Remembering Steve

My friend Steve Cannell died yesterday. He was a great writer and an incredibly nice man. 

It always amazed me that a man as successful as he was could come across as such a regular guy. I'd known him for years but he had the remarkable ability to make even someone he'd just met feel like his oldest friend.  

I think I captured my feelings and memories of Steve best in the following essay, which I originally posted here in January 2009. 


_MG_9582 Every time I do a signing with Steve Cannell, it's reliving a dream. I grew up admiring him and his writing on shows like THE ROCKFORD FILES and THE A-TEAM…and I dreamed of working for him someday. He had the career that I wanted…and the talent, too. I didn't think that working with him was a real possibility but I knew I could learn from him anyway. 

While I was in high school, I covered the television business for The Contra Costa Times (in Walnut Creek, CA) and came up with lots of excuses to do phone interviews with him, never once revealing that I was only 16-years-old or that I had any desire to be a TV writer. I know he liked the articles that I wrote because he told me so…and, more importantly, he never failed to return a call and was always available for a quote if I needed one.

I was still freelancing for the newspaper…and for a number of other publications…when I went down to Los Angeles to attend UCLA. I called him for an article about TENSPEED AND BROWNSHOE (or was it GREATEST AMERICAN HERO?) and I must have mentioned that I'd moved to L.A. because he invited me to his office at Samuel Goldwyn Studios. I was terrified. I was sure that once he saw I was a kid, he'd think I was a fraud and never talk to me again. But I couldn't resist the opportunity to actually meet him.

He did look shocked when I walked in the door, and I think for a moment he was afraid I was going to pitch him for a script, but I started off with a tough question about his decision to go into business for himself and the interview went great after that. Whatever awkwardness either one of us felt quickly evaporated and we talked for a couple of hours.  (I know now, after talking with him about that day, that I proved to him with that question that I was a serious journalist and not someone who'd been running a long scam to get into his office). It was a wide-ranging interview about the business, about the risks he was taking leaving Universal, and it was one of the best interviews I'd ever done. In fact, it was one of the clips that got me a job as a reporter for Newsweek. 

I interviewed him many more times over the years for various articles for a bunch of publications (the best was a huge profile in the trade magazine Electronic Media, now know as Television Week). I eventually gave up reporting and, through a lucky break, become a TV writer with William Rabkin. We sold a few freelance scripts and then got offered our first staff job… on HUNTER, a Stephen J. Cannell Production. It was fate.

Unfortunately, by that point, Steve had a  "hands off" relationship with the show, which was then being run by Fred Dryer and Marv Kupfer. Even so, I'll never forget the fantastic feeling the first day I walked into the Stephen J. Cannell Productions building as one of the writers instead of a reporter.  It was amazing.  A day or two later, I ran into Steve in the hallway.  He thought I was there for an interview and he started to apologize for forgetting the appointment…I was thrilled to tell him that no, I wasn't there for an interview…I was working for him.  He smiled and gave me a hug. 

Sadly, because of the situation at HUNTER, I didn't actually work with Steve at all…I only bumped into him now and then. The job also didn't last long …. we ended up quitting and getting hired onto BAYWATCH…but that's another story. 

The HUNTER experience didn't tarnish my relationship with Steve at all. We saw each other at industry events and he was always amazingly friendly. And as it turned out, a few years later I was back at Cannell again as a supervising producer on the syndicated series COBRA and, much to my pleasure, I actually got to work closely with him this time.  He also used to pop into my office to share bits and pieces of a novel he was working on….which became THE PLAN. 

We've remained friends ever since  – and have signed together and spoken on panels with each other many times in many cities over the years. (Bill & I even had the amazing thrill of hiring him as an actor in a script we wrote for DIAGNOSIS MURDER…he played a burned-out TV producer of action shows…who becomes an actor!). But every time we get together, I am reminded how lucky I am to have  achieved one of my dreams and to be able to count Steve among my friends. I hope the thrill never dies. 


UPDATE: My brother  Tod has written a great post about his experiences with Steve

9 thoughts on “Remembering Steve”

  1. Every story seems to agree that he was a mensch who enjoyed other people’s success as much as his own. I’m glad he had a long, successful career and made so many friends along the way.

  2. When did he die? I loooove him! I met him at a few book signings over the years and he was very generous – and quite an inspiration for dyslexics…he’ll be very missed on Castle…I hope they do an homage episode…

  3. I was so lucky to meet him and have a few words at one of his signings a few years back.
    My half of the conversation was me falling at his feet and chanting “I’m-not-worthy-I’m-not-worthy” which is what I do in the presence of Talent with a big “T”.
    He gave a fascinating talk, signed my book, and led by example when it came to charm and graciousness.
    We should all do so well and be missed so much.

  4. Thanks, Lee-
    I left a longer message at Tod’s page, but I wanted to thank you for this piece. Steve Cannell and I did a panel a few years back, and he was huge and I was nobody anyone had ever heard of, and he was incredibly kind and generous and he, as he did all the time, bought everyone on the panel’s books. He’ll be missed. Thanks for the great piece. He was a class act, and he’ll be missed.

  5. I met him once or twice and was always impressed with how nice we was. I was shocked to hear he had died, and my second thought would be how upset you’d be to hear it.

  6. I share everyone’s warm memories of Stephen Cannell. I found him equally as generous and inspiring. I also envied his skills and success as a writer. If only I had the gumption to rise at 3 a.m. and begin a productive workday. I’ll always remember remarking to him during an interview once how I was perhaps the only fan of the 1982 series “The Quest,” only to wake a couple of weeks later to find a box containing all 9 episodes of the series on my front porch. I also envy Lee’s having gotten to actually work with him and call him a personal friend.


Leave a Comment