Reflections on Stephen J. Cannell

He was the man you trusted with the most important thing in the world – your time. Stephen J. Cannell who at age 29 wrote The Rockford Files in the early ‘70s has been a staple in the world of television for decades. His death hits like a punch to the gut, after all this is the man who you never thought would die.

Cannell had that way of touching a wide variety of people through his writing skills. The Greatest American Hero’s premise was that of a man given a great power with no instructions as to how to use it. 21 Jump Street was about a group of young people who looked young enough to still be in high school. They infiltrated those institutions and solved crimes along the way. And who could forget the characters B.A. Barracus from The A-Team and Hunter who gave us iconic the catch-phrases “I pity the fool” and “Works for me?”

We must not forget that Cannell can arguably be crowned king of the crime drama. His series Wiseguy starring Ken Wahl was about a government agent who goes to prison for six years to maintain his cover. It was one of the few shows on television told in the arc format, where 13 episodes would be devoted to a single case. Each week you feared for Sonny Terranova (Wahl). Would he be uncovered by the mob-boss he worked for, would his priest brother blow his cover, or would he get too emotionally invested in his cases and compromise his principles? They were deep questions that made that show question what drives you and how far would you go to keep your integrity?

There were also the stars that we were introduced and reintroduced to in Cannell’s programs. Kevin Spacey who had a “special relationship” with his sister in Wiseguy, Robert Culp who was the agent who helped out in Greatest American Hero and of course Johnny Depp who we tuned in weekly to in 21 Jump Street. Not to mention the other actors in the over 40 shows he wrote and produced.

Not all his shows were long-running gems. Sonny Spoon starring Mario and Melvin Van Peebles barely lasted six weeks. Still it was highly entertaining. Given more time it might have found an audience.

To say Stephen J. Cannell will be missed is a trite understatement. This man was the world’s childhood – how can television survive without him?

About Donna-Lyn Washington 592 Articles
Donna-lyn Washington has a M.A. in English from Brooklyn College. She is currently teaching at Kingsborough Community College where her love of comics and pop culture play key parts in helping her students move forward in their academic careers. As a senior writer for ReviewFix she has been able to explore a variety of worlds through comics, film and television and has met some interesting writers and artists along the way. Donna-lyn does a weekly podcast reviewing indie comics and has also contributed entries to the 'Encyclopedia of Black Comics,’ the academic anthology ‘Critical Insights: Frank Yerby’ and is the editor for the upcoming book, ‘Conversations With: John Jennings.’

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