U.S. Producer-Writer

Stephen J. Cannell emerged as one of television's most powerful producer-writers in the 1980s. A prolific writer, he would eventually also become a series creator, an executive producer, a director, a station owner, and the head of his own studio, Specializing almost exclusively in crime shows and action-adventures, Cannell's work, by its sheer volume, played a significant role in redefining the parameters of those genres. Early in his career, he created and produced programs with such other crime show auteurs as Jack Webb, Roy Huggins, Willlam Link and Richard Levinson, and Steven Bochco.

Like many other aspiring television artists in the 1960s, Cannell got his start at Universal Television, where he joined the writing staff of Adam-12 in 1970. After a few years of writing for several of the company's other series, he began to create and produce his own shows for Universal, including Chase, Baretta, City of Angels, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Richie Brockelman, Private Eye, The Duke, and Stone. The Rockford Files, which won an Emmy for Outstanding Drama in 1978, was by far his most commercially and critically successful series of this period. The show exhibited all the trademarks of the Cannell style: a facile blending of comedy and drama, up-to-the-minute contemporary vernacular dialogue, and a protagonist who was a likable outsider, in this case an ex-convict.

In 1979 Cannell left Universal to form Stephen J. Cannell Productions. He won a Writers Guild Award for Tenspeed and Brownshoe and achieved some modest ratings success for The Greatest American Hero, but it was The A- Team that established the company as a major force in Hollywood In 1983. Adding a heavy dosage of cartoon-like action to the familiar Cannell themes, The A-Team made Nielsen's top ten in its debut season. Three years later, Cannell had six series on the network prime-time schedule, including Hunter, Riptide, and Hardcastle and McCormick. Many critics who had praised The Rockford Files rejected this latest batch of Cannell's series, complaining that they were juvenile and overly formulaic. With the debut of Wiseguy in 1987, however, one of Cannell's shows once again earned critical respect for its intelligent dialogue, complex characterization, and occasional treatment of timely issues. Wiseguy also employed an innovative new narrative structure, the "story arc," whereby the season was in effect divided into several multi-part episodes.

In an effort to lower production costs, Cannell opened a major studio facility in Vancouver, British Columbia toward the end of the 1980s. One of the first series shot there was 21 Jump Street, the highest-rated show of the new Fox network's first season. Scene of the Crime, a mystery anthology series for CBS's late-night schedule, was also filmed in Vancouver and was hosted by Cannell himself.

-Robert J. Thompson


Stephen J. Cannell
Photo courtesy ofStephen J. Cannell

STEPHEN J. CANNELL. Born in Los Angeles, California, 5 February 1941. University of Oregon, BA 1964. Married Marcia C. Finch, 8 August 1964; children: Derek (deceased), Tawnia, Chelsea, Cody. Began career as television writer in late 1960s, selling story ideas to Desilu Productions; joined Universal Studios as Head Writer, Adam 12, 1970; creator, writer, producer of other Universal action-adventure programs throughout 1970s; founded Stephen J. Cannell Productions, 1979. Recipient: Mystery Writers Award; 4 Emmy Awards; 4 Writers Guild of America Awards.

TELEVISION SERIES (writer-producer)

1970 Adam-12
1973 Chase
1973-74 Toma
1974-80 The Rockford Files
1976-78 Baa-Baa Blacksheep (The Blacksheep Squadron)
1978 Richie Brockleman, Private Eye
1979 The Duke
1980 Tenspeed and Brownshoe
1980 Stone
1981-83 The Greatest American Hero
1982 The Quest
1983-84 The Rousters
1983-86 Hardcastle and McCormick
1983-87 The A-Team
1984-86 Riptide
1984-91 Hunter
1986 The Last Precinct
1986-87 Stingray
1987-88 J.J. Starbuck
1987-90 21 Jump Street
1987-89 Wiseguy
1988 Sonny Spoon
1989 Unsub
1991 The Commish
1995 Marker
1996 Profit


Christensen, Mark, and Cameron Stauth. The Sweeps. New York: Willlam Morrow, 1984.

Fanning, Deirdre. "What Stuff Are Dreams Made of?" Forbes (New York), 22 August 1988.

Freeman, Mike. "Man of the Hours" (interview). Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 25 January 1993.

Perry, Jeb. Universal Television: The Studio and Its Programs, 1950-1980. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1983.

Shindler, Merill. "Okay, Cannell, Come Clean." Los Angeles Magazine, October 1983.

Thompson, Robert J. Adventures on Prime Time: The Television Programs of Stephen J. Cannell. New York: Praeger, 1990.

Wicking, Christopher, and Tise Vahimagi. The American Vein: Directors and Directions in Television. New York: Dutton, 1979.


See also Bochco, Steven; Huggins, Roy; Rockford Files