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Banging Out a New Ending

Stephen J. Cannell once ruled the airwaves. Today, with not a single show in prime time (but happily recast as a writer of best-selling novels), he looks back on a thrill ride of a career.

June 01, 1997|Bruce Newman | Bruce Newman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

He rises like a farmer at 5:30 every morning, while the hoot owls are still sitting in the low branches of the trees, and the old money in Pasadena is fast asleep. Then it begins, the words spraying onto the blank page with percussive force, like bullet holes. Sitting in a pool of electric light, Stephen J. Cannell writes as if he were auditioning for the steno pool, relentlessly battering an IBM Selectric with three fingers. "It's that third finger that causes the problem," his assistant of 21 years, Grace Curcio, notes somewhat ruefully.

Cannell has none of the fussy compulsions of the belletrists of the American novel. This is literature by machine gun, fiction by firing squad. He is at work on his fourth suspense novel, and he cannot stop himself. When he has reached the end of a page, he rips it out of the typewriter, throws it over his shoulder and never looks back. (Cannell has turned this eccentricity into a bit of theater, using it as a video logo at the end of the television shows he produces.) By late morning, his floor is littered with paper, often more than 15 pages a day.

"I want to puke out my first draft," Cannell says, displaying his mastery of metaphor. "I never dry up, and I never block. Writer's block is caused by the desire to be brilliant, and what happens is you get caught between your head and the page. But if you spend the whole front end of your life being the dumbest kid in class, you never think of yourself as a brilliant writer."

Because of his long struggle with dyslexia--the learning disability that causes letters to become jumbled in the mind's eye--he is certainly not a brilliant typist. A page from the manuscript of Cannell's fourth novel, which is about the Chinese Triads, looks like a Rorschach test. Curcio must wade through this daily thicket of phonetic spellings and word mirroring--translating and transposing as she goes--to produce something publishable.

If Cannell's writing technique is more NRA than PEN, his output has been almost alarmingly unvarying. Last year he wrote "King Con," which two weeks after publication seems likely to be his third bestseller for William Morrow; wrote the screenplays for both "King Con" and his second book, "Final Victim"; cranked out five hours of episodic television; and wrote the pilot for an updated version of "Hawaii Five-O" that CBS was considering for its fall lineup.

Some of it has been a little too unvarying to suit Cannell's critics. A graduate student sent Cannell his master's thesis a few years ago, which asserted that everything Cannell had written was merely a warmed-over version of something else he had written before. Careful readers may, in fact, note a more than passing resemblance between the roguish hero of "King Con," Beano Bates, and Jim Rockford--the antihero of the private eye series "The Rockford Files," which Cannell co-created. But to Cannell--the perpetual outsider with his nose pressed against the glass--these are romantic loners, and like him, taking on a system that is arrayed against them.

It was almost certainly his learning disability that set him at this remove, for Cannell was born into a life of privilege in Pasadena, next in line to run the family business, the prosperous interior design firm of Cannell & Chaffin. "Here's a guy who comes out of the Pasadena decorating world," marvels James Garner, on the set of the latest Rockford TV movie, "and he writes dialogue like he came from the gutter."

At 55, Cannell is tanned and trim from regular workouts with a personal trainer. He wears tight clothing that shows off his lean physique and a goatee that he grew decades before they became the scourge of Hollywood. Cannell is old California, which means he can describe his Pasadena mansion as "bitchin' " and not feel self-conscious about it.

But it is the rapid-fire of his writing that describes Cannell's beating heart. "Oh, Steve is driven, no doubt about that," Garner says. "There's something pushing him hard, and evidently always has been. To build the kind of empire that he's built, you don't just fall into that."

He has an office building with his name on it on Hollywood Boulevard, though when he is guiding a visitor to what was once home to his television principality--he wrote more than 350 of the more than 1,500 episodes of such shows as "Hunter," "Wiseguy" and "The A-Team" that he produced--Cannell quietly says to "make a right after the hooker hotel." The building now sits mostly empty or rented out to other production companies, and his name has been removed from the wallpaper in the elevator bank, leaving only a ghostly image of what once was--the handwriting on the wall.

In the weeks leading up to the publication of "King Con," the only show Cannell still had on the air was the made-for-cable crime-buster "Silk Stalkings." He talked about his ability to cover his "slow spots" with bestsellers the way a man trying to hide a bald spot might refer to his comb-over.

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