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Despite dyslexia, Stephen J. Cannell has a novel career


Pasadena, Calif. -- It's a safe bet that by the time you're hitting the snooze bar on your clock radio in the morning, Stephen J. Cannell already is hard at work.

Every day at 5 a.m., Mr. Cannell sits down at his IBM typewriter in his souvenir-cluttered office at home to write. He'll do this for five hours, then be driven in his limousine to another office, where he oversees a virtual factory of TV shows.

Not that the man who has come up with such hit series as "The Rockford Files," "The A-Team," "Baa Baa Black Sheep" and "Wiseguy" has to write for a living anymore. Mr. Cannell, who has created more than 40 shows and written more than 350 episodes of them in 30 years, lives in luxury and beauty in this homey southern California community and could have put it on cruise control a long time ago.

But, Mr. Cannell said, "If I wasn't writing, I wouldn't be having any fun."

His concept of "fun" would bring flop sweat to many other TV-industry professionals.

"Writing is like hanging by your toes over a giant, open chasm," he said. "There's great exhilaration in it, there's the potential for great failure in it. When you fail, you fail with a lot of people booing and hissing. Even when you succeed, sometimes you're not reviewed well -- even though the public may like it.

"There's tremendous risk, and I think life without risk is boring. Nowhere have I been able to find that opportunity for risk in my business life like I have it in my creative life. That's why I stay on it."

If this sounds like someone who still has something to prove, perhaps it's because Mr. Cannell has a long memory.

"I'm a dyslexic, a fairly severe one," he said during an animated conversation in his home on 6 acres of magnificently manicured lawn and gardens. "I've always written but was punished for the way I spelled. I was a C and D student, and often got Fs. I flunked three times before I got out of high school.

"I was a popular enough kid, but in my heart I knew I was dumb. I was taught that by the school system. This writing dream I've had since I was 16 started out as unattainable. I liked to sit down and write poems to my wife, who I'm still married to, in the eighth grade. She didn't grade them -- she read them and could make out what I was saying."

Mr. Cannell, 54, said he easily could have gone into his father's interior design business and made a good living. He still probably would have married his grade-school sweetheart, Marcia, and raised a family in Pasadena, where they both grew up.

But then he couldn't have demonstrated to the teachers who gave him those Fs that writing well involves more than correct grammar and accurate spelling. It was a lesson he learned when he finally made it to the University of Oregon, where he found a writing teacher who cared as much about words as he did.

"What a gift this guy gave to me. He said, 'I'm interested in what's up here,' " Mr. Cannell said, pointing to his head, " 'not spelling or grammar.' "

Beginning to write

After returning home, Mr. Cannell worked for his father to support his young family. But in the evenings he wrote short stories and scripts.

He sold some of his work to "Mission Impossible," then "It Takes a Thief" and "Adam 12," where he became head writer.

As one of the creators of "The Rockford Files" (now in reruns on A&E; cable), "Baretta" and "Baa Baa Black Sheep" (later "Black Sheep Squadron") in the '70s, Mr. Cannell earned a reputation for developing hip, audience-friendly shows and memorable characters.

In 1979 he formed his own production company, and since then he has turned out a spate of network shows, including "The A-Team," "Hunter," "Riptide," "21 Jump Street," "Wiseguy," "Silk Stalkings," "The Commish," "Tenspeed and Brown Shoe," "The Greatest American Hero," "Sonny Spoon" and "Booker."

He also has produced shows for first-run syndication -- including "Renegade," in which he plays Lt. "Dutch" Dixon -- and several made-for-TV movies, including the "Rockford" show that appeared during the May sweeps.

But with all his success, it wasn't until Mr. Cannell completed his first novel, a political thriller titled "The Plan," that the Emmy Award-winner felt he had fully realized his dream of becoming a complete writer.

In "The Plan," the Mafia infiltrates the media to create a presidential candidate who would quietly subvert racketeering statutes and give the mobsters greater freedom of movement. Mr. Cannell fills his story with fast-paced action and multidimensional characters, who are given clear-cut options when confronting evil.

"I'm pleased with the way the book came out," he said. "I accomplished what I set out to do. I think it's a page-turner, which is what I set out to write in my first novel -- a fast summer read."

Familiar terrain

The hero of the book is a tortured TV producer and writer who is hired to create a campaign documentary for a Mafia-controlled candidate passing himself off as a populist. The producer-writer, Ryan Bolt, has been living in despair ever since he lost his son in an accident and his wife in a divorce.

As with many first-time novelists, Mr. Cannell has borrowed from his own background. Like Ryan, Mr. Cannell and his wife lost their 15-year-old son, Derek, in an accident while he was playing on the beach.

"Some of that stuff is real, some of it isn't," said Mr. Cannell, who has two daughters, ages 27 and 13, and an 11-year-old son. "Obviously, I didn't lose my marriage over it. Eighty percent of the people who lose children do, though. It's very difficult."

Summer page-turners aimed at the mass market aren't likely to impress critics, but Mr. Cannell long ago stopped writing for them. The one time he did, he guessed wrong -- with happy results.

"The 'A-Team' is a perfect example," he said. "To show how stupid I am, I thought that critics would like that show and the public wouldn't get it. We set out to break every rule of current existing drama. I thought the critics might get a kick out of it.

"So, what happens? The American public goes, 'Wow, look at this!' and the critics urinate on it. It made its statement: the No. 1 action-hour TV show in the '80s. It redefined me. In a lot of people's minds, I went from this golden boy who made 'Tenspeed and Brown Shoe' and 'Rockford Files' to this scurvy, cheap, shallow guy who would bring these violent characters into your living room."

Target audience

So whom is Mr. Cannell trying to reach?

"I write for me -- me!" he exclaimed, nearly bouncing out of the well-cushioned chair on which he was sitting. "The only way I can have any sense of honesty about my work is to say, 'Steve, when you go home and watch this show, are you going to be happy?' If the answer is no, then I shouldn't be doing the project."

While working on a second novel, Mr. Cannell is writing another "Rockford" movie for TV. He's also producing "Silk Stalkings" for the USA cable network, "Renegade" and next fall's reality-based syndicated series "U.S. Customs Classified," of which he'll be host. He hopes ABC will bring back "The Commish" in some form, and he is preparing "Profit," for Fox, as a midseason replacement.

Outside Mr. Cannell's office on the second floor of his home, the walls are covered with hundreds of photographs of his children and backstage activities on his shows. While the rooms downstairs are filled with carefully chosen furniture and antiques, the upstairs has a warm, lived-in feel.

"This is the hang-out house, this is where all the kids come after school," he said, adding with a hearty laugh, "Now, admittedly, it's a nice place to hang out."

His office has a decidedly masculine feel, with footballs on the floor, pictures of his yachts on the deep-blue walls and other souvenirs dating back to high school scattered about. Near the window that overlooks the large, tailored back lawn and fountain is Mr. Cannell's typewriter -- just like the one he pulls paper from at the end of his shows.

"I'm not better than Elmore Leonard," he says of his work. "I try to be the best that I, Steve Cannell, can be. I have my equipment that God issued to me. I don't have 'Dutch' Leonard's, I don't have James Lee Burke's -- I have mine.

"I have a rule: I only work on my scale of 1 to 10. So I never think about, will I be upset when they review it? You have to give yourself permission to be bad, or else you'll never write anything."

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