Interview with Stephen J. Cannell
by Claire E. WhiteHe is known to millions of television viewers as the writer typing at his IBM Selectric II after one of his shows has just aired and to millions of book lovers as the bestselling author of The Plan, Final Victim and King Con . He is Stephen J. Cannell and to most people he looks like he has everything: fame, fortune and a close family life. But the rise to the top was anything but a sure bet for the high
After all your success as a screenwriter and a producer, what prompted you to start writing novels?
Well, I've wanted to be a novelist since I was 16 years old; it was my dream in high school to be a writer and novelist. In my high school yearbook under ambition it says "author." I always thought that being an author wasn't writing television scripts; it was writing books, but because of my learning disability -- my severe dyslexia -- I never really felt that I would be able to achieve that ambition. But it was my ambition.
I was lucky enough when I was in college to run into a writing instructor -- his name was Ralph Salsbury. He was the guy who turned all the lights on for me. It's so incredible when you have somebody, a teacher, that can completely change the whole direction of your life. Which is what this guy did. He gave me such a great gift. He told me -- he convinced me, actually -- that despite all my bad spelling and everything that I had a talent. He said, "You know, you may not ever be a professional writer Steve, but this should always at least be an avocation for you. You should never stop writing". I took him at his word. I worked for my father for awhile driving a furniture truck and every night I would come home (I was married and this was post college), and I would sit down and write from 5:30 in the evening until about ten o'clock at night, every night. (And why my wife is still married to me I'll never know, but 35 years later she's still hanging in there!) It was something that became so important to me -- it was the most important thing in my whole life. At that time I thought if at the end of my whole writing existence if somebody would be able to look back on everything I ever did and say, "You know what? He was pretty good!," that would be enough for me. If I could just sell a few scripts. And I decided that I would go after screenwriting instead of novel writing because there weren't very many young novelists, I suppose. Truman Capote, Gore Vidal , most of the novelists were older guys. It appeared to me to be a very tough market to break into and not a very lucrative one. I had a family to support and I had a son that was born shortly after. And I thought, you know, I've got to see if I can make some money -- if I'm going to do this I need to generate some cash flow. So I looked around … and I love the movie business, I love television. There is something very romantic about the old studios and all of that -- it just appealed to me. I thought maybe I can write some scripts, so that's what I started to do. I wrote spec television scripts, I wrote spec movie scripts, I wrote treatments for TV shows, treatments for motion pictures. And for five hours every day after work I would write then I would have my dinner at 10:30 and then go to bed.
What was your first big break?
Five years I did this. And I wrote all day on Saturday and a half day on Sunday. I mean I was really committed to it. It was so much more important to me than my job. After five years I finally got an agent. Her name was Polly Conell, and I still had never really been able to succeed by getting in to meet anybody or selling anything to anybody, but she believed in me. Then I finally sold an episode of It Takes a Thief at Universal starring Robert Wagner. I wrote the script, but it was never shot because before they could make that movie the producers of the show were fired, and a new producer came in and threw out all the material the old producers had been developing. But at least I made $7,000 for that screenplay, which is about what I was making driving the furniture truck. So, I thought I'm just going to quit the job with my Dad; this is a year's worth of being able to be a writer full time. So I did. I love my Dad -- he's my best friend -- and he didn't quite understand why I was doing it, but he did support me. And my wife supported me and let me quit this family business that I would have inherited to take this flyer on being a writer. So for a year, I wrote every day for eight hours a day, Saturday and Sunday included. And I started to sell. I got two Ironsides and then an Adam 12. When I wrote the Adam 12, I was given the assignment on a Thursday night and the producer called me and he said, "The network threw out our last script of the season and we don't have a show and we have to start prepping on Monday morning. I need it over the weekend -- can you do it?" And I said, "Absolutely!" There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I could do it because for five or six years I had been writing for about five hours a day. I knew I could blow out a fifteen or twenty-five page script in two days, without a problem. The producer was a friend of mine I'd met at a party. But I'd never hit him up for a job. I was very careful about not using my friendships. I would let people know I was a writer and could use the work, but I wasn't one of those guys who was all over him about a job. I think that style really paid off for me because he called and it was a great break.
