Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Stephen J. Cannell Tribute (classic)

[Writer and Producer Stephen J. Cannell received the Paddy Chayevsky Laurel Award for Television at the 2006 Writers Guild of America, West Awards on February 4, in the Hollywood Palladium. Cannell selected our Burt to write this tribute published in the WGA magazine, Written By, and in the event program. -ed]

February 5, 2006 - Stephen J. Cannell is my hero. But it’s not because he has produced more than 1,500 hours of quality television, written over 450 episodes, and created more than 40 shows, including “The Rockford Files,” “The A-Team, “ “Hunter,” “Riptide,” “21 Jump Street,” “Wiseguy,” “The Commish,” “Renegade” and “Silk Stalkings.” Heck, any 10 or 12 guys working day and night could probably have done the same.

He’s surely not my hero because, at an age when most TV writers start bitching about ageism, he managed to change careers and become a best-selling novelist.

He’s also not my hero because, unlike most normal writers who can’t balance a checkbook or even figure out the appropriate tip on a $13 lunch, Cannell is a savvy business tycoon who not only oversaw a billion dollar studio, but continues to own the worldwide distribution rights to over a thousand hours of Cannell-produced series and TV movies.

photo by Chelsea Cannell
He’s not my hero because in a town in which the most popular reality show is “Switching Spouses,” he and Marcia have been married for roughly a kazillion years.

He’s certainly not my hero because he’s won a trophy room full of Emmys and WGA awards in spite of having dyslexia. After all, it’s not like he’s the first person who’s ever suffered from an eating disorder.

He’s certainly not my hero because he’s tall, tan, and looks the way movie stars used to look. And you better believe it’s not because Steve Cannell has more hair on his head than my dog has on its entire body.

No, Stephen Cannell is my hero because? Well, let’s begin more or less at the beginning. Let’s go back to 1988, the year of this guild’s previous strike. There were those in the guild who thought the strike was a bad idea. I wasn’t one of them; Mr. Cannell was. After a meeting held by those of the loyal opposition, Cannell was widely quoted in the media. So was I. It was my honest opinion that while such people as Cannell and Steve Bochco were entitled to their opinion, inasmuch as most of their money came from producing and owning shows, not writing them, they did not share the same concerns as the rest of us working stiffs.

One night, my phone rang. It was Cannell calling, and he was very upset. He insisted that he was, first and foremost, a writer, and he resented what I had said. I pointed out that I was a fan of his work and intended no insult, but that there was no way on earth that a guy with half a dozen shows on the air could possibly be as concerned about foreign residuals and our health plan as the majority of his fellow members were.

For a moment after I spoke, there was nothing but silence. I assumed he had hung up on me. Then he said, “You’re right.” I was so surprised, I actually said, “I am?”

But even the fact that Steve Cannell is probably the only person I have ever convinced of anything isn’t the reason he’s my hero.

For that, we have to jump ten years to 1998. By that time, ageism had hit me so hard that my wife and I had to sell our condo and declare bankruptcy. The only jobs I was able to get were writing celebrity profiles for Emmy magazine. When I got the assignment to write about David Chase, I naturally called Cannell, the man who’d been his boss and mentor at “Rockford Files.”

He supplied me with several quotable anecdotes about the young Chase. He then asked me what I was doing these days. I said, “I’m doing this — the occasional piece for Emmy.” There was another of those long pauses. Then he said, “You’re too good a writer not to be working steady.” It had been several years since anyone but my wife had said such words to me.

Now to put this in proper context, you have to understand that he and I had never really worked together. Once, I was supposed to write an episode of “Rockford,” but a young, over-eager, over-greedy agent cost me the opportunity. Suddenly, I hear him say, “I’m taking my family to Hawaii tomorrow, but I’ll call when I return and we’ll have lunch.”

Frankly, I didn’t expect to hear from him again. But, true to his word, he called back and we met. By this time, he had already turned his back on TV and had become a novelist. But after I told him about my eight bleak years in Hollywood’s equivalent of Siberia, he said he still knew a lot of people who were running shows. He said he’d look through his Rolodex when he got back to his office.

The next day, he called. He began by saying he didn’t know anyone at any of the sit coms, and added that most of the producers he did know seemed to be working on cable sci-fi shows. However, he thought he might have an in for me at “Diagnosis: Murder.” He promised to check it out.

When I didn’t hear anything for several days, I reverted to my usual skepticism where big, good-looking, multi-millionaires are concerned. But, then, one day, the phone rang and it was Cannell. “I didn’t want you to think you’d fallen between the cracks. I have a call in to Chris Abbott over at ‘Diagnosis Murder,’ but she’s still out of town and won’t be back until next week. I just wanted you to know that I hadn’t forgotten about you.”

The thoughtfulness of that phone call, even now, eight years later, is enough to make me cry. Now you know why the man’s my hero.

The next time I heard from him, it was to tell me that Abbott had returned and that she was expecting my call.

That call led to a lucrative two-year gig, and brought me back from the brink of suicide.

In conclusion, I would just like to say that Steve Cannell is more than the sum of his wonderful hyphens, writer-producer, husband-father. He is also the finest guardian angel since Clarence got his wings.

Now let us all stand and raise the roof for Stephen J. Cannell, this year’s winner of the Laurel Award for TV writing excellence.

Related: To Hell And Back: Ageism In Hollywood