A Writer’s Flashback: My 2005 Interview with Writer-Producer Stephen J. Cannell
One of the most successful television producers in the industry’s history, who passed away in 2010, graciously shared valuable advice for fellow writers.
“It’s a matter or prioritizing.” — Stephen J.Canell
I interviewed Emmy Award-winning writer-producer-bestselling author and chairman of Cannell Studios, Stephen J. Cannell, in 2005 for a motivational non-fiction book, “How to Survive a Day Job.” My intent with the book was simple: I would interview a number of successful writers, actors, and others who have worked in a given creative arts field, to motivate those of us who had not yet attained our own artistic career goals.
At the time of his interview, Stephen was in the midst of a remarkable career that had spanned more than thirty-five years. I’ve elected to reprint a selection of these interviews on Medium for two reasons: 1) as a time capsule of sorts, and 2) to inspire and motivate fellow creatives.
The original introduction to his chapter is as follows:
Stephen has created or co-created some of the most popular programs in television history, including “Baretta,” “The Rockford Files,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” “The A-Team,” “21 Jump Street,” “The Commish,” “Wiseguy,” “Renegade” and “Silk Stalkings.” He has scripted more than 350 television episodes and produced or executive produced more than 1,500 television episodes.
In 1995, Stephen became a best-selling author with the publication of his debut novel, “The Plan.” He followed that book’s success with several others, all bestsellers, including “King Con” and “Final Victim.”
According to Stephen, choosing writing as a profession was “a very cocky idea for a guy who couldn’t pass most of his English courses.” Impaired by severe dyslexia that went undiagnosed throughout his teen years, he flunked out of two schools before graduating at the bottom of his class. Today, he is a much-in-demand spokesperson on the subject of dyslexia.
Stephen is also renowned as a hugely successful entrepreneur. In 1979, he formed his own independent production company, Stephen J. Cannell Productions, in order to achieve creative control over material he was writing and producing.
Seven years later, he formed The Cannell Studios to oversee all aspects of the organization’s operations. Having surpassed the $1 billion mark in production outlays, the company was purchased in 1995 by New World Communications Group. Stephen still owns the worldwide distribution rights to about a thousand hours of Cannell-produced series and TV movies.
I have learning disabilities, or learning differences as I’ve been taught to say, and they were responsible for causing me a lot of trouble throughout school. In fact, I flunked three grades before I graduated from high school. I flunked the first, the fourth, and the tenth. I say this, because it is important for you to know my early life in ways that I didn’t understand at the time.
I am dyslexic. Those of us with learning differences, especially dyslexia, have a tendency to work off the right side of our brains, which is the creative side. Your left side is where all the trouble is being caused, what I call the “X over Y side.” So what we end up doing is going over and sort of daydreaming, or, dealing with abstract thought, which is the basic province of the right side of the brain. Of course, what is writing if not abstract thought?
What I started doing very early in my academic career was basically working off the right side of my brain. I dreamt a lot, dealt with abstract thought … and even though that was not something I was rewarded for in high school, it certainly evolved into the way I make my living today. That muscle was getting stronger and stronger. My imagination, my ability to go away inside my head — which I always was able to do — was something that I started doing early in my life.
I think of my learning difference as a gift. As a matter of fact, many years ago we did a movie to raise money for learning differences called “The Gift of Greatness” … The film consisted of little vignettes about famous dyslexic people in history, including Edison, Einstein, Hans Christian Anderson, and many others. These were all people who shared this circumstance, and without them I think our world would be a lot less interesting.
We made the film many years ago. It was done in conjunction with Landmark School, which is a school for learning differences in Los Angeles. I believe they also have a campus in New Jersey, and they may have a college. We had a really good cast. Patty Duke was in it, I was in it, Ed Asner … just a lot of really neat people.
There is an interesting story behind my first published work. I’d been asked as a sophomore in high school to write a poem on a current event by our English teacher. What I chose was Martin Luther King’s attempt to desegregate the schools in the South; I wrote this poem in iambic pentameter, and it was like five stanzas or something. When I finished I turned it in and received a B-minus. And for me, a B-minus was a huge grade. It was like, I don’t get B-minuses. I get Ds and Fs.
