Stephen J. Cannell

Stephen J. Cannell

Cannell in 2005
Born Stephen Joseph Cannell
(1941-02-05)February 5, 1941
Los Angeles
Died September 30, 2010(2010-09-30) (aged 69)
Pasadena, California, US
Cause of death Melanoma
Nationality American
Education University of Oregon
Occupation Writer, producer, director
Years active 1968–2010
Known for Founder of The Cannell Studios
Spouse(s) Marcia Cannell (m. 1964–2010)
Children 4, including Tawnia
Awards Emmy Award

Stephen Joseph Cannell /ˈkænəl/ (February 5, 1941 - September 30, 2010) was an American television producer, writer, novelist, and occasional actor, and the founder of Cannell Entertainment (formerly Stephen J. Cannell Productions) and the Cannell Studios.

After starting his career as a television script writer, Cannell created or co-created several dozen successful TV series from the 1970s to the 1990s, often with his creative partner Frank Lupo. Cannell's creations included The Rockford Files, The A-Team, The Greatest American Hero, 21 Jump Street, and The Commish. He also wrote novels, notably the Shane Scully mystery series.

Early life

Cannell was born in Los Angeles, California, and raised in nearby Pasadena.[1] He was the son of Carolyn (née Baker) and Joseph Knapp Cannell. Joseph owned the highly successful interior decorating company Cannell and Chaffin.[2][3] Cannell struggled with dyslexia in school, but did graduate from the University of Oregon in 1964 with a bachelor of science degree in journalism.[2] At UO, he joined the Sigma Chi fraternity.


After college, Cannell spent four years working with the family business before selling his first script to the Universal series It Takes a Thief in 1968. He was quickly hired by the television production branch of Universal Studios and was soon freelance writing for such other crime shows as Ironside and Columbo. Not long afterward, he received a telephone call from friend Herman Saunders who was the producer on the series Adam-12. They needed a script right away. Would Stephen be interested in writing it? He delivered what they wanted in one day, his first full-time gig, and was soon hired as story editor of Jack Webb's police series Adam-12, then in its fourth season (1971–1972).

Cannell created or co-created nearly 40 television series, mostly crime dramas, including The Rockford Files, Chase, Black Sheep Squadron, Baretta, City of Angels, and under his own banner, The Greatest American Hero, The A-Team, Hardcastle and McCormick, Wiseguy, 21 Jump Street, Silk Stalkings, and The Commish. In the process, he had by his own count, scripted more than 450 episodes, and produced or executive produced over 1,500 episodes.[4]

He described his early financial arrangements in a 2002 interview, saying that at Universal,

I signed a deal as a head writer to make $600 a week. I was the cheapest writer on the lot. It was the lowest deal you could do by Writers Guild standards. But I'd been working for my dad for $7000 a year. I was at Universal for eight years and I never renegotiated my deal but once. It was late in my arrangement with Universal. There was one thing in my deal that my agent had managed to get in there—I had good fees for my pilots. The reason they did it is that they never thought I was going to write a pilot. So they'd give me $70,000 to write a two-hour pilot and a $100,000 production bonus if it ever got made. Then I became the hottest pilot writer at Universal. I was writing two or three pilots a season. I was making $400,000 a year in pilot fees.[2]

In 1979, Cannell left Universal and formed his own company, Stephen J. Cannell Productions. For the first few years, Cannell's office was located on the lot at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, though his earlier work at Universal was still distributed by MCA-Universal. Cannell's first series under his new banner was The Greatest American Hero and was soon followed by The Quest, The A-Team, Hardcastle and McCormick, Riptide, and Hunter. Cannell offices relocated to larger facilities on Hollywood Blvd in 1983.

