Tribute to Stephen Cannell
"I'm really not as smart as you guys think I am," Stephen J. Cannell said as he took the stage after sitting in the audience listening to two panels of colleagues and friends tell him how great he is in the tribute the Writers Guild put on for him on Thursday March 30, 2006 at the Writers Guild Theater. "In my head, I'm still the stupidest kid in the third grade who's never going to get out." Apparently, he failed third grade three times due to learning difficulties from his then undiagnosed dyslexia. Listening to him talk about overcoming such problems to create many of the shows I loved growing up into the writer I am now is inspiring. And if that isn't enough for one lifetime, he is the author of several books that have been a pure joy to read. In fact, I can say that Stephen J. Cannell and Michael Connelly are my two favorite novel writers and I've read every book both men have written.
So it was with great pleasure that I got to work this event and meet this man whose work I admire and would like to emulate. I did the press check-in which was great fun to do for this prestigious event. It was also an interesting experience. The panels were made up of many well-known celebrities who had worked with Stephen -- like Tom Selleck, Jeff Goldblum, and Michael Chikilis, to name a few. Hence, their pre-show reception in the lobby-makeshift green room was like a who's who of television and a coveted place to be for many people. Thus, it was interesting the number of people who came in claiming to be press and claiming to be subbing for someone on my list. No problem, I'm sure this happens a lot, except these days you have to be even more careful than you used to be. And I know from experience that people often claim to work for publications they don't or don't anymore, just to get the wider access into an event a press pass allows.
The amazing thing is when I'd ask them if they had an ID from the publication they were representing, most of them couldn't produce one. The only one who did present me with a business card was a guy from Variety whom Ken Droz, the event's public relations person, knew personally anyway. Still, he handed me his card without any fuss or argument, even though by then, Ken had come up to say hi to him, and I was no longer asking. Most of those who came without ID or business cards got in anyway, but Ken did talk to them at length before clearing them. Ken at least would know more who's who on that end of the business.
I wasn't doing the VIP check in, but since that was happening right next to me, a couple of people gave their names to me. One was Shane Conrad, who was there with his Dad, Robert Conrad, although they arrived separately. I told him that I remembered that ski rangers series he had starred in. He smiled and said it was really his Dad's series, pointing him out, because his Dad had executive-produced it.
Stephen Cannell also stopped by my podium, caught my eye and smiled at me. Like I said, I wasn't doing VIP check in, but it was great that press checkin came first and VIP entrance to the pre-party was right next to me because I got to chat with him for a moment. He's a very friendly and nice man. When I told him how much I liked his various series and his books -- that I've read them all -- he was all smiles and happy to hear what I had to say. He even put his arm around me and kept it there the whole time we talked, which of course, wasn't very long because he was the guest of honor at the pre-show VIP reception. I also told him that I used to work for his Cannell distribution arm when it was TeleVentures, under Pat Kenney, which was when I first moved to LA.
The M.C. for the evening was Leonard Hill who seems to have known Cannell from Universal. He told a story that Cannell drove a gold Mercedes (in the old days at least on Universal - not sure if he still drives it). The car's license plates were supposed to read: 'What If', but because of Stephen's dyslexia, he actually applied for and got 'Wahd If'. Then he impressed us with how much Cannell wrote -- over 40 different TV series, over 1500 hours of TV, and over 450 individual scripts as writer. (Sigh! That really puts me to shame. I'm not even sure I can imagine writing that much.)
The First Panel was The Early Years at Universal when Stephen was a writer for hire. The first show he wrote for was Dragnet and his hiring appears to be one of those fluke situations which happen so often in Hollywood -- they needed someone who could write a good script in a weekend. Stephen was recommended by Roy Huggins who had been his teacher and knew he could do it.
The person on stage who apparently knew Stephen the longest was Chuck Bowman (w/d/p, Greatest American Hero) - He met Stephen at KTLA in 1963 when Cannell was a gofer (now called 'PAs') for two female producers of a Game show called 7 Keys. Stephen was known as the 'rich kid from South Pasadena' because he grew up in a fairly well-off family -- the family business being furniture. Stephen had no family connections in showbiz.
Tanya Cannell (daughter, director) confirmed her dad was supposed to join his dad in the furniture business. She went on to tell us a more personal view of her Dad: that he would pitch stories to the kids when they were driving in the car somewhere. He would kind of test his story ideas out on them and they grew up with an intimate knowledge of the art of storytelling. (Which sounds to me to be an incredible, enviable learning opportunity.)
Kent McCord (actor, Adam-12) creditted getting the role in Adam-12 to Cannell because he appeared on Dragnet in a brilliant script the young Stephen wrote. He was one of those who later lobbied Jack Webb on behalf of getting Stephen to write on Adam-12. Jack Webb had a saying, "When 6 people tell you you're drunk, lie down." Taking his own advice, Webb hired Stephen who ended up writing 12 of the 24 episodes as Story Editor.
