The Cannell Files
"I'm not a struggling writer," says Stephen J. Cannell, "--'struggling' in the sense that it's hard for me to do it."
Nor is he having a tough go of things financially. Cannell, who's promoting his seventh novel, The Viking Funeral, is among the most successful writer-producers in the history of television, with a resumé that includes genre classics (The Rockford Files), critical faves (Wiseguy) and assorted guilty pleasures (The A-Team, Baa Baa Black Sheep). He's also a savvy businessman who owns the distribution rights to over 1,000 hours of consistently profitable programming, and his current television, pay-cable and film projects are so lucrative that it may well cost him dough every time he sits down to pound out another book.
But Cannell, age sixty, maintains that "money was never important to me. I was lucky in that I was raised in a fairly wealthy environment. I went to private schools, and I had the advantage of having everything as a child. So I was never very money-driven -- but I was very success-driven. I've always worked very hard to be successful."
Cannell attributes his ambition, as well as his apparently bottomless flow of ideas, to dyslexia, a condition that made him "the worst student in school. But because of that, I never worried about being perfect, which is something that causes a lot of my writer friends to get blocked. They're always worried about being evaluated by other people later, whether it's history or reviewers or networks or studios. But I don't ever say to myself, 'It's got to be brilliant' or that it's got to be anything, really. It just needs to entertain me."
The Viking Funeral exemplifies this approach. The second volume of adventures featuring L.A. police officer Shane Scully, the novel is, in show-biz parlance, "inspired by actual events" -- specifically, a complicated money-laundering ploy that's explained in considerably more detail than is strictly required by its plot function. Cannell places this scheme at the center of a tale loaded with stock characters and timeworn situations that should be familiar to folks even superficially familiar with TV action dramas; for instance, few will be surprised when Scully's best friend on the force, a dangerous sort who supposedly committed suicide three years earlier, turns out to be very much alive, and a rogue cop, to boot. But rather than apologize for the narrative's secondhand nature or try to disguise it, Cannell uses every formula in his authorial laboratory, from simplified variations on hard-boiled prose ("Jody had eaten his gun, put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger, turned his brains into blood mist") to a punchy structure that will reassure those with boob-tube-shortened attention spans.
No wonder, then, that three of Cannell's previous novels, including the cleverly titled King Con, are in various stages of development at major Hollywood studios, as are film adaptations based on two of his old series, The A-Team and The Greatest American Hero. Cannell doesn't defend the trend of recycling TV hits from the past for the large screen -- "You would think that people in the studios would be interested in trying to come up with something fresh" -- but he isn't averse to taking advantage of it. His casual attitude suits him to a Mr. T.
A showman from the old school, Cannell hardly suffers from a typical author's shyness. Over the years, he's even developed a sideline as an actor: He was a regular on Renegade, a syndicated series from his stable that starred mega-hunk Lorenzo Lamas, and is slated to appear in a forthcoming Steven Seagal flick. Yet he still sets aside five hours per morning seven days a week to write. "I'm three novels ahead," he says. "When I die, they'll keep coming out, and people will go, 'Wait a minute. Isn't he dead?'"
Nope -- and he's not struggling, either.
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