What kept you going during all those years?
The love of doing it. I just loved it. When I was writing stuff that I liked it just felt so good. I would read it over and think, "God this is really good -- I really did this." And then sometimes I would write stuff that wasn't very good -- I'm very tough on my material -- and I would read it again and say, "God, I missed this -- it's just horrible." And I would try to figure out how to fix it and not to make the mistake again. I was self-taught, but I also was using a lot of rules that I developed myself for plotting and for character construction. When I'd come across something that was valid I would make sure that I never forgot it. It just was for me such an exciting thing, and still, I do it strictly for fun.
Well, that comes through.
Yes, I think it does. I would do it for nothing.
I don't think you can fake that.
I don't think you can. You know when I say I would do it for nothing, my agents always cringe, but I really would. I did for an awful long time. Then when I wrote that Adam 12 they liked it so much, the producers and the actors, they made me the head writer the next day. They wanted me to be the head writer and wanted to know if I'd take the job and I thought "Are you kidding me?" I was 28 years old and I was now the head writer on a network television show, put under contract to Universal. And I was there for eight years and I became so successful, Claire. I mean, in my wildest dreams I never would have dreamed that I could have gotten this successful so fast -- I mean admittedly I put a lot of time in getting there but once I got through the gate and I had an office at Universal I was on my way. I worked hard, and I kept the same work ethic. I'd get there at 5 in the morning and I'd write until one or two in the afternoon and never take a minute off. I'd write on Saturdays and Sundays even while I was under contract with Universal and my wife would say, "Why are you doing that ? You've got a job." I said, " because I want to write more scripts." And then there was this dyslexic who flunked three grades before he got out of high school that was sort of in the background of all of this saying "These guys really like this stuff, God, I can't believe it." You know, I was so used to being a failure academically or in anything that had to do with cerebral accomplishments that it just absolutely baffled me that people would read my stuff and they would love it. I actually had the word "brilliant" used in the same sentence with my name and nobody had done that my entire life.
Dyslexia, which is quite common today, was not understood at all then.
|"I got so successful in television that I never got around to writing a novel. I was fifty years old and I thought, 'You know what? I'm scared of it.' I had put this off so long that it now appeared to me to be something that was unattainable... I thought, you know, I've got to do this, I've got to overcome this fear... I said 'I'm going to make this a priority. I'm going to make sure that I write a novel.'"|
How did you end up with your own studio?
Because my father was an entrepreneur and had run his own company I decided that I would run mine, and in my stupidity I basically said, " I'm going to set up my own movie studio." And all my friends said, "What -- are you crazy? I mean these guys will pay you a fortune just to sit here and you don't have to take any risk." I said, "Yeah, but what if I owned all these things?" I mean I don't own one dollar's worth of The Rockford Files. I created the show, but all I get is a writer's royalty. When that thing runs on local television all over the country, I don't get a dollar. Universal made $300 million bucks on that show, why shouldn't I make that? If I could just figure out how to do the banking and carry the debt. So I set up this little company, Cannell Studios. I did it with a three picture deal that I made at ABC where they guaranteed me three pilots. Not series on the air, just pilots. And I got them to cash flow the company. In other words, they paid me a third of the money before I actually delivered the script, so I could pay my office rent and my secretaries. They were paying me a little ahead of the normal date, just to sort of keep me in business, which they agreed to do. The first show was Ten Speed and Brown Shoe. They bought it and it was only on for about eighteen weeks. The second show was Greatest American Hero and it was on for three years and it started to build. Then I had the A-Team and I had Hunter and 21 Jump Street and over my whole career I ended up with around 43 shows I have created.
I have the list. It's hard to believe its just one man actually. (laughs)
Yeah (laughs). But it was the same thing, Claire -- it was getting up every morning at five o'clock and you'd be surprised how much you can do if you'll work for five hours every day, day in and day out.