Cannell also acted occasionally, including a regular supporting role as "Dutch" Dixon on his series Renegade. He also took a turn in an episode of Silk Stalkings, in which the script called for one character to tell him, "You look just like that writer on TV," to which Cannell's character responds, "I get that all the time." He also served as the host of the 1991–92 series Scene of the Crime a mystery anthology series with a repertory cast, 1995–1996 syndicated documentary series U.S. Customs Classified, focusing on the work of the U.S Customs Service.[5] Cannell appeared as himself in the pilot of the ABC show Castle and again in season two. Along with James Patterson, Dennis Lehane, and Michael Connelly, he was one of Castle's poker buddies. In season three, an empty seat at the poker table is described as Cannell's, and remains empty for a full year.

In 1987, and with a favorable exchange rate between the US and Canadian dollars being a win/win for US producers, Cannell decided to shoot his new series Stingray in Toronto. So many producers were shooting in Toronto that no crews were available to man any additional productions. Cannell shot seven episodes of Stingray in Calgary with the remainder being shot in Vancouver. His first series shot there was 21 Jump Street, the highest-rated show of the new Fox network's first season. With more and more series being shot in Vancouver, Cannell said, "We were fighting with everybody for locations and stage space". His solution was to build a new, state-of-the-art facility, "The North Shore Studios" on 13 acres with one hundred thousand feet of office space and seven sound stages. The series 21 Jump Street was soon followed by Wiseguy, The Commish, Booker, Hawkeye, Cobra, The Hat Squad, J.J. Starbuck, Stingray, Street Justice, and Unsub, and a number of television films were also shot in Vancouver by Cannell's production company.

In 1995, New World Communications acquired his Cannell Entertainment production company. Cannell then founded the Cannell Studios.[6] One of the first shows produced by the newly established Cannell Studios was the short-lived but critically acclaimed corporate drama Profit.

Starting in 1995, Cannell turned his attention to writing novels. His first novel, The Plan, was released in 1997 by Avon. As of 2010, he had written 18, 11 of which featured the character of detective Shane Scully of the Los Angeles Police Department. Seven are stand-alone novels. The last in the series, Vigiliante, was released December 2011 by St. Martin's Press.

The 2009 documentary Dislecksia: The Movie features an interview with Cannell, in which he discusses his struggles with dyslexia and how he managed to be such a successful writer despite his difficulties reading. During the interview, he mentions how he used to hire typists to overcome his "spelling problem", as he refers to his dyslexia, but also describes how he feels his condition has enriched his life.

Cannell's TV series The A-Team was remade into a 2010 feature-length film. Cannell served as a producer and creative consultant for the project. His other series 21 Jump Street was made into a 2012 feature by Columbia Pictures and Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and into the sequel 22 Jump Street, which was released in June 2014.

He won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series in 1978 for The Rockford Files.

The closing logo of his production company features him typing, and then grabbing the sheet out of the typewriter and throwing it in the air, whereupon it animates to become part of his company logo against a black screen. The sheet of paper floats down and lands on a stack of paper and curls to form a letter C. It was updated often, the main differences being Cannell's clothes, the addition of new awards in the background, the disappearance of his pipe when he quit smoking, and (rarely) a new office for the live-action part.[7] The production company's first series Tenspeed and Brown Shoe did not feature this logo. The first of Cannell's series to feature this logo was The Greatest American Hero. Throughout the history of the company, a total of eight different logos were used, the last logo being shot in high definition in 2004. Early examples are also notable for Cannell's smoking a pipe as he types. The logo has become part of American pop culture and has been parodied on American Dad!,[8] 30 Rock, Family Guy, and The Simpsons.

Personal life

Cannell married his high school sweetheart, Marcia in 1964. He "asked her to go steady in the eighth grade".[9] Together they had two daughters, Tawnia and Chelsea, and two sons, Cody and Derek.[9] Derek died in 1981 at age 15 when a sand castle he was building at the beach collapsed and suffocated him.[10]

Cannell was dyslexic, and was a spokesman on the subject. According to an episode of Paul Harvey's The Rest of the Story, Cannell frequently had to dictate ideas or even complete scripts to a personal secretary. That executive assistant for more than 20 years was Grace Curcio. Following Grace's retirement in 2003, Kathy Ezso became his editor and executive assistant. He discussed his experiences as a dyslexic in the 2009 documentary Dislecksia: The Movie.

