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Banging Out a New Ending

Bruce Newman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

He rises like a farmer at 5:30 every morning, while the hoot owls are still sitting in the low branches of the trees, and the old money in Pasadena is fast asleep. Then it begins, the words spraying onto the blank page with percussive force, like bullet holes. Sitting in a pool of electric light, Stephen J. Cannell writes as if he were auditioning for the steno pool, relentlessly battering an IBM Selectric with three fingers. “It’s that third finger that causes the problem,” his assistant of 21 years, Grace Curcio, notes somewhat ruefully.

Cannell has none of the fussy compulsions of the belletrists of the American novel. This is literature by machine gun, fiction by firing squad. He is at work on his fourth suspense novel, and he cannot stop himself. When he has reached the end of a page, he rips it out of the typewriter, throws it over his shoulder and never looks back. (Cannell has turned this eccentricity into a bit of theater, using it as a video logo at the end of the television shows he produces.) By late morning, his floor is littered with paper, often more than 15 pages a day.

“I want to puke out my first draft,” Cannell says, displaying his mastery of metaphor. “I never dry up, and I never block. Writer’s block is caused by the desire to be brilliant, and what happens is you get caught between your head and the page. But if you spend the whole front end of your life being the dumbest kid in class, you never think of yourself as a brilliant writer.”

Because of his long struggle with dyslexia--the learning disability that causes letters to become jumbled in the mind’s eye--he is certainly not a brilliant typist. A page from the manuscript of Cannell’s fourth novel, which is about the Chinese Triads, looks like a Rorschach test. Curcio must wade through this daily thicket of phonetic spellings and word mirroring--translating and transposing as she goes--to produce something publishable.

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If Cannell’s writing technique is more NRA than PEN, his output has been almost alarmingly unvarying. Last year he wrote “King Con,” which two weeks after publication seems likely to be his third bestseller for William Morrow; wrote the screenplays for both “King Con” and his second book, “Final Victim”; cranked out five hours of episodic television; and wrote the pilot for an updated version of “Hawaii Five-O” that CBS was considering for its fall lineup.

Some of it has been a little too unvarying to suit Cannell’s critics. A graduate student sent Cannell his master’s thesis a few years ago, which asserted that everything Cannell had written was merely a warmed-over version of something else he had written before. Careful readers may, in fact, note a more than passing resemblance between the roguish hero of “King Con,” Beano Bates, and Jim Rockford--the antihero of the private eye series “The Rockford Files,” which Cannell co-created. But to Cannell--the perpetual outsider with his nose pressed against the glass--these are romantic loners, and like him, taking on a system that is arrayed against them.

It was almost certainly his learning disability that set him at this remove, for Cannell was born into a life of privilege in Pasadena, next in line to run the family business, the prosperous interior design firm of Cannell & Chaffin. “Here’s a guy who comes out of the Pasadena decorating world,” marvels James Garner, on the set of the latest Rockford TV movie, “and he writes dialogue like he came from the gutter.”

At 55, Cannell is tanned and trim from regular workouts with a personal trainer. He wears tight clothing that shows off his lean physique and a goatee that he grew decades before they became the scourge of Hollywood. Cannell is old California, which means he can describe his Pasadena mansion as “bitchin’ ” and not feel self-conscious about it.

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But it is the rapid-fire of his writing that describes Cannell’s beating heart. “Oh, Steve is driven, no doubt about that,” Garner says. “There’s something pushing him hard, and evidently always has been. To build the kind of empire that he’s built, you don’t just fall into that.”

He has an office building with his name on it on Hollywood Boulevard, though when he is guiding a visitor to what was once home to his television principality--he wrote more than 350 of the more than 1,500 episodes of such shows as “Hunter,” “Wiseguy” and “The A-Team” that he produced--Cannell quietly says to “make a right after the hooker hotel.” The building now sits mostly empty or rented out to other production companies, and his name has been removed from the wallpaper in the elevator bank, leaving only a ghostly image of what once was--the handwriting on the wall.

In the weeks leading up to the publication of “King Con,” the only show Cannell still had on the air was the made-for-cable crime-buster “Silk Stalkings.” He talked about his ability to cover his “slow spots” with bestsellers the way a man trying to hide a bald spot might refer to his comb-over.

“I wanted to write the novels,” he said, “but I also think you have to reinvent yourself occasionally, or people will start looking at you and going, ‘Jesus, how long has he been doing this?’ I think I’m probably perceived [in Hollywood] as having been at the dance too long.”

It was a long way from the mid-'70s, when Universal Studios owned large parcels of the networks’ prime-time schedules and Cannell was prince of the Universal lot. At a time when the viewing public seemed to have tired of such humorless dicks--private and otherwise--as Mannix and McGarrett, Cannell was liege lord of the wisecracking gumshoe.

