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The Cannell Files: 'Rockford' Creator Returns To TV

wbelcher@tampatrib.com
Published:   |   Updated: March 24, 2013 at 02:34 AM

Stephen J. Cannell looks like he could play one of the characters from his Shane Scully crime novels.

Tan, thin and lanky, with striking gray hair, moustache and goatee, the man who created more than 40 TV shows including "The Rockford Files" is also an actor.

Cannell, who left TV production behind to become an author, is playing himself in an upcoming ABC drama series, "Castle."

Debuting March 9, it stars Nathan Fillion as Rick Castle, a crime-solving crime novelist who sometimes gets help from his poker-playing buddies, played by real crime novelists James Patterson, Sue Grafton, Stephen King and Cannell.

"It's just a cameo, but it's a lot of fun, and the series is being compared to 'The Rockford Files,' which is always flattering," says Cannell, who was in Tampa recently to speak at the Tampa Friends of the Library's Four Seasons Luncheon.

He gave an informal talk about his life and career and how he overcame dyslexia and a childhood of barely getting by in school to become one of television's most prolific writers.

He encouraged any aspiring writers in the group not to be afraid of failure and to keep writing. Friends of the Library member Jan Platt says he was "the most inspirational author" that has addressed the group.

Cannell also signed copies of "On the Grind," his eighth crime novel about maverick Los Angeles cop Shane Scully. In this adventure, hard-boiled Scully gets fired and ends up working in a corrupt small town on the outskirts of L.A. "I made up this place called Haven Park where the police are shaking down the residents. Many of them are poor or illegal immigrants," he says.

Cannell, 68, says that for more than 40 years he has written five hours a day. "I used to write TV scripts, and now I write novels," he says.

Cannell's TV credits are impressive. In addition to "Rockford," he created or co-created "The Greatest American Hero," "The A-Team," "Wiseguy," "21 Jump Street," "Silk Stalkings," "Hunter," "Hardcastle and McCormack" and "The Commish."

A Late Bloomer

The son of a prosperous Pasadena interior designer who owned a chain of furniture stores, Cannell says he flunked first grade and fourth grade. "I couldn't even read the Dick and Jane books," he says.

"I flunked the 10th grade, and it was hard on my self-esteem," he adds. "I self-diagnosed myself as being stupid because people kept saying, 'If only you applied yourself,' and I was applying myself."

He still remembers his first "B" - in English class - for a high school poem about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He eventually got into the University of Oregon on a football scholarship but lost it when his grades dropped. His parents finally badgered the assistant dean of admissions to get him in.

He dropped classes when he encountered teachers who penalized for spelling mistakes.

His first creative writing instructor told Cannell he had a gift for storytelling. It gave him courage and direction.

After graduation in 1964, he married his high school sweetheart, Marcia. "And we're still married today after 44 years," he says.

They have two daughters, a son and two grandchildren. Their eldest child, Derek, died in 1981 at age 15. A sand fort he was building on the beach collapsed and suffocated him.

Cannell says it was nearly five years before he sold a script.

"I kept writing because I loved the process," he says. "I would work for my father driving a furniture truck during the day and come home and write for five hours every night."

He sold a story idea in 1966 to the producers of "Mission: Impossible" and sold a script to "It Takes a Thief" in 1968. He eventually worked his way up from a $600-a-week writer to running his own studio - one that sold for $30 million in 1996.

Always Admired Novelists

He estimates that he wrote more than 450 TV scripts and produced more than 1,500 episodes. "I ran a TV studio for several years with 2,100 employees and 30 writers on staff," he says. "But I sold it to start a new chapter in my life. I always admired people who could write novels. So I tried, and my first novel was a bestseller, and I'm up to 15 novels now."

He says there are no plans to turn his Scully novels into movies or a TV series.

There are, however, plans to bring three of his former TV series to the big screen. "The A-Team" is in development at Fox with Ridley and Tony Scott producing (for summer of 2010); "21 Jump Street" is being developed by Sony Pictures; and a script has been written for "The Greatest American Hero."


Reporter Walt Belcher can be reached at (813) 259-7654.

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