In Memoriam: Stephen J. Cannell, 1941-2010
[amazon B000N2HD6O full]The name Stephen J. Cannell will likely only be familiar to readers of a certain vintage. Those who grew up watching television during the 1970s will remember Cannell as the writer and creator of such canonical prime-time television shows as The Rockford Files, The A-Team, The Commish and Riptide among others.
Cannell died the other day, at age 69, of complications from melanoma. As my elderly neighbors where I used to live in the Bronx would say, “he was a young man! Such a tragedy.” Too true.
Even if Cannell’s name is not instantly recognizable, his signature trademark is. At the end of each Cannell-created show, the image of a complete typewritten page being pulled dramatically and conclusively from an electric typewriter by the writer appeared: driving home the point that the TV show we had just seen was the product of a highly creative mind who evidently also took immense joy and pride in his work.
That was surely Stephen J. Cannell. He was a prolific television writer who brought us such memorable—and often pleasantly amusing—protagonists as Jim Rockford, the fallen cop and ex-con turned private investigator, indelibly played by the magisterial James Garner. The ensemble cast assembled for that show was further testament to Cannell’s genius.
They included Rockford’s endearingly curmudgeonly father, “Rocky” Rockford (Noah Beery, Jr.); his long-suffering friend and former partner, LAPD Sergeant Dennis Becker (Joe Santos); former cell-mate, and indefatigable schemer and shyster, Angel Martin (Stuart Margolin); comely lawyer and occasional love interest, Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbbett); and, especially, the magnificent Gandolph “Gandy” Fitch, a former jailhouse-snitch and hustler extraordinaire (memorably played by the late soul and R&B singer Issac Hayes).
[amazon 0595342442 full] The Rockford Files was the archetypal 1970s series. Set in a less crowded and febrile Los Angeles than exists today, each show opened with the same cheeky sequence involving what was cutting-edge technology in the 1970s—a message left on an answering machine picking up a phone call. The screen then immediately cut to the brilliant montage of California freeway signs depicting Rockford taking care of business across the LA metropolitan area as the synthesizer-created theme song played perfectly in the background.
Rockford was the American everyman. The independent, hardworking loner who, as a former police officer, becomes trapped and betrayed by the system and seeks redemption not with his fists, but with his wits. Rockford’s weapon of choice in one episode, for instance, was the dragon’s teeth embedded in the pavement of southern-California-beach parking lots to prevent cars from entering through the exit lane by puncturing their tires.
Rockford used his smarts, not a gun. Back then, at least, brains counted for more than brawn and, in Cannell’s world, ingenuity and being clever always triumphed over ham-handed threats and brute force.
Rockford’s purpose in life seemed to be helping a spectrum of Angelenos from different socioeconomic classes and races to right wrongs and avenge injustice. He wore double-knit, polyester sports jackets and golf slacks in various combinations of 1970s beige and brown tones. Rockford lived and worked out of a run-down trailer, seductively parked next to the Pacific Ocean alongside a pier and a restaurant/bar in Malibu. When I moved to California in 1981, one of my first priorities was to drive up the majestic Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to pay homage to the series at the spot where the fictional trailer sat and Rockford existed.
Rockford may in fact have been Cannell’s own alter ego. Each seemed to be the nice guy who, beset with adversity, overcomes some Herculean challenge to find success (of sorts in Rockford’s case), personal satisfaction and perhaps even great wealth (alas, not in Rockford’s case)—but who still remains a nice guy.
Cannell, for example, suffered from extreme dyslexia that went undiagnosed until he nearly flunked out of university. It was there, through an encouraging professor, that he discovered a talent for writing and subsequently a unique facility for churning out the engaging television scripts that launched his career.
Cannell’s New York Times obituarist, Bill Carter, got it exactly right when he wrote, “In many ways Mr. Cannell’s own success mirrored the formula he repeated in so many of those episodes. It was a three-act, feel-good story of overcoming debilitating flaws.” Even more revealing perhaps is the epitaph that Carter penned for Cannell: “He was successful and happy, unlike many of his Hollywood writing contemporaries.”
At the end of the obituary Cannell himself is quoted reflecting on his life and career. “I’m generally a very happy guy,” Cannell had observed in an interview published earlier this year in Success magazine, “because I’m doing what I want. I’m willing to tell you that there are people who are much better than I am in writing. I don’t have to be the fastest gun in the West.”
Jim Rockford would likely have said exactly the same thing in the context of his chosen profession. It was what they both were all about and is perhaps the most important legacy that Cannell—both himself and through Rockford—left us.