- T-Rex, still kicking: Rockford Files and Wiseguy creator Stephen J. Cannell switched off TV when Congress allowed networks to own their own product.
Talk long enough with any television exec over 55, and sooner or later he'll get around to mentioning the La Brea Tar Pits, that enormous shimmering stinkhole in Los Angeles where the liquefied remains of some 660 species of organisms still burble. These old-timers, with skin light brown and pockets pale green, see themselves as the real L.A. dinosaurs--living fossils killing time at the Polo Lounge till they wet their toes in the sticky goo of extinction. They grumble about them damned kids ruining the networks; they grouse about being passed over by schmucks whose knowledge of television's past goes back to Chandler and Monica's engagement. The audience has gotten younger, and so have the executives, who insist a 60-year-old just can't write for 28-year-olds. So the geezers are handed a pair of bathing trunks and pushed off the plank into the pits.
Look no further than David Chase, a 56-year-old television writer who for years waited his turn in the deep murky. In the mid-1970s, Chase was hired to write for The Rockford Files, and when he turned in his first script, his boss thought it so brilliant he considered trying to "subtly fuck it up," because the boss worried about relinquishing his own crown as TV's Boy King. But Chase would spend the next few decades in limbo, writing scripts for movies never made and TV pilots never aired; running Northern Exposure, a show he didn't create; scribbling Rockford reunion movies for the nostalgic old farts. When he struck upon the idea of a show about a tormented New Jersey mob boss in therapy, all four major networks passed. Eventually, Chase was forced to take his show to cable, where only HBO finally allowed him room to introduce The Sopranos.
"I was looking at David and wondering, 'Why isn't this guy the biggest, hugest person in Hollywood?' says his former employer, Stephen J. Cannell, who co-created Rockford and some 40 other shows. "He's always been great, but he was in the tar pits and getting really depressed. Now along comes The Sopranos, and he's doing what he should have been doing the day he left Rockford, only nobody would let him exercise his vision. Nobody 22 years old could have done that show, because it takes a lot of experience and a lot of living to be able to write that cool psychodrama he's writing, and it's too bad. That's why everything's being pushed to the center: because the people evaluating the ideas are all in the same demographic group, and they all want the same kind of thing. And they don't trust anybody over the age of 28 to do it."
Before we proceed, understand Cannell isn't terribly upset about the state of television. He's 60 now--beneath facial hair and freckles, he looks much younger--and a millionaire hundreds of times over after 30 years of writing for, creating, running and, often, owning such series as The Rockford Files, Baretta, Baa-Baa Black Sheep, Hardcastle and McCormick, The A-Team, Hunter, 21 Jump Street, Wiseguy and The Commish. All told, he's had more shows on the air than almost anyone else, and he no longer produces TV shows by choice: In 1993, when Congress gave the OK for networks to make and own their own product, Cannell sold his production studio and began his now-successful career as a writer of crime novels, the latest of which is the just-published The Viking Funeral. When CBS bought the series Traps from him in 1994 at $100,000 an episode, Cannell finally balked and walked. Too much hassle for lousy pocket change. Cannell was "legislated out of the business," he stresses, never forced out.
So he doesn't hold a grudge against those kids blindly throwing darts at a network schedule; and he doesn't consider himself a dinosaur. After all, what fossil releases a best-selling book a year? What relic has seven movie deals in the works, three based on his novels? What artifact climbs on his own private plane to schlep cross-country every year for a book tour? If he never again makes a television show, it's fine with Cannell; who needs the tsuris of running a show when you can board your own 150-foot yacht and sail away?
"I think Steve could be a player in TV if he was super-hungry for it," says David J. Burke, who wrote for Cannell's beloved Wiseguy, which starred Ken Wahl as an ex-con doing undercover work for the feds. Burke, like all who once worked for Cannell, has only kind words for his ex-boss; as empire-builder, he was also a mensch. "You can't dismiss a guy like that. I think Steve is not real interested in being as aggressive as he needs to be, because he's very rich and very comfortable. He enjoys his life immensely. And there's something, in a way, more noble about writing a book, expressing one's own thoughts, not taking the kind of notes you get from dimwits. In large parts, the people at the networks and studios are dimwits--well-educated, but dim-witted nonetheless. And I assume Steve just doesn't want to do that battle."
