Friday, 1 October 2010

STEPHEN J. CANNELL (1941-2010)

American television producer, screenwriter, and novelist Stephen J. Cannell has died, aged 69. He was a master storyteller behind hours of entertaining crime dramas or action/adventure shows.

Stephen J. Cannell started his long and highly successful career at the end of the sixties as a writer for Universal Television on shows like It takes a Thief, Ironside or Adam-12. In 1973 he wrote the screenplay for Double Exposure, one of the most famous episode of Columbo, where the murderer played by Robert Culp used a subliminal image to trap his victim. One year later TV producer, writer and creator Roy Huggins (Maverick, The Fugitive) teamed up with Cannell to create The Rockford Files, starring James Garner as Jim Rockford.

Rockford, a private eye, wrongfully served time in prison before being pardoned. He lived in a mobile home (doubling as his office) in a parking lot on a beach of Malibu. The show, which lasted six seasons, contained everything that made the style of Stephen J. Cannell as a creator/producer: likeable outcast characters, a cocktail of comedy and drama, modern and witty dialogues, and the music of Mike Post and Pete Carpenter.

Cannell went on writing History of US television with Baretta (1975-1978), Baa Baa Black Sheep (1976-1978), or The Greatest American Hero (1981-1983). In 1979 he formed Stephen J. Cannell Productions, which became a powerful production company with the success of with The A-Team (1983-1987), co-created with Frank Lupo. In the eighties, his creations/productions epitomized this sense of popular entertainment which gave US dramas a global appeal. With his shows, atypical cops (Hunter) or private investigators (Hardcastle & McCormick, Riptide, Stingray) then rivaled Aaron Spelling's productions for the domination of network primetime schedules.

Always anticipating evolutions in his business, Stephen J. Cannell opened a studio facility in Vancouver, British Columbia, toward the end of the 1980s in order to reduce production costs. There he produced shows like 21 Jump Street (1987-1991), the innovative and critically acclaimed Wiseguy (1987-1990), or The Commish (1991-1996). New World Communications acquired his company in 1995, then Cannell founded The Cannell Studios.

Sometimes Stephen J. Cannell appeared as an actor in his own shows or in series produced by others: he played corrupt cop "Dutch" Dixon in Renegade (1992-1997), his own creation, or TV producer Jackson Burley in the hilarious 1997 episode of Diagnosis Murder called Must Kill TV. Since the nineties Cannell was also a best-seller novelist and he appeared as himself in the pilot and two episodes of Castle (2009), playing cards with the main character and fellow novelists James Patterson and Michael Connelly. The most extraordinary is that Cannell lived with dyslexia his whole life and was even a spokesperson on the subject.

During three decades Stephen J. Cannell entertained millions of TV viewers around the world with his stories, his characters and his productions. Some were not rating hits but left imprints in a way or another: City of Angels (1976, co-created with Roy Huggins) and Tenspeed and Brown Shoe (1980) are revered as masterpieces, the short-lived Unsub (1989) is widely considered as the protype of CSI and Profit (1996) is a cult classic.

With the death of Cannell, it's an entire era of the US television industry which is ripped from his typewriter and flies away.

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