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Stephen J. Cannell
How to Succeed in Show Business
by Really, Really Trying

 

When Stephen J. Cannell formed his independent production company in 1979, he reinvented the television game by creating the only studio in Hollywood run "by a writer for writers." But to paraphrase the old ad, almost no one believed it when this dyslexic, former high school football player first sat down to type.

No one imagined over 1,500 television scripts; over 35 Cannell-produced shows ranging from The A-Team to Profit, The Rockford Files to Renegade, Silk Stalkings to Wiseguy; and a growing number of bestselling novels would result. Least of all the writer himself. Recently, Cannell reminisced with Crescent Blues about how he started on the road that would take him from "stupidest guy in the class" to studio head and TV star.

Crescent Blues: How did you get from an advertising major at the University of Oregon to writing and producing your own television shows?

Stephen J. Cannell: To begin with, I had a great writing instructor in college. I always credit him. His name is Ralph Salisbury. Ralph turned on all the lights for me.

I'm a fairly dyslexic person. I flunked three grades before I graduated high school. So I had a lot of trouble with school. I graduated from the University of Oregon with a very mediocre 2.2. grade point average for four years.

For me, spelling was always a major problem. Ralph was the first instructor I ever had who gave me permission to spell any way I wanted. Ralph was the first person who said: "I don't care whether you use sentence fragments; those are tools of writers. This isn't an English class; it's a creative writing class." Without him I wouldn't be sitting here today, because he really got me excited.

Buy from Amazon today.Ralph encouraged me to keep up with my writing after I left college. But I was getting married, and my dad had a fairly large [interior design] business that I was going to take over when I got old enough -- and wise enough. So I went to work for my dad, and he had me doing all different kinds of things: driving trucks, working in different departments of his company.

But I had a friend from college, Rick Dumm, who wanted to be a writer. He sent me a script, and I looked at it and thought: "God, this guy sat down and wrote a whole script, and I haven't written anything since I left college."

Rick was coming to Los Angeles. He wanted to be a screenwriter.

Crescent Blues: Did you live in Los Angeles then?

Stephen J. Cannell: I lived in L.A. I was L.A.-based. I was raised there. I was born there. It's my hometown.

Rick said, "Can we get together and work together?" I said, yeah. Misery loves company.

I started to write with him, and we formed a writing team. We met three times a week, sometimes even more than that. We would get together at 6 o'clock. Our wives would play gin rummy, and he and I would go into another room and write together.

He had a job, and I had a job -- a regular job. We did that for about four years. And we couldn't get an agent. We couldn't get anyone to read what we wrote. We still had our regular jobs, but we were punching out a lot of stuff together.

Finally, we got an agent. Her name was Paula Connell. She wasn't a very powerful agent, in the sense of being Michael Ovitz or anything like that. She was really sweet, and she wore big funny hats. She was kind of a Hedda Hopper character. She would go to producers' offices with brownies and stuff.

Available today at AmazonPaula really believed in us. She got us our first assignment, which was an episode of It Takes a Thief at Universal. This was five or six years later.

Rick and I were writing that script. We had really different writing styles, which became pretty evident as we developed as writers.

We were really close friends -- still are -- but we started to fight over the material. Because it was so important to me that it be the way I wanted it, I started to hear myself being a real jerk.

I get along with people really well, but I was being cruel and mean and criticizing Rick's stuff in very unflattering ways. I would come from our meetings and go: "What is this? I'm not like this. This isn't me. I don't treat people this way. This guy's my friend."

But I realized there was this desperate need inside me to have my own work and not to share it with anybody. And I couldn't control it. That desire just overpowered me.

So I took Rick to lunch one day after we did the It Takes a Thief script and said: "Look, Rick, I can't go on like this. Every time we have a meeting and I tell you it's got to be my way or the highway, I feel like a jerk going home. I'd rather have you as a friend. I don't think we will be friends in five years if we keep writing together, and it's too important to have you as a friend. I want to work alone."

Rick didn't want to do it at first, but he accepted it, finally.

I wrote for about two years on my own without much success. I thought after that episode of It Takes a Thief the shows would be lined up. Didn't happen. As a matter of fact, they didn't even shoot the episode. They threw it out. They changed producers, and new producers always throw out the old producers' stuff.

Crescent Blues: Like lions eating the young of their predecessors.

Stephen J. Cannell: Exactly. After two more years, I started to sell stories to Mission Impossible. They wouldn't let me write the scripts, 'cause I was too young.

Now young writers are sought after in television. But back then, it was all the old radio guys who were in control -- all 50-plus writers.

And here I was, 24-25 years old. I'd walk into an office, and people would look at me. "This guy's a college kid. What's he doing here?" They'd never trust me to write a script. They bought the stories from me, but they wouldn't let me write the scripts.

I was constantly hitting on anybody I knew that was a producer. Rick, my ex-writing partner, was working in the mailroom at Universal. So he could get me on the lot. I couldn't even get on the lot at Universal, which was the big television shop at the time.

I'd walk around and meet people. I'd meet secretaries. I was the Willie Loman of Universal. But I was also pretty good about not abusing my friendships. I always felt I don't want people to think they're my friends just because they can help me. I would often be friends with a secretary, and I'd never ask her to submit anything.

Sometimes a secretary would say, "Hey listen, Herm's looking for a script. Why don't you give me one of yours?"

I'd go: "OK…"

One day, I got a call. I'd sold two episodes of Ironsides. Those were my first "written by" credits. One of them was rewritten by another writer, because Ray(mond) Burr didn't like it when my draft came to the set. So they brought in another writer to rewrite it. The second one I did all on my own.

So I had two writing credits, and this secretary friend of mine said that they had thrown out the last Adam-12 of the season. They didn't have a script to shoot, and the episode was prepping on Tuesday. (This was Thursday.) She said Herm Saunders, the producer, who I also knew, had wondered if I might be interested.

I said, "I'm interested!"

Crescent Blues: You delivered the script in two days?

Stephen J. Cannell: I wrote it in two days. They needed it on Monday. I got my story approved on Friday night, started it on Saturday, and handed in at 9 a.m., Monday.

Crescent Blues: What are we talking about in terms of page count?

Stephen J. Cannell: Thirty-five pages. I knew by then -- because I was so disciplined after all those years working with Rick and by myself -- I knew if they wanted the script in two days, nothing to it. I knew I could write 15 pages a day, day in, day out. I knew I could do it.

So when Herm said, "Don't take this assignment if you can't deliver," I said, "Don't worry. I'll be there." As it turned out, Herm had shot-gunned five assignments, and I was the only guy who delivered. I think I was the last one to start too.

They liked that script so much, they made me head writer. So I went from the bottom of the pile to the top in one script.

Crescent Blues: An overnight success that you had been preparing for how many years?

Stephen J. Cannell: Five or six years. I was the lowest paid writer on the lot at Universal. I was getting $600 a week, which back then seemed like more money than… Because I had been making $6,000 a year, working for my father, which was way too little. My dad was a tough guy with a buck, because he had come through the Depression. Now I was making $600 a week. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe I was making that kind of money. And I was the lowest paid guy on the lot.

The two youngest writers at Universal were me and Steve Bochco. So we instantly…

Stephen J. Cannell - Continued