He doesn't. But press him long and hard enough, and Cannell will admit he's not quite finished with television. He will also lay out, with an insider's acumen and a veteran's weary insight, just why the networks now offer little more than stale turds stamped out on a factory assembly line.
Not a year ago, Cannell sold a pilot to NBC, the premise of which was unlike anything previously on television (it's such a good idea Cannell would rather not recount the story on the record, lest it be stolen). At the time, Garth Ancier was president of NBC Entertainment, and he and Cannell had a long history together: Ancier was running Fox in the mid-'80s when Cannell came to him with 21 Jump Street, a pretty cops-and-robbers show starring a young Johnny Depp. But when it came time to produce the new pilot, Ancier was out and former Today executive producer Jeff Zucker was in, and Zucker had no interest in playing with Ancier's toys, so he passed on Cannell's offering and instead loaded the current season's schedule with Inside Schwartz, Emeril and midseason replacement Imagine That--all already canceled--and a third Law & Order spin-off. Forthcoming from Zucker is Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Watching Ellie, the third strike for former Seinfeld cast members, after Jason Alexander's recent short-lived fiasco Bob Patterson.
Cannell's legacy, aside from a fistful of critically beloved shows and commercially viable offerings (The A-Team was NBC's sole Top 20 show in 1982 and is currently being developed into a feature film), is that of the writer who took control of the product--from creation to cancellation, from inception to syndication. He got rich thinking like an artist and acting like an accountant, conceiving high-concept shows on a low-budget ledger. He let his writers take credit while he took the cash, and if one show failed, he had six others on the air. ("Hopefully," Cannell says with a chuckle, "my legacy is I didn't fuck anybody up.") He insists that in order to understand why network television loses audiences and acclaim to the likes of HBO, one must first appreciate the position programming executives like Zucker are in.
"I'll tell you what's going on," Cannell says, with a knowing smile. "They're telling Garth [Ancier], 'Turn this motherfucker around in 18 months.' Well, the fact of the matter is, if you play it safe and do Friends rip-offs and have your one gay character in every half-hour comedy and all the things everyone else is doing, you are not going to fail big. You could fail, but you'll fail in the middle range somewhere, and you might get a hit, and you might have an actor break out and make something happen. You put The Sopranos on, you have a chance of tanking big, and you can't hold onto a show like that for a year under the directive you have and eat that seven share week in and week out, because you have 18 months. That's their problem. So what do they do? They go, 'Well, let's get Bob Patterson on. We know that guy, and everybody loved him. Maybe that'll work.'
"It's just the pressure is so great. I watch these guys. They aren't happy people. Garth is a nice man, but he gained weight, he didn't look happy, he had people pounding on him all the time: Get it going, get it going. Affiliates are shouting at him. So they start to go to easy formulas and pray and say, 'Let's give another show to somebody who was on Cheers. Maybe it'll work.' I mean, Emeril--what the fuck were they thinking?"
Cannell's most recent series--1996's Profit, a witty, wicked soap with Machiavellian overtones--was critically acclaimed but lasted a mere four episodes on the cowardly Fox. Long gone are the visionaries like Cannell's old friend Brandon Tartikoff, who renewed Cheers at NBC when the bar was still in the ratings basement. Television is run now by the dumb and the desperate--children who can't balance a checkbook and adults who get a pink slip with every fifth paycheck. It's a bankrupt biz, financially and creatively: Shows that once cost $500,000 an episode run four to six times that, and series worthy of attention get pulled before an audience can ever find them.
"And nobody cares," Cannell says. "They can spend $6 million on an hour of television, and nobody's gonna do anything about it. Then you maintain it has to be done that way because your show's so beautiful and so creative and so magnificent that it requires that extra care. It's all bullshit. It's all ego."
Burke insists there will come a time when the networks beg Cannell to return to the box. He says there's a generation of programming execs climbing up the rungs with old A-Team videos under their arms, waiting to get back in biz with B.A. Barracus' creator. But Cannell does not wait for their entreaties.
"What I miss most about television is the social aspects of it--coming together with 150 people who are all talented and contributing," he says. "But now, they're gonna have to fit themselves into my busy schedule." He grins. "I'm not waiting around to be called back into the television business. If the right project--something I haven't done before, something that's not just Wiseguy sideways or another version of Rockford or The A-Team with an all-female cast--comes along, then I can get seduced by it. But I don't need money."