Jo Swerling, (producer, The Commish) talked about how famous the Cannell end credit logo of typing at the typewriter and ripping out the page to have it float away was around the world -- that people referred to him as 'the paper guy'. Leonard Hill then countered with a story about how Stephen on a trip to France was recognized and called 'script guy' there. The two of them couldn't understand the French, but they could hear 'script guy' clearly. Cannell also always talks about how he runs his rough drafts of his books by Jo Swerling for his feedback.
Charles Floyd Johnson (producer, The Rockford Files, Ba Ba Blacksheep, NCIS) described SC as magnanimous, practical and a mentor. He started out as the production coordinator and, then became a producer on Rockford Files. He called Stephen, "The Man for All Seasons."
Frank Lupo (writer/producer, The A-Team) told a story that when he was a young writer at Universal (claiming to be about ten years younger than Stephen), he used to take early morning walks. One day, he noticed that Cannell always arrived early… so he started walking nearby. Eventually Stephen asked him if he wanted coffee. He went into Stephen's office and Stephen put two scoops of freeze-dried coffee in a paper cup, two scoops of sugar, and two scoops of powered cream… then he held it under the hot water, and gave him that sludge to drink. The audience laughed and Tanya offered up that her dad still drank it that way. Ugh!
But Frank said he came over every morning to have that coffee because Stephen would talk about writing and he learned a lot about writing. That Stephen was generous that way and loved to impart knowledge and teach his writing passion, to anyone serious about listening. Okay, given that kind of opportunity, I'd drink the sludge as well.
The second panel was called The Studio Years - which were the years that Stephen had his own studio, Cannell Studios. The second clip of the evening reprised these shows. Jeff Goldblum (actor, Tenspeed and Brownshoe) talked about how Stephen had real joy in making creative work a constant part of his life -- that the real reward to him was the creativity itself. Described Stephen as having that child-like wonder at life necessary for writing but was also ethical, disciplined, courteous, kind, generous, and committed.
Stephanie Kramer (actress, Hunter) said that if she had to sum Stephen up in one word, it is 'supportive'… Then she sang a song about how she felt about him, which was very appreciative and grateful. Except the last line was the zinger, 'you made me work with Fred'. This got chuckles out of the audience members who knew the story of how Fred Dryer got very jealous of his co-star's popularity and got her fired. Apparently, he is one of the argumentative, throw-your-weight-around types in the business.
Later, when Stephen was up, he was asked about working with Fred Dryer. He said some fairly nice things about him, and then at the end, just in case someone believed him, he gave a shrugging gesture, which said 'whew, got out of that one.' This brought more chuckles from a knowing audience.
Michael Chiklis (actor, The Commish) said that while he was doing a Wiseguy, Stephen Kronish had liked him so much in the role that he showed him a script he wrote… The Commish… Kronish really thought Michael was right for The Commish, except there was a little problem… the role was written about a 40-year old police captain and Chiklis was 26 at the time. They brought it to Cannell, who got behind the idea. Then all three of them pushed for it. It didn't happen for a few years, and not until they switched networks, but both Stephens hung in there, with the steadfast idea of Chiklis in the role. He credits that role for the birth of Vic Mackey on The Shield. He feels there would have been no Mackey on The Shield today, if it weren't for Cannell getting him the lead on The Commish.
David Greenwalt (w/d/p, The Commish) described Stephen as having good attitude and good conscience and that contributed to everyone wanting to work with him. He reminisced about John McNamara bringing in Profit to them: Cannell liked and fought for it, saying "It's like watching a Cobra."
Mitzi Kapture (actress, Silk Stalkings) said he taught her that the most important thing was to speak from the heart.
Don Michael Paul (w/d/actor, Silk Stalkings, Hat Squad) came wearing a purple shirt because Stephen loves purple. He's a close friend of Stephen. Stephen was his best man at his wedding. A gem he shared with us was that Stephen taught him: when writing a character, make the words specific. Don said that he had little post-its to himself scattered about with various tips for himself. Stephen came in and saw the one that said, "Never kill a bad guy with one bullet." Later, when Stephen was signing a poster for Don, he wrote, "Never kill a bad guy with one bullet or one word. It takes at least one clip and a quarter page of dialogue." (I love this line. Sounds like sound writing advice to me.)
Richard Christian Matheson (writer, Hardcastle & McCormick) said that Stephen told him to not kill the bad guys, drop a house on them. And also to keep the viewer interested, do the next most interesting thing. Mentioned Stephen has a private jet.
When the second panel was done, they showed a third clip short. This was about his horror and thriller independent films and his books. I didn't even know he did independent films, but then I wouldn't go watch horror or thriller films anyway. The books, of course, I know very well.
Stephen then got up on stage to say a few words… to his friends who had honored him… he was obviously touched -- the highlights of his talk:
He's really not as smart as they think he is. In his head, he's still the stupidest kid in the third grade (failed it three times) who's never going to get out. He always tries to hire people who are better than he is so that he's constantly moving forward in his own writing and improving. He always thinks the scripts of the people he hires are so much better than his own.
