Commentary : HERE’S A PRODUCER WHO WRITES HIS OWN SCRIPTS--AND TICKET
Something eating you? Blame Stephen J. Cannell. Go ahead, you’ll feel better.
For starters, blame Mr. T on Cannell. After all, it was Cannell’s “A-Team” that thrust that Mohawked lummox in your face.
Better yet, blame smog on Cannell. If not for the three dozen series he has created or co-created--including “Baretta,” “Hunter,” “Stingray,” “21 Jump Street” and last season’s “Hat Squad"--there would be fewer car chases and hence less air pollution.
Blame denuded forests on Cannell, a voracious writer who has run enough sheets of bond through his Selectric to pile up more than 350 scripts thus far, with no signs of slowing down.
Feeling better? Be careful. If you dwell too long on Stephen Joseph Cannell, your selective amnesia might lift. You might recall with approval “Tenspeed and Brown Shoe” (which starred an unknown Jeff Goldblum in 1980) or the clever “Sonny Spoon” in 1988, two other series that carried Cannell’s imprint.
Your heart will surely warm at the memory of “The Rockford Files” and its hapless ex-con private eye, played by James Garner with delicious world-weariness. And you’ll remember with a fond chill Cannell’s film noir descent into the underworld, “Wiseguy.”
Let yourself go. Just don’t let Cannell off the hook. Nobody else does.
“When I was doing ‘Rockford,’ the critics said, ‘Standard, ho-hum television,’ ” Cannell says. “ ‘Wiseguy’? I wrote the pilot and more episodes than any other writer on the staff. People never give me credit for that.”
Or for much of anything else. And those of you who have withheld your applause up to now are not likely to canonize Cannell for his current crop of shows.
There’s “The Commish” in its third season, airing Saturdays, and the new “Missing Persons” on Thursdays, both on ABC. “Silk Stalkings” on USA on Sundays and Mondays. And the daytime NBC game show “Caesars Challenge.”
And don’t forget “Cobra,” new this season, about an undercover agency that helps crime victims get justice when the law-enforcement system has failed them. Cannell’s “Renegade,” in its second year, stars Lorenzo Lamas as a tough young street cop who becomes a modern-day bounty hunter.
Both series are hits with audiences, sure, but the critical response can be summed up by this Entertainment Weekly spanking: Rated on a scale of A to F, “Cobra” got a D, “Renegade,” a D-.
Cannell, as usual, gets the blame.
Here’s a champion of the action-adventure genre who has composed a wide range of different tunes but still gets branded Stephen One-Note (yet does anyone see any similarity between, say, “The Greatest American Hero” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep” except that both involve flying?).
Even more vexing to certain observers, Cannell is a demonstrated artist who refuses to apply the criteria of art to what he does.
“People say, ‘How can the guy who did “Wiseguy” do “The A-Team”?’ I don’t know,” Cannell says. “But I do know it’s easier to think of me simply as the guy who wrote ‘The A-Team.’ So they do.”
Cannell, young-looking at 52, is a rangy, outgoing chap who drops the final g’s off his verbs and radiates a boy-eager attitude toward what he does. What he does most eagerly is write.
Writing scripts for “It Takes a Thief” and “Adam 12" was how he got into television.
Then, launching his own studio years later, he took his wife’s advice for the ID that would follow each of his shows: Why, she asked him, don’t you put yourself at the typewriter?
So there you see him typing on his Selectric before he blithely rips the sheet of paper from the carriage, whereupon it morphs into the C-shaped logo of Cannell Entertainment Inc. Not bad for a writer.
“But I never thought of myself as being a brilliant writer,” he says. “As thoroughly hated as it was by critics, I loved ‘The A-Team.’ I thought it was really cool.”
He, along with a lot of other people. So don’t blame Cannell.