Believe It or Not He’s Just… Gone – Stephen J. Cannell Dead at 69!

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Stephen J. Cannell – creator of The Greatest American Hero, The Rockford Files and The A-Team – has died from complications associated with melanoma. He was 69.

Cannell, who is probably best remembered for The A-Team and The Rockford Files, was a prolific writer whose credits include ground breaking television [undercover cop/Mafia series Wiseguy predated The Sopranos by more than a decade; The A-Team married heist and action movie tropes with Tex Avery zaniness; The Rockford Files’ Jim Rockford was lazy, sly and would do everything humanly possible to avoid fighting], plenty of light entertainment within established genres [Silk Stalkings, The Commish, Cobra, Stingray] and several bestselling novels.

For me, seeing the name Stephen J. Cannell attached to a production meant a 90% chance it would be worth watching from a pure entertainment perspective [he did have some dogs – Silk Stalkings was not a shining moment in TV history]. There was also a 50-50 chance that it would be something that was either groundbreaking, or at least a new wrinkle in an established genre.

Cannell’s series were well thought out and did exactly what he designed them to do – from groundbreaking [Greatest American Hero] to not so much [Cobra], his stuff was almost always watchable – and frequently smarter than it seemed.

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Whether he was teaming a con man with an accountant to create a soft-boiled detective series like Tenspeed and Brownshoe, or chronicling the travails of a schoolteacher learning to be a superhero in a very real world [The Greatest American Hero, predating Alan Moore’s Watchmen by half a decade], he wrote with the happy combination of a unique creative sensibility and a knack for knowing what made a genre viable [as well as how to subvert it].

He was the master of odd couple shows – Jeff Goldblum and Ben Vereen [Tenspeed], William Katt and Robert Culp [Greatest American Hero] – but was equally at home with lone wolf types like Michael Dudikoff in Cobra, or Nick Mancuso in Stingray. He could do a bang-up high concept series [cop in high school, 21 Jump Street; ex-con turns private eye, The Rockford Files; heists, cons and carton humor, The A-Team] or nail a straight action show [Hardcastle and McCormack]. He created a psychological/forensic series called Unsub, that predates Criminal Minds by sixteen years and wasn’t the least misogynistic – also many levels better in terms of quality.

He got name talent to do his shows – James Garner for Jim Rockford, Ben Vereen for Tenspeed Turner; George Peppard and Dirk Benedict for The A-Team] – and played well with others [writing for quality shows like Ironside, Columbo and Switch].

My personal favorite Stephen J. Cannell series are completely unlike each other: The Greatest American Hero, The Rockford Files, Unsub and Wiseguy. Each is an original that has not been matched since [yes, I’m saying that Wiseguy, network restrictions and all, is a better show that The Sopranos].

To think that there will be no new Cannell series, or roles [his Castle cameos were a delight and he was the best thing in the Syfy movie, Ice Spiders – as just two examples] is a bit sad.

These days, 69 seems too young to die – especially when it’s an imaginative and intelligent creator like Stephen J. Cannell.