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David Chase, Steven Bochco and other Hollywood folks remember Stephen J. Cannell

October 1, 2010 |  3:25 pm

 

Before Stephen J. Cannell, television's heroes tended to be square-jawed, flawless, never-a-hair-out-of-place kind of guys. But the creator of series such as "The Rockford Files" and "The A-Team" changed that.

"His characters had weaknesses -- they were fallible human beings," said David Chase, who worked early in his career with the prolific producer on "The Rockford Files." "That was the beginning of viewers seeing a TV protagonist as someone like themselves."

That's one of Cannell's myriad contributions to the TV landscape, with his friends and former colleagues speaking Friday about his influence on the business and his deep love of his craft. Cannell, a bestselling novelist and Emmy-winning producer, died Thursday at his Pasadena home of complications of melanoma. He was 69 and had been in the entertainment industry for four decades, creating star-making series including "21 Jump Street" and classics such as "The Greatest American Hero."

Fans kept up a steady stream of posts on Cannell's Facebook page on Friday, and Holly Robinson Peete said on her Twitter account, "Rest in peace, Stephen J. Cannell. Thank you for taking a chance on me in '86. I will never forget you. I love you." Comedian Patton Oswalt tweeted, "In honor of Stephen J. Cannell ... everyone rip a sheet of paper out of your typewriter and let it fall to the ground."

Oswalt was referring to Cannell's memorable TV logo -- see the above video clip -- inspired by the producer's love of his old school IBM Selectric typewriter (yes, that's him flinging paper).

Steven Bochco, who'd been friends and colleagues with Cannell since the early '70s, said every young writer on the Universal lot would stop by Cannell's office to read scripts from "The Rockford Files."

"They were so smart and so funny, and he and his team were just knocking them out one after the other," Bochco said. "He was not a cookie-cutter writer -- he was completely original."

Bochco pointed to Cannell's "boundless imagination" as the source for his many shows, including "Wiseguy," "The Commish" and "Hardcastle and McCormick." "He was a master craftsman, and he always did his homework," Bochco said. "He never faked it."

 

"As gifted and talented as he was, we all loved him because he was just one of the dearest people alive," Bochco said. He and other friends had been able to visit with Cannell in recent weeks to say their goodbyes. "I got the chance to hug him and tell him I loved him."

Warren Littlefield, a former executive at NBC, worked with Cannell on a number of projects in the '80s, including "Hunter." "He was so passionate about his work -- he just loved it," Littlefield said. "And he was so disciplined. He had this whole army of people working on multiple series and he managed it all so well."

The environment he fostered ended up spawning a generation of writer-producers, Littlefield said, including Chase, creator of the seminal mob series "The Sopranos."

Cannell's workplace was "supportive, decent, friendly, which doesn't exist much anymore," Chase said. "There was something very earnest and boyishly honest about him. I learned so much from him."

NBC got a huge boost in the '80s from the Cannell touch, Littlefield said. "He understood what I'd call the vitamins and minerals of what the audience needed," he said. "The daily grind of life can be so difficult for lots of people, and his shows would let you forget all that for an hour and just enjoy the thrill of the adventure."

Cannell made TV feel larger than it was, Littlefield said.

"TV was going through growth and change at that time, trying to reflect the production values of the big screen," Littlefield said. "Stephen was an architect of that change. He made TV feel big and exciting."

Fred Dryer, a former pro football player who starred in the crime drama "Hunter," said Cannell was incredibly skilled at nurturing young talent.

"I got more than a paycheck and a starring role working with Stephen," Dryer said. "I got an education. And it really paved the way for the rest of my life."

[Updated 5:56 p.m. Randall Wallace, director of the upcoming Disney film "Secretariat," who worked with Cannell on "Hunter," "Sonny Spoon" and "Broken Badges," said in a statement:

"Steve Cannell was not only an amazingly gifted man who loved to write and loved to produce, he also loved to teach and share these passions with others. His legacy lives not just in all of his original work, but also in the careers of so many of us who had the great privilege of learning from him. He set standards of enthusiasm, diligence and tolerance that inspired all of us, and we grieve for his loss and we grieve for his family whom he loved so deeply."]

-- T.L. Stanley

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