I went, "Yeah, I know. You'll have to tell me what to cut." I got a call at 3 a.m. because Roy used to work all night. He woke me up to tell me he thought it was the funniest script he'd read in years. And I said, "What are we going to do with the extra 30 pages?" He said, "We're going to shoot them."
ABC hated it. So Roy sent it to Jim Garner, who instantly agreed to do it. Then we sent it to NBC and said, "We've got a 90-minute movie called The Rockford Files. It stars James Garner. Yes or no?"
You're doing movies of 21 Jump Street and The A-Team. Why not The Rockford Files?
I don't own it. I did that while I was under contract to Universal. These other shows I own because I had my own studio.
Is it hard to cast a movie of a show that aired so long ago?
You have to remake the show. If I do 21 Jump Street, I'm not going to have a Johnny Depp-type character.
I've got Jump Street cops but they're different cops. And The A-Team is Iraq instead of Vietnam-everything's been updated. Liam Neeson will be Hannibal. Bradley Cooper is going to be Face.
You started out working for your dad. What did you learn from him?
My dad was the smartest guy I ever knew. All my success comes from him. Not so much the writing abilities, but in terms of running businesses and managing people. He said to me once, "A man has to be right only three times in his life." Three major decisions have to be right for him to be a success.
I remember thinking when I was 15 that was just a bunch of bull. But the first big decision I made was to leave [his business] and become a writer fulltime. The second big choice was to leave Universal. They were offering me a million dollars a year back in 1979. I said no and risked everything to form my own studio with no safety net. It was the smartest thing I ever did, because I created a whole new level for myself and I ran the third-largest supplier of television in Hollywood. We had at least six hours on the air at all times and 2,100 employees.
The third decision I made was [when I sold the studio]. I remember saying, "What am I going to do with my life? Do I want to go back and be a hired gun at Universal or Warner?" And I thought, "No, I want to redefine myself. I'm going to try to be a novelist." And I wrote The Plan, my first book, on spec. It was a national bestseller, and that was the third big course correction that I made-I became a novelist. So my father was right.
I understand you learned a lot from your father about how to take care of your employees.
I didn't want to have a studio that abused its employees or took advantage of anybody. And I never micromanaged people. I also tried hard to build writers into stars. I would take the writer with me to screenings at the network. And if the network executives had problems with the script, I would just say, "OK, we can fix that." But if they loved it, I would say, "Well, you know, [the writer] is sitting right here." I would build them up in the eyes of the network. It wasn't altruistic on my behalf. I kept thinking if I could build them into stars, they could get pilots that I would own.
You also figured out long ago that artists ought to own their product.
I'm one of the few who did that. I thought I would be able to run my own studio. I kept thinking, "Why don't I just put a place together and compete with these guys?" And I had networks lined up in front of my door wanting to do business with me.
How do you feel about the new-media landscape and the Internet?
I think it's great. I don't think we're going to be seeing [TV] networks in the future the way they are currently constructed. The Internet is going to be the delivery
system, and I think that's exciting. To whatever extent you can eliminate the gatekeepers, that's good.
What do you think of electronic books?
I'm interested in e-books and frightened by them. The minute you turn the stuff into Xs and Os, it's eminently stealable. The last marketing meeting I had, they were toying with coming out with an e-book at the same time that the printed book was going to hit the stores. I thought that was a huge mistake. I hope the publishing industry will take a hard look at the music business. There's a reason why '80s bands with 60-year-old lead singers are touring today-they can't sell any [recorded] music because it's all being stolen.
When did you start using private aviation?
I have a dear friend who is also a business partner. His name is Mike Post. Mike has written almost all the theme songs for my TV shows. And I introduced him to Steve Bochco, and he's done all of Bochco's themes. And he got his pilot's license. He wanted to buy a jet and he wanted me to go in with him. So he and I split the costs and the maintenance and everything on a Westwind. Then we bought a Gulfstream III, and then a Lear 55 for shorter flights.
Do you work when you fly?
I'm one of those people who can fall asleep like that-you just put a pillow under my head and I'm gone. I literally get on that airplane and start yawning. It's a trigger. They have my bed made up for me. I have a drink and I'm asleep before we're off the ground.
In The Tin Collector, Shane Scully calls business jets "transportation necessities of the mega-rich." Is that him talking?
Oh yeah, I'm not Shane Scully. You know, I had a mother who was kind of a jerk in one of my books, and my mother said, "Well, I'm not like that!" And I'm telling her, "Mother, it's not you!" It's hard for people to understand that the fun of it is to create characters.
You know, I'm not B.A. Baracus, I'm not Jim Rockford.
But you've said you're a schizophrenic writer.
I have to become them all because that's the way I connect with them. There are two kinds of writers, I think. There are writers like Paddy Chayefsky who think up words for their characters to say. If you look at [the 1976 movie] Network, nobody ever spoke like that. Metaphors rolling out of those characters' mouths, similes, long parallel constructions. And it's beautiful. Then there are writers like me who are what I call the schizophrenic writers. They're the writers who become the characters. That allows me to write very quickly because it's an improv, basically.
In White Sister, Lionel Wright defines rap music beautifully: "Rap is a street-corner conversation." Where does that come from?
I don't know. I hope it isn't reconstituted from somebody else's work. Obviously I am a funnel for a lot of ideas and thoughts. I was Lionel Wright. I'm that guy when I'm in his head. But I was all over rappers' Web sites and looking at them calling each other out on streaming video, because I had to familiarize myself with the language. And I needed for this stuff to just come out of me. I didn't want to be looking it up in slang dictionaries and stuff like that.
What about the police details?
Same thing. I have to learn it. I have a lot of cop friends. I'm alert to what police language is all about. I spent two months in the police Internal Affairs division before I wrote The Tin Collector.
At First Sight is completely different from your other novels. You get into the head of Chick Best, who subtly turns into a vile character. It kind of sucks you in.
I had this idea to write from the point of view of a sociopath who didn't know he was a sociopath. He's in Hawaii, he sees this gorgeous girl and it's love at first sight, and he starts to make moves that he doesn't even quite understand and ends up killing people to try to satisfy this lust, which is really all just about possession.
Some people said it was the best book they'd ever read, other people said it was trash. If I were to re-release it, I would put at the front, "Chick Best is not a nice person. You are not supposed to root for Chick." But I didn't want to give it away because it was so delightful at the beginning, he was so put upon by his wife, and you felt sorry for him. Then you realize that this guy deserves what he got.
NAME: Stephen J. Cannell
OCCUPATION: Best-selling mystery novel author, chairman of Cannell Studios, producer, writer and creator of numerous television shows.
EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree, University of Oregon
TRANSPORTATION: Learjet 55, Gulfstream III
PERSONAL: Lives in Southern California with wife Marcia. Two children.