“I went through this period where I was the new genius,” he recalls. “I mean, people were carrying me around the lot on a litter. I actually heard the words ‘Stephen Cannell’ and ‘brilliant’ used in the same sentence. When you’ve been the stupidest kid in class, that’s a pretty appealing thing to hear, and I went through a phase when I tried to believe it.”

What mattered was that everybody else believed it. Universal burned its Cannell at both ends, and for a while his light shone so brightly in the studio’s executive tower that it obscured everyone around him. One young writer at Universal whose failures were frequently refracted through Cannell’s success was Steven Bochco, who was soon to create and produce “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue.”

“I remember when I was the hottest thing on the lot, and Bochco couldn’t get arrested,” Cannell says. “Nobody would give him a break. I’d go up in the tower and they’d ask me who on the lot I thought had talent, and I’d say, ‘Bochco!’ And they’d go, ‘Nope. Who else?’ There is this feeling in our industry that certain people have ‘The Answer.’ I went through my period of people thinking I had it. It takes a while before the glow fades. Sometimes your glow can last for 10 years.”

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And sometimes it can go out in an instant.

Cannell had persisted against the confounding effect of his dyslexia to become one of the top writers in Hollywood, and by 1981 it seemed he had everything. He recounts his life as narrative structure: “I go from being the stupidest kid in class to being the biggest success at Universal. I’m the David Kelley of the moment, I’m married to my eighth-grade sweetheart, and we have a wonderful, wonderful life.

“And then one day, my son Derek dies.”

There was no setup for this in the first act. Derek Cannell was 15; he was not supposed to die. Visiting friends in San Luis Obispo, he’d gone to the beach and was digging a giant fortress when the sand suddenly caved in, crushing him. And his parents. It took a week for Stephen and Marcia Cannell to bury their oldest child because their daughter Tawnia had been traveling in Europe. “The summer before he died, Derek had worked in the office as an intern,” says producer Jo Swerling Jr., Cannell’s longtime right-hand man. “He was absolutely the apple of his father’s eye.”

Though he had only one series on the air at the time of his son’s death, Cannell tried throwing himself into editing episodes of “The Greatest American Hero,” before the meaninglessness of that finally forced him to confront his grief. “Marcia, on the other hand, was in denial for eight months,” he says of his wife. “Eighty percent of the couples that lose a child end up divorced, and the reason for that is you grieve at different speeds. She didn’t want me crying, because she wasn’t and she didn’t want to deal with it. So she would say things like, ‘I hate it when you do that!’ ” And a fight would begin.

“She was just churning, trying not to let herself think about it,” he adds. “She’d get up at 3 in the morning and clean the kitchen. Her whole body language changed, and her voice went up an octave. She wasn’t the person I’d married. Finally, she punished herself so terribly physically, she went into convulsions one afternoon, and I had to put her in the hospital.”

That was the low point, but it was not the end: “There’s all this anger, and you don’t know where to put it. So I stuck some on her, and she stuck some on me. If we hadn’t been best friends for so long, we wouldn’t have stuck together. We both came close to saying, ‘Is this really worth it?’ ” They’ve been married 33 years.

It was during that same year, oddly, that Cannell got some good news. After daughter Tawnia was diagnosed as having dyslexia--a reading impairment that had not been understood, or even named, during his own childhood--Cannell took the test and discovered that most of what he had taken to be his own “stupidity” was caused by his dyslexia. Cannell failed three grades--the first, fourth and 10th--before he got out of high school, was tossed out of two schools and graduated second from the bottom of the class he finished up with.

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Unpersuaded even by these lapses from the honor roll, when it came time to summarize his ambitions next to the graduation picture in his high school yearbook, Cannell wrote “author.” It was a wonder he didn’t misspell it.

“That was my ambition, but I don’t know that I ever actually thought I could do it,” he says. “I mean, the idea of being brilliant was stomped out of me by the third grade. I had convinced myself deep down that I wasn’t a real sharp blade.”

Bored after several years of “watching the clock” in the family business, he sat down before the whetstone to his imagination and typed dramas for five hours every morning. He did this for five years before he ever sold a script. “There was no way they were going to stop me,” Cannell says.

After breaking in as a writer on the cop drama “Adam 12,” Cannell went to work for producer Roy Huggins at Universal. Huggins had reinvented the TV western in the ‘50s with “Maverick,” and in 1973 he and Cannell took the square-shooting, square-jawed TV private eye and stood him on his big square head.

“Mannix and those guys never talked about money,” Cannell says. “So I wanted Rockford to be a guy who cared enough about getting paid to run credit checks on his clients and keep track of his gas mileage.” Because Huggins and Cannell were running “Toma” for ABC, they offered Rockford as a kind of spinoff to the network.

“We sent the script over to ABC, and they hated it,” Cannell says. “They said you can’t have a hero who quits every time he’s threatened by the heavy, who takes the pink slip on a female client’s car for nonpayment.”