I take it you're a morning person.
Yeah, I'm a morning person. And, you know, its real tortoise and the hare stuff. I mean, I just sit down and I plot and I get my fifteen pages of screenplay everyday. And I don't turn off my machine until I'm done. And it isn't always great. I hasten to say that I'm still a work-in-progress. I'm trying to get better with everything I do -- I don't view myself as the best writer I know. I know people that are much better than I am. But instead of being jealous of them, I use them as role models and aspire to be as good. I push myself and read their work and think "Oh Boy this is great. I couldn't have done this." And I try a little bit harder to see if I can add a new style to my repertoire.
So what got you started writing novels?
What happened was I got so successful in television that I never got around to writing a novel. But I had said that in my high school yearbook was my ambition. And I was fifty years old and I thought, "You know what? I'm scared of it." I had put this off so long that it now appeared to me to be something that was unattainable. And I just thought, "God, you know, I've got to do this, I've got to overcome this fear. I'm a writer and there can't be that much difference between writing a novel and a screenplay. I'm going to put a story together; I'm going to look for a story." And the minute I made it a priority in my life -- the minute I said "I'm going to make this a priority. I'm going to make sure that I write a novel.
Really? Why do you enjoy writing novels more?
It's a much more complete experience and it's much more satisfying as a writer. I think I can mine my ideas better. I think I'm a pretty good screenwriter. I know what the conceit of screenwriting is -- I know how to make characters sound believable when they're spitting out material they never really would say to other people (laugh) -- which you have to do in screenplays because everything has to come out of the character's mouth. But in a novel you can access all the character's thought -- I can go into Tricky Vicky's (the prosecutor in King Con) mind while she's looking at those ballerinas dancing on the wallpaper and can I have her wonder about what it would be like to be that free -- but I can't ever really have her actually say "Gee, I wonder what it would be like to be as free as the ballerina is on my wallpaper?" You can be so subtle if you have the talent for it. You know, a lot of times I don't know if I'm as subtle as I want to be, but the really great writers can be very subtle using that tool. And you can also show irony by exposing the difference between what the character is saying and thinking. I love metaphors and similes. And you don't use them in screenplays because people don't speak in metaphors and similes. The only place you ever get to use them in a screenplay is shot description, so your busting your ass doing a metaphor that only the crew is ever going to get to read (laughing)…
(laughs) Let's talk a about King Con. What was your inspiration for this story?
I had loved The Sting as a movie and I feel that there's a real dearth of this kind of material out there. I think that people really love a good con, well told. They're hard to come up with, because most of the cons are what we call short cons. The Most Valuable Dog in The World is a short con. Most of the confidence games are one beat games like that or two beat games, where you set the mark up and then peel 'em. But to do a big store, a big con, that's hard to come up with. In The Sting the con depended on the timelag between the telegraph and the telephone. The phone was a new instrument back then. I had read about this con that took place here in California called the Homestakes Swindle. It was a fairly famous con, and it was a moose pasture -- a mineral rights scam. I looked it up and read it pretty carefully over again and it was pretty much the way I remembered it when it was played in about 1978 here in Los Angeles. They hooked a bunch of business managers of television stars. Barbara Streisand went down.
I remember reading about it.
Yeah, it was a huge scam. They took all the business managers up to look at the oil fields on buses. It's been in my storybook since 1978. And so I thought, this is the one. I actually had two other book ideas, but I just couldn't get anyone fired up about them. So I went away on a vacation to St. Barts and I was sitting on this beach and I thought, "You know, that Homestead thing is great and nobody's done a really great book on cons." So I started putting my characters together. I started researching and building a glossary of terms. Then I built the story on the con premise. I knew that in order
Oh yes, I do it all up front. And I thought, "Ok, I've got these two brothers and I'm going to use the violent brother Tommy (who's maybe stupider and more susceptible to this con than Joe) to get to his brother. I'm going to create the circumstance where I get Joe thinking that Tommy is basically playing him for the fool, his brother he's loved all his life. How can I make that happen? How can I take the reader down the road so that at the climactic scene it's been set up well enough that the reader really believes it? There's a real Mafia mind-set about their relationship. You know, brothers have walked away from brothers over honor. I had it all laid out, then I wrote a fairly complete beat sheet. I knew what the scam was and I knew the scam was going to drive the major elements of the plot.