I was so excited when I saw the grade; I rushed home and waited for my sister to come home from school. I read her the poem when she came in the front door. She liked it, and read it to my mom when she got home, and she liked it. And my dad got home, and I read it to him, and he liked it, and then at dinner I read it to all of them again, and they still liked it, but were getting a little less enthusiastic. At breakfast the next morning I read it once more, but by then they had enough.
Two months later, my sister, who was at another school, a private school, and who was two years ahead of me, came to me and said, “Listen, you remember that poem you wrote on Martin Luther King?”
And I went, “Yeah.”
She says, “Let me have it. I want to have that poem. You have to give it to me, because I got to write a poem for my English class, and I hate to write poems. You can’t say no to your big sister.”
So I relented. I gave her the poem. She turned it in and she got an A. And beyond getting an A, they liked the poem so well that they published it in her school literary magazine under her name. That was my first publication.
My father was an entrepreneur, and he was my best friend in life, the guy I most wanted to be with. He was a real hero of mine. My dad taught me how to think. My dad taught me how to behave. He taught me how not to take myself seriously and to deal with life in a very levelheaded kind of way. It became very important to me to please my dad.
When I graduated from the University of Oregon, I went into business with my dad in his company. I guess I sort of had nothing jobs. I drove a furniture truck. He was very well known in Los Angeles, and his companies were well known. Cannell and Chafin was a chain of furniture stores; he had an interior design business here in Southern California.
I worked at Cannell and Chafin for about five years, maybe a little less, and during that period of time — because by then I had determined that I wanted to be a writer and had decided to make that an avocation at the very least — I would come home every night, and I would write for five hours before my wife put on dinner. I did that for five years. I wrote a half day on Saturday and a half day on Sunday. And nobody would read this stuff, you know. But it was like something that, the more I did it, the more I knew this was what I wanted to do.
It took me five and a half years to get my first agent. Her name was Polly Connell. She started to get me assignments; I would go in and pitch my ideas, and slowly, little by little, I started to get closer to the center of the circle and began to sell. My first sold screenplay was an episode of “It Takes a Thief,” starring Robert Wagner, and it aired on ABC. I got five thousand for that screenplay, which was about what my dad was paying me. He was paying me about six thousand a year to work for him.
I figured that’s a year as a freelance writer. So I quit my dad’s business and rented a tiny office for eighty bucks a month. I knew I wanted to make this a job. I wanted to get up every morning and do this for eight hours a day, even though I had no other assignments. I thought after the “Thief” script sold I would take off and everybody would want me, but it didn’t turn out that way … Another year, year and a half, later I still hadn’t sold anything else, but I was writing now for eight hours a day, every day. I was working on new story ideas, mostly for television.
I started to get more work through Polly. My third scripted episode was for “Adam 12.” They needed a new script for the end of the season. They had lost their last show, because the network had thrown out the script. They just didn’t like it. The producer was having a bake off; basically, he was having five guys work to get one screenplay, and I was the last guy he thought of. I got offered this opportunity on a Friday. I pitched a story and got it approved, and I had to deliver it on Monday.
He said, “Now, I need this on Monday, and if you bring it on Tuesday it won’t do me any good at all, because I got to have a director prepping this on Monday morning at 9:00 a.m.” Then he said, “Can you do this? Because otherwise don’t take the assignment.”
I said, “Absolutely, I can do it.”
And I knew I could, because I’d been writing for five hours a day, you know, Saturday and Sunday included, plus another year and a half of writ-ing for eight hours a day. I knew exactly how much I could accomplish. And since my story was approved, and I knew it was a good story, I knew I could deliver. So I did. I wrote the script. I was the only writer of the five of us that delivered, and they liked my script so well they put me under contract to Universal. That was my first studio deal.
I was under contract to Universal for about eight years. And during those eight years I created eight primetime network shows. And then at the end of eight years I decided that I really didn’t want to be sitting in the same office eight years hence, or seven years hence, with just different shows on the air. I had at the time “Baretta,” “The Rockford Files,” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep” on network television, so it was a pretty heavy load.
But I kept thinking: My dad was an entrepreneur; I always wanted to be like my dad. Maybe I could go out and compete with these guys … What’s to say I can’t form my own studio? I had this entrepreneurial spirit, which was sort of bred into me by my dad. And so I decided that I would try and form my own studio.
