'A-Team' producer Stephen J. Cannell dies

Emmy winner's credits also include 'Ironside,' 'Rockford.'

Stephen J. Cannell, the indefatigable writer-creator-producer who was among TV's most prolific suppliers of primetime programming, died Thursday of melanoma at his home in Pasadena. He was 69.

His credits are so numerous that it is nearly impossible to tabulate all his work, which ranged from writing episodes of "Ironside" in 1970 to a producer credit on this year's feature "The A-Team," based on the 1980s series Cannell co-created and executive produced.

By intelligent count, he wrote or co-wrote more than 300 TV scripts and produced or executive-produced more than 520 episodes.

"I am deeply saddened by the passing of my great friend and mentor Stephen J. Cannell," said Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television. "His extraordinary talents both as a writer and an industry leader made him, deservedly, enormously successful in the entertainment business, but it was his character, generosity, kindness and humanity that separate him from all others. The industry and the world have lost a titan, and in remembrance of a man who made a lasting and indelible impact, I share his mantra: Be honest, be sensitive, be reasonable, be fair, and you can succeed marvelously in business and in life."

Cannell was nominated for six Emmys and won once, best drama series for "The Rockford Files" in 1978, In 2006, he received the Writers Guild Laurel Award for TV Writing Achievement and won a WGA Award in 1981 for the "Tenspeed and Brown Shoe" pilot. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Among the more than 40 series he created or helped create are "The Rockford Files," "Baa Baa Black Sheep" (aka "Black Sheep Squadron"), "Baretta," "The Greatest American Hero," "Hardcastle and McCormick," "Riptide," "21 Jump Street," "Wiseguy," "Hunter" and "The Commish."

In its review of the "Rockford Files" premiere from Sept. 13, 1974, The Hollywood Reporter called it "a terrific show done with style, wit and intelligence."

In 1986, Cannell had four shows on the air: "A-Team," "Hardcastle," "Riptide" and "Hunter."

His writing credits include multiple episodes of shows ranging from such 1970s dramas as "Adam-12," "Rockford," "Black Sheep" and "Baretta" through the '80s and '90s with such series as "American Hero," "A-Team," "Stingray" and "Wiseguy," "Jump Street," "Cobra," "The Commish," "Renegade" and "Silk Stalkings."

He also wrote best-selling police novels including "Hollywood Tough" and "The Viking Funeral," "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," said director Randall Wallace, who worked on such Cannell shows as "Hunter" and "Stingray." "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."

Cannell was born Feb. 5, 1941, in Los Angeles and grew up in Pasadena. He attended the University of Oregon on a football scholarship while burdened with dyslexia, which he eventually overcame. After college, he went to work for his family's interior design firm. After hours, he wrote spec TV scripts. He quit the family business to pursue writing, even selling his wife's old Buick to pay rent.

Cannell sold several story ideas to "Mission: Impossible," but it was a spec script for Jack Webb's "Adam-12" that landed him entree as a writer. He was offered a position as head writer on the LAPD drama.

Cannell formed his own production company in 1979, Stephen J. Cannell Prods.

The company's first effort was "Tenspeed and Brown Shoe," which starred Ben Vereen as a veteran con man and master of disguise and Jeff Goldblum as an accountant who form a detective agency.

In 1986, he established a parent company, the Cannell Studios, to oversee all aspects of his numerous productions. The company was headquartered in a six-story building on Hollywood Boulevard and employed more than 1,200 people. Cannell Studios also owned soundstages in Culver City, its own wardrobe and props departments and its own camera equipment. The company also made a successful foray into merchandising. During the mid-'80s, it obtained all licensing rights to the Sylvester Stallone theatrical hit "Rambo."

Despite the enormous facilities, Cannell always stressed that he was a writer, not a studio titan. He typically arrived at his office at 6 a.m. to get in uninterrupted writing time. Always good-humored and never pressured, he loved his work. "We should be arrested for cashing our checks," he frequently said.

Stephen J. Cannell Prods. shows always bore his insignia after the end credits: a short sequence of a pipe-smoking Cannell typing feverishly, then ripping a page from his typewriter and tossing it in the air.

In a June 2004 interview with the Archive of American Television, he talked about why he came up with that logo, for which he was always recognized.

"Sometime in the early '80s, I was starting to be referred to as a television mogul," he said. "And I just kinda hated that because to me a mogul was a guy in a green suit who try to score actresses, you know? And I kept saying that I'm not a mogul, I'm a writer. I write every day for five hours.

"[So my publicist said], 'Well, how about we do something with you at a typewriter?' And I'm enough of a ham that said, 'Yes!' And the great thing is that wherever I go today, people [point and] say to me, "Ah, you're the writer!' So it's not, 'You're the TV producer' [or] 'You're the mogul'; it's, 'You're the writer.' And that's what I always wanted to be."

No ink-stained wretch, Cannell was a regal figure: tall, slim, goateed and habitually puffing on a pipe. In 1991, he stepped in front of the camera to host "Scene of the Crime," a show he created for CBS' late-night "Crime Time After Prime Time" lineup.

His success was particularly noteworthy in view of his dyslexia. Cannell was an avid spokesman on the subject and served as national chairperson for the Orton Dyslexia Society. He sponsored and performed in "Gifts of Greatness," a filmed play depicting famous dyslexics in history. Cannell is survived by his wife Marcia, who was his eighth-grade sweetheart, and three children: Tawnia, Chelsea and Cody.

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