Today: Stephen J. Cannell, who overcame an almost impossible limitation to become a top Hollywood writer.
Stephen created or co-created over 40 television shows, wrote over 450 television episodes and produced a thousand episodes more. In the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s his shows ran first run across American television and in syndication, around the world.
His shows included: “The Rockford Files,” starring James Garner, “The A-Team,” “Baretta,” “21 Jump Street,” “The Greatest American Hero,” “The Commish,” and “Wiseguy.”
Then in 1995 to do something new and exciting, Stephen began a second career as a best selling novelist. He wrote 17 novels including the very popular Shane Scully detective series about a Los Angeles private eye.
But Stephen’s own story is as compelling as that of his best characters.
Born in Los Angeles in 1941, Stephen always dreamed he would become a writer. But he had an undiagnosed disability. He was severely dyslexic. So dyslexic he had trouble reading and writing and flunked three grades.
In the 1940’s and 50’s, most people were not familiar with dyslexia and many of them thought he was just stupid and made him feel that way. Becoming a writer seemed ridiculous.
Eventually Stephen graduated from high school and enrolled at Oregon University, where he had a life changing experience.
In a creative writing class, his teacher told him spelling errors were not critical, what mattered was his impressive creativity and that he should use his ideas and keep writing.
Stephen never forgot this encouragement and never stopped writing.
After graduating from college in 1964 he went to work driving a truck in his dad’s home decorating business. But on nights and weekends, Stephen wrote and submitted television scripts.
The rejection notices piled up. Yet he refused to quit, instead learning from those rejections how to improve his writing and how to make it more commercially attractive.
Then in 1968, after four long years and numerous rejections, Stephen finally sold a script. It was for the Universal Studios television series, “It Takes a Thief.” After that Universal hired him as a freelancer and he wrote scripts for such police detective series as “Ironside” and “Columbo.”
He became well known on the Universal lot and soon he was hired to help write and edit Jack Webb’s popular television show, “Adam-12,” about two Los Angeles police officers in a squad care dealing with everyday crimes.
For a guy who growing up was often called “stupid,” this was wonderful. He was becoming a well known television writer and being well paid for doing what he loved.
As a result of his struggles, Stephen often patterned his characters on people like Jim Rockford, a Los Angeles private eye who lived in a beaten up old trailer in a Malibu parking lot.
Instead of being invincible, Rockford made many mistakes, had some clients who didn’t pay him and he could laugh at himself and get the audience to relate to his problems and laugh with him.
Rockford eventually always solved the crime but above all he was compassionate and principled, determined to do what was right. Stephen capitalized on James Garner’s wry sense of humor and after that; humor became a staple of his writings.
But as much as Stephen loved to write, to overcome his dyslexia he often dictated story ideas and some scripts to a personal assistant. This approach worked well and helped him to become the writer he dreamed of being.
In his personal life, Stephen married his girlfriend Marcia Finch, whom he met when they were in grade school, when he was 23 in 1964 and the couple had four children.
As a successful writer, Stephen still wrote constantly; often late into the night and on weekends. This left little time for his family but he always assumed he would later make it up to them. Then tragedy struck.
In 1981, his 15-year-old son Derek was building a beach sandcastle when it suddenly collapsed and suffocated him to death.
That horrific event crushed Stephen and he realized none of us knows how much time we have with our loved ones and we should make the most of it while we have it.
He slashed his work hours and spent more time with his family, including having dinner with them each night.
Stephen enjoyed his family and his career, and he even took small roles as a character actor in addition to his writing. But on September 30th of 2010, his time came to an end. Stephen died in his Pasadena home of complications from melanoma. He was 69 years old.
He is survived by Marcia, his wife of 46-years, and by their three children, daughters Tawnia and Chelsea and son Cody, along with three grandchildren.
He is also survived by numerous entertainment industry people whose careers he helped such as David Chase, who produced and wrote for the “Rockford Files,” and later created “The Sopranos,” “21 Jump Street’s” Johnny Depp, “Wiseguy’s” Kevin Spacey and the list goes on.
But Stephen is also survived by his many television shows, some of which run in syndication across the globe. And as readers of his best selling books can tell you he survives as an author whose works they relish.
What was his perspective of his life?
“I’m generally a very happy guy, because I’m doing what I want,” Stephen remarked in a recent Success magazine interview. “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.”
Stephen had come to peace with himself.
Success Tip of the Week:
As you pursue success, prioritize to spend significant time with your family. As Stephen learned, time is short and you will be thankful you did.
Sources for this article include: “Stephen J. Cannell, Prolific TV Writer Dies at 69,” New York Times, 10/2/10 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/02/arts/television/02cannell.html, “Stephen J. Cannell dies at 69; TV writer, producer” Los Angeles Times, 10/2/10 http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-1020-stephen-cannell-20101002,0,5215255.story
In the next KazanToday:
How a man built one of America’s great fortunes despite attending only one year of grade school.