At the same time, Universal was offering me a huge deal. It was the biggest deal, I think, that had ever been offered to a writer at that time, in the neighborhood of a million dollars a year. This was huge money back in 1978 or ’79, and I just thought, God, I don’t know that I can be bought for a million dollars. You know, my goal was never money. If I’d wanted money I would have stayed with my dad, because his companies were large and prosperous. But what I really wanted was a new challenge.
So I turned down that deal, and I formed The Cannell Studios, and ABC made a deal with me for three pilots. The first one I did was a script called “Tenspeed and Brownshoe.” It got programmed, and it only stayed on for a year … but I think it was a really excellent show. Next was “The Greatest American Hero” and then after that was “The A Team.” “The A Team” was just huge. It became the number one show on television.
And so my little private studio now went from being a studio with three people to being a studio with eight hundred people, and then as it grew, and “Riptide” and “Hardcastle and McCormick” got on the air, it ended up being a studio with fifteen hundred people. As I added “Hunter” and “Wiseguy” and “21 Jump Street” and “The Commish,” I had two thousand people in it.
It ended up being the third largest studio for television in Hollywood. We had an average — for the eighteen years that I owned it and ran it — we had an average of six shows on the air for probably the majority of that time. One of those shows was “Wiseguy.” That was on CBS, and not one of the huge hits, but certainly creatively a very satisfying show.
In ’94/’95 — I can’t give you the exact month — the FCC and the federal government was really invested in the idea of deregulation. It was during the Reagan years; they wanted to deregulate any business that they felt they could deregulate, and let it basically be the market that determined profitability. And, of course, I thought that was a huge mistake, because these networks are chartered by the federal government. They are given the right to be networks. They didn’t earn that or risk anything for that. They basically applied to the federal government or were given this charter, and so for them to then be able to also own and produce all their own programming seemed to me like an unfair advantage.
A company like mine or like MTM or DeLaurentis — or any of the private studios that were doing business — were going to be horribly disadvantaged by having the networks be able to own their own programs. Because why would they want to buy from me when they can buy from themselves?
In ’95, the federal government repealed the financial syndication rules, which were the rules that prohibited networks from owning and controlling their own product. So when that happened I realized that I was going to have to get out of the studio business, because it was no longer a level playing field. And when I would go to CBS or NBC or ABC, the first question they would ask after I pitched a show was, “Yeah, we like it, but we want to do it through NBCP.” Or, “We want to do it through ABCP.” Productions. P stands for Productions. It was just a horribly unfair situation.
And so during that year I held a board meeting and told the officers of my company I was going to sell the studio. I wanted to find a suitor, somebody that would give us a reasonable price for it.
During the year while we were marketing the studio, I started to think about what I was going to do with the next chapter of my life. I didn’t know that I wanted to go back and be a hired gun at Universal or go back to doing what I was doing when I was twenty-eight or twenty-nine years old. So what did I want to do? Under my high school picture — my graduating class — under “ambition” I had written “author.” And yet, I’d never authored anything. You have to write a book to be an author; you don’t write screenplays and become an author.
So I decided I’m going to finally try and realize this long-held and cherished ambition, which I have never had a chance to do, because my success so overwhelmed me as a television writer and producer.
I sat down and during the next year I decided that I would write the book, my first novel. I came up with a story; I plotted it. I decided to write the entire book on spec rather than go to New York and try to make a deal based on my high profile as a nationally known writer of television. I thought: If I’m going to do this, if this is going to be the next chapter of my life, it really needs to be something that I deserve to be doing. I felt the book, if it was bought, would be a good litmus test for whether or not I should be a novelist; I didn’t think a publisher would buy a bad book from me just because I wrote it.
So I wrote “The Plan” on spec and handed it in to my agents in New York. They started to submit it, and I finally set it up at William Morrow, which is a large New York publishing house, and it became a national bestseller. That basically told me that this is what I should be doing.
Life is simply a matter of prioritizing; it’s no more difficult than that. What we typically end up doing is we don’t prioritize the things that are important to us. We have our day job, which we hate, but it does pay the bills, and we have our wife, and we have our kids. We’ve got that trip to Vegas that we want to take, and we like to go to the beach. Big tennis player, got to play tennis on the weekend; got to play golf, you know, whatever those things are. So where does writing come in? Well, it comes last. It’s the thing you do when you don’t have anything else to do, and so you never get anything done.