Cannell wrote on a typewriter, an IBM Selectric, when not dictating to his executive assistant, and only used a computer for research purposes.


Cannell died at his home surrounded by family September 30, 2010, from complications of melanoma.[1][11] He is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles, near his son, Derek.[12][13]

Selected filmography


On May 4, 1998, Cannell reacquired his library from Fox.[15] Cannell sold his company in March 1995 to New World Communications for $30 million and News Corporation acquired New World in 1996.[15] However, two of Cannell's series, The A-Team and Hunter are controlled by two other studios: Universal for the former and Columbia for the latter and weren't part of the deal.[15] Also part of the deal, Cannell would pay Fox for international and domestic sales for his series.[15]

On January 24, 2006, The Carsey-Werner Company gained distribution rights to Cannell's library.[16][17]

Notable acting credits


Shane Scully series

  1. The Tin Collectors (2001)
  2. The Viking Funeral (2002)
  3. Hollywood Tough (2003)
  4. Vertical Coffin (2004)
  5. Cold Hit (2005)
  6. White Sister (2006)
  7. Three Shirt Deal (2007)
  8. On the Grind (2009)
  9. The Pallbearers (2010)
  10. The Prostitutes' Ball (2010)[18]
  11. Vigilante (2011)[19]

Other novels

  • The Plan (1996)
  • Final Victim (1997)
  • King Con (1998)
  • Riding the Snake (1999)
  • The Devil's Workshop (2000)
  • Runaway Heart (2003)
  • At First Sight (2008)


  1. 1 2 McLellan, Dennis (October 2, 2010). "Stephen J. Cannell dies at 69; TV writer, producer". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  2. 1 2 3 Ford, Luke. "Producer Stephen J. Cannell"
  3. Stephen J. Cannell Biography (1941–)
  4. Bio (official site)
  5. Brooks, Tim and Marsh, Earle, The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946–present – Ninth Edition, p. 1448, Ballantine Books, 2007, ISBN 978-0-345-49773-4
  6. Thompson, Robert J. Cannell, Stephen J.. Museum of Broadcast Communications
  8. Season 5, episode 15, Wheels and the Legman Created by Stephen J. Cannell
  9. 1 2 Cannell, Stephen J. On the Grind (St. Martin's Press, 2009), Acknowledgments, p. 306.
  10. Pasadena Weekly, Telling tales: 'Over-performer’ Stephen J. Cannell takes over mystery book writing much the way he conquered episodic TV 2010-03-11. Retrieved 2010-10-02.
  11. Yahoo News – AP News Article Concerning His Death
  12. "Stephen J. Cannell (1941 - 2010) - Find A Grave Memorial". Retrieved 2016-07-09.
  13. "Derek Allen Cannell (1966 - 1982) - Find A Grave Memorial". Retrieved 2016-07-09.
  14. Rosenberg, Howard (September 16, 1992). "TV REVIEW : 'The Hat Squad' Is Not a Good Fit". The Los Angeles Times.
  15. 1 2 3 4 Cannell wins back rights to TV series Cynthia Littleton May 4, 1998, Retrieved on August 30, 2014
  16. John Eggerton "Broadcasting & Cable" January 24, 2006 Carsey-Werner To Distribute Cannell Library, Retrieved on October 12, 2013
  17. "C21 Media" January 25, 2006 Carsey-Werner picks up drama library, Retrieved on October 12, 2013
  18. "The Prostitutes' Ball".
  19. Memmott, Carol (December 6, 2011). "Stephen J. Cannell's final novel, 'Vigilante,' is published". USA Today.
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