Universal then offered the show--sight unseen--to NBC, and because Garner had committed to play the lead, the network bought it. When NBC executives finally got a look at the script, they were horrified. “They hated it just as much as ABC,” says Cannell, who went on to write 50 episodes of the show, for which he won his only Emmy, in 1978.

It was the success of “The Rockford Files,” a show that got both good reviews and good ratings, that convinced Cannell that he knew what the viewing public wanted--and that the only way to give it to them was to start his own studio.

“I know the top executives at Universal thought he would fall on his ass,” says Swerling, “that no one could do what Stephen was attempting.”

Cannell took out a $50-million personal loan from Wells Fargo Bank, brought on 1,500 employees, built his own studio complex in Vancouver, British Columbia--blazing the trail from Hollywood to Canada--and then proceeded to produce a string of flops.

‘I actually heard the words “Stephen Cannell” and “brilliant” used

in the same sentence. When you’ve been the stupidest kid in class, that’s a pretty appealing thing to hear, and I went through a phase when

I tried to believe it.’

“I went into a period of steep decline,” Cannell says. He didn’t pull out of it until 1983, when Brandon Tartikoff, then the programming genius at NBC, asked Cannell and his producing partner Frank Lupo to come up with a by-the-numbers adventure series that borrowed elements from such action films as “The Dirty Dozen” and “Mad Max.” The result was “The A-Team,” a hit of such monstrous proportions that it nearly ruined Cannell’s career.

“You’re defined by your hits,” he says, “so ‘The Rockford Files’ defined me one way, and then ‘The A-Team’ completely redefined me in a much more negative way. I went from being the darling of the critics to this venal, crass jerk who sold out for cash.”

But it wasn’t only the critics who had misgivings about the new direction he had taken.

“I didn’t like ‘The A-Team’ much,” Garner says. “It looked slapped together. I hate to say it, but I thought they were making it for the money.”

With the bank repeatedly threatening to pull his loan, Cannell churned out such long-running, relentlessly middlebrow fare as “Hunter,” “Hardcastle and McCormick,” “Riptide” and “The Commish.” Only “Wiseguy” earned him critical praise, and it was never a ratings success. (“It’s about the shades of gray in police work,” Cannell says, “how you can sell your soul to the devil. The critics just loved it.”)

After the spectacular 1992-93 flameout of “The Hat Squad” after just 13 episodes--a show about detectives in hats, the failure of which did little to endear Cannell to the networks--he made his own deal with the devil. From then until he sold his studio to New World Entertainment for $30 million in 1995, Cannell kept an appraising eye on the bottom line, always making sure that it was divisible by the lowest common denominator.

The result was shows like “Silk Stalkings” and the almost unbearably cheesy “Renegade"--a first-run syndication series that featured a preening Lorenzo Lamas on a motorcycle and Cannell himself playing the gun-totin’ Dutch Dickson. “Renegade” was canceled this year after a profitable five-season run, though as even Swerling says, “I don’t know of any first-run syndication show that has brought great prestige to its maker.”

It is not so easy for Cannell to shrug this off: “I did love those shows,” he insists. “ ‘Renegade’ wasn’t ‘The Rockford Files,’ but everything doesn’t have to be sophisticated. One reason for the kind of schizophrenic career I’ve had is that I can really get off on doing ‘Renegade.’ ”

Not long ago, Cannell was standing in Swerling’s office when an agent phoned to inquire about sending over some scripts written by his clients in case the “Hawaii Five-O” pilot was picked up. “Ask him what he’s heard,” Cannell instructed Swerling nervously. “Does he know something?” Cannell had high hopes for this retread-in-paradise, but when CBS announced its fall schedule 10 days ago, the network eighty-sixed five-O.

Determined as ever to be part of the Hollywood mix, Cannell has written a string of thrillers--all constructed in the classic three-act structure of a screenplay--that may well represent his best work since “The Rockford Files.” Both “Final Victim” and “King Con,” which is based loosely on “The Sting,” are so eminently readable--and, just as Cannell planned it, filmable--that they fetched $1 million each for the screen rights. MGM was so eager to have John Travolta play Beano Bates that the studio bought “King Con” while it was still in manuscript form, and Travolta is now attached to the project.

Caught in the updraft of this reflected heat, Cannell writes his novels and bides his time.

“Novel writing can be pretty lonely,” he says, the antihero of his own literary exile. He misses the faster pace of television. “I don’t know that I’d want to have six shows on the air again,” Cannell muses. “That was really a popcorn machine, and I’m not sure that I’m up for that again. But I certainly wouldn’t mind doing one show really well.

“When I’m in my slow spots, I think, ‘It’s too bad. I’d rather be hot,’ ” he adds. “So I’ll sit down and write a book, and it’ll be a bestseller.” Just like that.

Bang, bang, you’re read!


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