What is a beat sheet?
A beat sheet is just an action outline detailing the "beats" of a story. For example, Point 1. Beano is playing cards and gets beaten up for cheating the Mafia don. Point 2. He realizes there is a contract out for him, so he escapes from the hospital. Point 3. Victoria is trying a case against Joe Rina in New Jersey; they have a conflict. Then I start writing the book -- ten pages a day.
In your television shows and your books you always seem to feature really strong female leads, unlike some other male writers. Is that intentional?
Oh, yes. I found out a long time ago that it was much more fun to write a female character if that female character was the equivalent of the male. If you put as much energy into her as you do into the hero it only makes your hero (if you're writing a show like the Rockford Files where he is the hero and the female character is the guest star) it only makes your hero stronger if that guest star lead is written with the same strength as the hero. I remember writing a Rockford Files character called Claire -- it was one of the early ones and I was only 29 at the time, and I discovered this fact. It was like the third Rockford I wrote. We decided we would do a story where Rockford's bad news girlfriend from his past that's dumped him three times and walked away and left him at the altar once comes back into his life.
I remember that episode. I didn't remember her name was Claire, though.
Yes, that was the name of the character. Linda Evans plays Claire. And she just played him like a fiddle. He was such a sucker for her, and everybody around him said, "Oh man don't even look at her, you remember what happened last time!" His Dad's on him. Angel is even on him, "Geeze, your going to get burned Jimmy". And he's saying "No, no I think she's changed." He's such a sucker. She was such a great character because at the end of the story she ended up with his money, his car, and his heart. He finally arranges for her to get out of town because people are trying to kill her and she leaves him again. She left town with warrants outstanding and the cops trying to arrest him. She was such a great character and he was just terrific because he had something to play off of. And I realized back then this is a good way to write women, instead of -- as so often happens -- writing them as the weaker sex. I think when male writers write a female character they have a tendency to write from a man's point of view. But if you can go around and write from the woman's point of view when you're in her head and if you treat her with the same care and emotional importance that you treat the male character, then you will have a believable female character.
|"If you just sit around and wait for that mood to hit you when your setter is curled up in front of the fireplace and there's a little rain outside and the thunder is rumbling and you've got the Irish coffee there... You know what? You'll never write anything. You've got to get up every day and pound it out."|
Is this Riding the Snake?
This is Riding the Snake, my new hardcover which will be out in September, 98 from William Morrow. Tanisha ends up going back to Martin Luther King High School. She'd been sort of a drop-out, king of the hang around, banger girl. She ends up getting straight As and she goes to UCLA and to study criminology. Her whole idea is that she's wants to get on the L.A.P.D. crash unit, which works gangs in South Central, and go back down there and see if she can't do something to stop all the crime.
She's one of the central characters?
Yes. Tanisha's a black lieutenant on the Crash Unit and this guy in the unit keeps trying to jump her. And she won't let him; she doesn't like this guy, Lieutenant Halley. He ends up getting really pissed off at her and he says that some of the busts that went south in South Central, that didn't go down right, were her fault -- that she was giving the busts to her old gangbanger boyfriends from the hood. So he puts Internal Affairs on her. This is all back story.