I talk to writers all the time. They show me a script that was written seven years ago, and I go, “What have you written since you wrote this?”
“Well, I’m busy, and I’ve got a job and, you know, I’m trying to sell this screenplay.”
And my response is, “Well, you’re basically no better a writer now than you were when you finished that script seven years ago. You could have written every day, and now I would be looking at ten times the writer, ten times as good a writer …” It’s a matter of prioritizing.
When I wrote “The Plan,” my first novel, I had six hours of television on the air. I had two thousand employees. I had five television stations. I was running a studio in Canada; I would go to the office, and literally I would have a line outside my door. I was hammered everyday. That monster was chasing me; just because I was marketing the studio didn’t mean I could just throw away all these shows on the air.
In some of them I was the hands-on executive producer, which meant that I had to write five or six hours of the show myself, because we had a small writing staff. I then had all the management problems of running the company. I had to deal with other writers, I had to cut pictures at the end of the day … but I had said that I’m going write a novel this year on top of all of that. I’m going to write a novel.
As I already had to write five or six hours of television, I knew what I had to do. I told my secretary, “OK, I’m going to push things to the right and to the left on my calendar, and I’m going to clear ten days. These ten days are going to be novel-writing days, from January 10 to January 20, or whatever it is, so that means that I got to get my screenplay writing done.”
I wrote every morning from 4:30 until seven or eight, or until about eleven, and then I went to work and I would stay at the studio until nine. It was a matter of what I was writing from four thirty to eleven, so during those ten days I would say: “Okay. I’m going to write my novel. I can write about ten pages a day, so in ten days I can write a hundred pages.” I did that five times in the period of a year, and I had the book written.
That isn’t that hard. I did it five times for ten days; fifty days of my writing life I took to write that novel, but I prioritized it. I made it important. And if you say: “I’m going to do it after I play golf and tennis,” I mean, what did you sacrifice?
Well, I had to go to bed a little early, because I’m getting up at 4:30. I don’t play golf, I don’t play tennis. I mean, I can, but I don’t, because I also have my wife and children, and I have to be a father and a husband. You have to find and put your writing in a place where it’s important, but not to the exclusion of your family.
I chose always writing early in the morning, because my kids and my wife were asleep. That was time where I could get up early and write for five or six hours, and they’d get up at nine and be out the door shortly after. I wouldn’t help with them eating their breakfast and all that, I’d be in here writing, but I’d say goodbye to them when they left, and occasionally, I’d drive the carpool — take ten minutes off and run them to school.
I was writing every day during that period of time, which I felt was time that I could afford away from my family, because a good half of that time they were sound asleep. And so it’s a prioritizing, and it’s so important that you do it. If you don’t do that, you might as well forget it.
I’ve succeeded in a field that I love. You’ve got to do what you love. And I absolutely love writing. I would do it if nobody ever paid me a dollar. For seven years I did it, and nobody paid me a dollar. I did it for five hours every day, and a half day on Saturday, and a half day on Sunday. And nobody ever paid me a dollar during all that time for any of it.
The joy has to be in the doing. If you’re not enjoying the process, I think you’re in trouble. Now a lot of writers don’t enjoy the process, and I have to say that some of them are very successful. But if you don’t enjoy the process, then you’ve got to up your discipline. For me, the discipline of writing was never difficult, because it was like playing. It was like playing a game, you know, I got to do it. It wasn’t like I had to do it; I got to do it, so I always looked forward to it.
When I come into my office still, and I’ve been doing this now for thirty-five years, I can hardly wait to get started.
Stephen J. Cannell was a hero of mine. I had wanted to write for television for some time, and he served as an inspiration for my present career.
And … anyone who knows me knows that Cannell’s “Wiseguy” is my all-time favorite television series. I still believe the show’s first season just may be the single finest season in one-hour episodic history.
Of course that’s a subjective opinion, but they’re my words and I’m sticking to ‘em.
I did not know him well, but I certainly miss Stephen Cannell and his work.
Thank you for reading.
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