Stephen J. Cannell died today. Those of you who read this blog are probably familiar with him and what he contributed to television. All his accomplishments will be well documented in the articles and memorials that are already popping up on the Internet. But creating over 40 TeeVee shows and being the first producer to take advantage of Vancouver are not, to me, his most important contribution to the business.
You see, Stephen Cannell was an incredibly nice person, an optimist in an industry that seeks to crush them. No matter what was going on in his career, he always had his priorities straight. He was incredibly prolific, and he was also protective of the people who worked for him. He felt a responsibility to them. I keep repeating this over and over again, but that's because it's so important: A showrunner who doesn't look out for his staff is a lousy showrunner and somebody not to be trusted. No matter how insanely talented somebody is, if they are throwing people under the bus and grabbing credit like a starving man dives for a Big Mac, then they are not good at the job of executive producer. Pride in ones life and work is not borne out by creative an atmosphere of terror, nor is it about grabbing for the microphone at an awards show. Rather, it's about being a professional, and a protector. Cannell took that seriously. He made up his mind to be a kind, positive person. I'm sure he had his days; he wasn't a robot. But all you have to do is look at the outpouring of sympathy and shock on the Internet to realize what he meant to television.
We all grew up on his shows. I mean, Rockford Files, for God's sake! Riptide! The A-Team! 21 Jump Street! The Greatest American Hero! Freaking Wiseguy! I didn't know a lot about TeeVee back then. I was, however, a HUGE fan of Emergency, Dragnet and Adam-12, which made me a huge fan of Jack Webb. And Stephen Cannell was a story editor on Adam-12, so that always intrigued me. My understanding was that Webb was interested in making sure his writers learned how to produce. That was definitely one of Stephen Cannell's priorities, and he passed that down to writers like Morgan & Wong. They passed that along to us and believe me, when we get a show on the air, that will be our priority, too.
Writers can only mimic what they've experienced, and do what they've been taught. Too many writers were brought up in abusive writer's rooms and they have unfortunately taken that fear and uncertainty along with them. There aren't Stephen Cannells to show writers that fear is not a positive motivator, and that writing is work but it is also inspiration. And now there isn't Stephen Cannell himself.
So while it's important and wonderful to remember his work, to remember the terrific stories people tell about him and to hear the man himself talk about how he pitches a show (WE CANNOT GET AWAY WITH THIS. TRUST ME), Stephen Cannell's true legacy is that he was a smart, kind, protective man. He should remind us that there is something positive to strive for. We won't be like him, but we can at least try.
Today just didn't seem like the day to rant. But that will come later, after tomorrow's inevitable post about Zenyatta, horse racing's answer to Stephen Cannell.