They can't build a case. They can't find any evidence, but this guy doesn't want her working Crash so he gets her reassigned to the Asian task force knowing full well that no Asian male will ever talk to a black female. So she's basically sitting at Asian Crimes with all these oriental detectives and she can't catch a squeal. Nobody will give her a squeal, she just sits there, while IA is going down and talking to all her old boyfriends and her mom and her aunt and everybody trying to build a case against her. The other hero is named Wheeler Cassidy. Wheeler is a country club lush. He's a guy who inherited his fortune. His mother's still alive and he has a younger brother named Prescott. Wheeler was that guy that we all knew in college. He was that guy that was a party boy that jumped off the roof of the Tri Delt House.
Don't remind me!
He was the number one party guy at USC. He drove his BMW onto the field at half-time for fun. He never grew up. Now he's 37 years old, he goes to the Country Club everyday and is at the bar by eleven o'clock. He's really good looking and he's screwing up other people's lives. He's up before the membership committee; they're about to throw him out of the club. His little brother Prescott, who always looked up to him, is now a hot young lawyer and political power broker in Los Angeles. At the beginning of the novel Prescott Cassidy has a heart attack and dies. Wheeler has to go out to the law firm to take charge of his brother's personal effects. But when he gets there it turns out that
Do you think having daughters has helped you write better female characters?
Well maybe. I don't know. I think more than that -- I mean I'm nuts about my daughters -- but more than that I think it's that I want to like these characters. And if you like the characters, then you work really hard to make them funny and fun and tough and not just pawns for other characters in the play.
What advice would you give beginning writers who want to write for television?
I would write spec screenplays for television shows that are on the air that they like. I would definitely not write a pilot. What most young writers do is they write pilots. They come to me with no credits and they say, "Can you read my ideas for a television show?" That's like trying to start at the top or saying, "I'm pumping gas here at this gas station, but I want to run the oil company."
Note: You can find more advice from Cannell on screenwriting in his screenwriting seminar.
So they should write a script for an existing show and can use that as an example of their work?
Absolutely. I buy scripts all the time that are spec scripts from people where they wrote a Hill Street, or NYPD Blue, or Magnum, or you name the show. I might read it and say, "This seems like a pretty good script... I wonder why they didn't buy this?" And the reason that it wasn't bought at NYPD Blue is because the producers of that show are so close to NYPD Blue that if you're 10% off the money they'll read it and say, "This isn't right at all." But I'm just another TV viewer and I'm nowhere near as dialed in on NYPD Blue as they are. So I'll read and think, "It looks pretty good to me; they've pretty much caught the show as far as I can see." So, lots of times the spec script will be a calling card for another show. You won't sell it to the show you wrote it for -- sometimes you will -- but it's not wasted if it doesn't sell. You can still send it out with your agent. People are always asking for writing samples. Spec scripts are great for that.
The other thing I would say to beginning writers is write everyday, like I did. Get up and spend at least two hours writing everyday. If you have to be to work at 9 o'clock, get up at 4:00 a.m., write from 4 until 7, then take your shower and go to work. But
You've often stated in other interviews that writing believable interesting dialogue is one of a writer's most important skills. Do you have some advice for learning how to write great dialogue? Can you actually learn it or do you think its just a skill people have?
Yes, I think you can learn it. I mean, you have to some feel for it. There's certainly a creative skill involved, but you can also develop the skill. If I'm going to write a black teenage hooker having a conversation with Anita Hill, I've got two black females who are coming from completely different places, completely different value structures. Then what I have to do is ask, "What does this black fifteen year old hooker sound like? Is she going to be using coke dialogue and hooker dialogue and the metaphor of the street?" And the answer to that is yes. And so now, do I know the metaphor of the street? And if I don't, then I've got to go to the library. And I've got to start looking for dictionaries on street dialogue. And they're there, at the bookstore. And you start to read them and you listen to street people talking and you try to hear the rhythms. Or listen to English people talking.
|"My feeling is that we're not going to have interactive TV to the level that was originally predicted. There are a lot of interactive things going on with video games and all of those things, but think about it: when you're sitting down and watching an episode of Ally MacBeal do you really want to rewrite the story?"|
At the end of your shows there's a film clip of you typing at your faithful IBM Selectric II. But rumor has it that you've gone online.