Roy Huggins was his teacher, his mentor and his hero. However, more than that, Stephen feels his Dad is his greatest hero, his best friend, and the man whom he most wants to be like.
In response to the actors saying that Cannell's door was always open and how supportive he was, Stephen talked about how it is easy to be one of those writers who becomes antagonistic towards actors who don't say the words as scripted. For himself, he takes the position that actors give him the greatest gifts… and that it's more than just the fact that a star on a show can get a writer he doesn't work well with kicked off the show. Stephen truly believes that because actors give him the greatest gifts, he's thus in the business to give the actor the opportunity to do that for him. The actor can't do it for him, if he doesn't listen, and that's why his door is always open.
He credits Kent McCord with teaching him this. Stephen told this story: Apparently, early on, when Stephen was on Dragnet, and having the know-it-all hubris of youth, he wasn't happy when Kent changed a line in his script to make it more real for him. Stephen was furious and they got into a screaming match on set, because Stephen was determined to have him do it over. In fact, he sent a note down to the director point blank stating to have the actor do the lines as written. And he went down to the set to make sure it got done the way he wanted. Kent was unhappy but he gave it his best shot. But no matter how he tried, it didn't work… Take after take was the same, and Stephen learned something valuable: Kent couldn't make the words work because he didn't believe the words he was saying -- Stephen could see that in his eyes -- and that's why Kent changed them in the first place. Hence, Kent taught Stephen that he'd better come up with an answer if an actor doesn't believe in something. If an actor has a problem, he better get in business and solve it. Because it always shows up on the screen.
Commenting on the good attitude his friends harped on about, Stephen feels that you get the best from people when you expect you're gonna get the best, not when your expecting them to disappoint you. Negative energy brings negative results.
He also said he has always believed and still believes in the three-act structure. Even writes his novels that way… The first act sets up the problem. The top of the second act complicates the problem. In the rest of the second act, the antagonist as well as the protagonist needs to be in constant motion (something writers tend to forget). The end of act two sees the destruction of the hero's plan. Act three of course is the resolution.
Someone asked Cannell to answer the piece of advice about writing Tom Selleck said always confused him. His explanation: In act three, there's generally a lot of exposition for things that need to be explained in order for the episode to be understood. This exposition gets boring. You can minimize it best if you start laying off the third act exposition by taking it and turning it into supposition in act two. (Meaning have a character pose the question, what if this happens, etc.) The audience will accept it easier that way.
Cannell also talked about how he writes… that he writes every single day, seven days a week, because if he didn't, then he'd feel like he was wasting too much time trying to get back in the groove. He likes to write about ten pages in a chapter so he can write a chapter a day. Or an act a day in a TV script. Then he gives the chapter to his secretary who then has to decipher his dyslexic work and make it read right. The next day, he makes his changes to that chapter and writes the next chapter. The day after that he makes his changes to those two chapters and writes a third. When he's juggling five chapters in all, then he retires the first one as completed.
I loved hearing this, because this is how I write and this was probably the first time I've heard anyone admit to writing like I do, which is constantly rewriting as I go, so that I always have the whole layout in my head as I write more. Most writers say they just write a vomit draft -- start on page one and don't stop until they finish the draft, then go back and see what they've got and rewrite then.
After the panels were over, I got to speak one-on-one with him again. This is when we took the above photo together. Another woman had asked him for a photo first and he agreed. So then I asked him and he said sure and put his arm around me while Vince shot the photo. It was at this time that I told him The Plan was my favorite of his books. "Ah, the first one", he said. We talked briefly about that book, how it was a departure from his usual stuff because of the political stuff. He mentioned who it was that was very helpful to him because that was a bit outside what he usually wrote… but the name slipped past me.
After that, we had a lovely reception in the lobby for everyone who came to the event. I had a good time, but the best part of the evening for me was over with. Cannell and his people did attend the reception but I had had more than my fair share of time talking with a man I admire. In fact, I often used him to answer that question for prospective employers here in the business when they would ask: What do you want to be doing in five years? I'd answer, I want to be Stephen J. Cannell. Because he's done everything I want to do... write scripts, have my own TV shows, own my own studio, and be a best-selling author. The actor bit -- well, I always figured I could do without, but it looks like I'll be having my film acting debut shortly, so more on that when that comes to fruition.
The only person I regret not getting to speak with was Kim LeMasters because he didn't stay long at the reception. He talked to a few of his friends and then split. I was waiting to find a time when he was free, but I wasn't able to connect with him. I wanted to share with him that he and I spoke several times about Houston Knights when I was just an audience member in Chicago who liked the show and was trying to express that love to the network so they would keep the show on the air and he was either the VP or President of CBS at that time. How did I get to talk to him, you ask? Well, the first time, I'm not sure because I started by calling my local station to express my love for the show and got transferred. He used to tell me tidbits about the show so I suspect that either the show was his baby and that's why people transferred me to him or he loved it as much as I did and they knew it. Often when I'd see his name in the trades over the years, I'd think warmly of him, but I've never got to meet him face to face. And I still haven't.