And yet, his favorite subject was English, he listed “author” as his future career in his high school yearbook and he graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism. Throughout his life, Stephen J. Cannell defied the odds and excelled far above what anyone could have imagined.
After college, he worked for his father’s business during the day and wrote every night, churning out television spec scripts. After five years of unwavering persistence, he sold a story to Mission Impossible, a script to It Takes a Thief and landed his first staff job as the story editor of Adam-12. By age 29, he had become one of the youngest executive producers at Universal Studios, working under his mentor Roy Huggins.
It was at Universal that Stephen wrote a pilot called The Rockford Files, which he said the networks “hated.” It broke the mold of the tough-as-nails private detective stereotype that permeated prime-time television. Jim Rockford was a cantankerous private detective who would drop a case if it got too rough. Fortunately, NBC picked up the series after James Garner committed to playing Rockford. The pilot tested with the highest score in NBC history.
Defying conventional wisdom at the time, The Rockford Files became a huge hit and changed the private detective genre forever. Fueled by this success, Cannell went on to create more hit series such as Baretta and Baa Baa Black Sheep. He was able to connect with television audiences by creating flawed heroes who were quirky and street smart.
In 1979, he left Universal to form Stephen J. Cannell Productions. It was a risky move at the time, but Cannell had faith in his talent, as he always had, even when others doubted. His first three series out of the gate were the critically acclaimed Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, superhero comedy The Greatest American Hero and the mega-hit The A-Team.
More Cannell hits followed: Hunter, Riptide, Hardcastle and McCormick, Wiseguy, The Commish, Profit, Renegade and Silk Stalkings. Johnny Depp got his first big break in the Cannell series 21 Jumpstreet, a popular Cannell show that aired on the newly launched Fox TV. Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey has credited his role in Wiseguy as a major milestone in his career.
Seven years later, Stephen formed The Cannell Studios to oversee all aspects of the organization's operations. Having surpassed the $1 billion mark in production outlays, the studio experienced remarkable growth and diversification in such areas as production (films, mini-series, commercials), merchandising, first-run/off-network programming, and several television stations. In 1989, Cannell developed the North Shore Studios, at the time, the largest feature film and television studio in Canada.
Cannell had re-defined the television writer as more than just a hired scribe; writers could also produce. At one point in his career, Stephen J. Cannell was the third biggest producer in television with multiple shows on several networks. Cannell Studios still owns the worldwide distribution rights to more than 1,000 hours of Cannell-produced series and TV movies.
In addition to his prolific writing career, Cannell directed several episodes and stepped in front of the cameras to act in numerous TV series, TV movies and the hit show Renegade, which he created and co-starred in. He also wrote and produced numerous reunion specials of his most popular series.
In the mid-1990’s, broadcasting rules changed and the networks were allowed to own TV shows as well as broadcast them. This significantly changed the game, making TV networks not just buyers, but also competitors. Cannell saw the writing on the wall and decided that it was time to follow his dream of becoming a novelist.
He segued into the world of print and wrote sixteen bestselling mystery novels, including the critically acclaimed Shane Scully series: The Prostitutes’ Ball, The Pallbearers, On the Grind, Three Shirt Deal, White Sister, Cold Hit, Vertical Coffin, Hollywood Tough, The Viking Funeral, and The Tin Collectors. St. Martin’s Press will publish the newest installment, Vigilante in December 2011.
Cannell was also the author of several “stand alone” bestselling novels including: Runaway Heart, The Devil's Workshop, Riding the Snake, King Con, Final Victim, and The Plan. His last stand-alone novel At First Sight: A Novel of Obsession was released in July 2008.
In addition to the Emmy and People’s Choice Awards, Cannell received the Saturn Award - Life Career Award (2004), The Marlow Lifetime Achievement Award from Mystery Writers of America (2005), and the WGA Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television Writing Achievement (2006), the NATPE Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award (2007), the 2008 Final Draft Hall of Fame Award and the 2009 Caucus Producer of the Year Award.
Two of Cannell’s most popular television shows, 21 Jump Street and The A-Team, were recently produced as feature films. The Greatest American Hero is currently in development.
Cannell was an avid spokesperson for dyslexia and advocate for children and adults with learning disabilities. A third generation Californian, he grew up and resided in the Pasadena area with his wife, Marcia, and their three children. Stephen passed away on September 30, 2010 from complications of melanoma.