I do have a computer, but I still write on the typewriter. I use the computer for research and I also use voice recognition software, which is about 80% accurate. For a writer to be able to get on Lexis-Nexis or Yahoo is invaluable. I get stuff from there that is just terrific for research. I've been researching this next book and so I haven't touched my typewriter in about, maybe about three weeks, because I've been in front of the computer all day long.
So you regularly surf the Net then?
Oh, yes, I surf the Net quite a bit trying to find stuff that I can use or to educate myself on this next novel.
Experts in the field have predicted that there will be a merging of television, computers, telephone and radio into one, more interactive media. What do you think about that? Is TV going to go away and will we watch it on our computers?
Conceivably. I think that certainly the technology is getting to the point where that's going to be possible. My feeling is that we're not going to have interactive TV to the level that was originally predicted. There are a lot of interactive things going on with video games and all of those things, but think about it: when you're sitting down and watching an episode of Ally MacBeal do you really want to rewrite the story? Will you really be thinking, "I've got a choice here. I think I'll have Ally do this"? Or do you want to just sit back, laugh and be entertained? I think that all of the "X over Y" people are trying to make this into something that it's never going to be. I think that there is an entertainment part of television and movies which is watching and being entertained. I'm an expert writer -- I've done it everyday for five hours a day for thirty years. I'm going to be able to do it better than somebody in his living room saying, " I think I'm going to make the guy go over there and open that door."
That is exactly what is being predicted by some people.
Yes, but I think that's stupid. There's some small group of techies who will want that, because they're not going to be able to be entertained unless they're pushing the buttons and making their little icons run around…I think that, aside from those guys and gals, when most people come home from work and if they're not working on the computer or playing a computer game, and if they actually choose to be told a story, they want to be told a story.
You live a very fast-paced life. What do you like to do to unwind?
I work out, like most people do. I ski. I'm very close to my family. I spend a lot of time with them. I take vacations. I often write on my vacations, but my wife has learned to tolerate that. I get up very early and I write for five hours. By the time its eleven o'clock I've got my writing in and we're on vacation so we'll go do something, you know, go to the beach or something. I don't feel very stressed, although I suppose I am at times. When I get really stressed, I up my running a little bit. I'll go jog about five miles and I'll come back and feel really good.
Hollywood is notorious for breaking up marriages and families, yet you've managed to keep your marriage strong and you have a reputation as a very devoted family man. What's your secret?
Well, I married my best friend. The other secret is that I've worked at it -- it means something to me. And she's worked at -- and it means something to her. So when we find ourselves drifting apart or being distant (because you can feel that when it happens) instead of just letting it happen, we do something about it. The warning signs are arguments start to happen or there are those long silences. And some people just say, "To hell with this," or "To hell with her." But if you care about the relationship and if you're smart enough to realize that people don't always sail side by side, you can fix it. My metaphor is that it's like a couple of ships. You can sail along pretty easily at the beginning because you're headed in the same direction, but as the winds start to blow those ships can start to go in different directions and you've got to be able to throw a line over or start pulling because it isn't just going to sail straight forward, side by side without some help. When those kind of things happen, we've always been able to realize that we need some time away together. We take a vacation, just the two of us; we don't take the kids. Even if it's just for three or four days, we go to Acapulco or something. We've always done that. We also talk a lot and we read each other really well. I mean I can tell if she's mad without her saying a word, even if she's standing with her back to me twenty feet away. I can tell she's mad at me -- it's like I can read her mind. She can read mine too. And there's a lot of silly things that happen with us. Let's say we're going to a party. I'll go into my bathroom and she'll go into hers and I'll put on a black suit and a purple tie with a purple handkerchief. And I'll walk out and she'll be wearing a black suit with a purple scarf. We look like a song and dance act, you know? We laugh about it all the time; it happens maybe thirty or forty percent of the times we go to get dressed. It's just like we're in the same moods, I guess. We're on the same wavelength. And that's great.