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More Cannell

By admin Published: October 1, 2010

After the jump I have posted three interviews I did with Cannell for the Beacon Journal, from 1995, '96 and '97. Two of them focus on his book writing, but even those give you an idea of how his mind worked.


This is the 1995 interview I mentioned in the previous post:

With the publication of his first novel, Stephen J. Cannell has realized a longtime dream.

You might not think there were many dreams left for the writer and producer. Entertainment-industry newspaper Variety, which will pay tribute to Cannell in a special section in August, notes, "He has written hundreds of television scripts, produced more than 1,500 episodes and created more than 35 classic shows."

The man whose credits range from The Rockford Files to Silk Stalkings is also a familiar TV face, acting occasionally in the syndicated series Renegade and hosting the upcoming U.S. Customs Classified. Northeast Ohio residents also know him as a mogul whose company owns WUAB (Channel 43), although a separate company, Malrite, operates the station.

But when Cannell recently came to Cleveland, all those other activities took a back seat to The Plan (William Morrow, $23), a thriller about the Mafia's scheme to put its own man in the White House and a TV producer's feverish attempt to stop it.

"I've wanted to be a novelist since I was 16 years old," Cannell said during an interview at the Ritz Carlton. "And I sort of put it off because of all the career things that had been going on for me.

"Finally, I got to the point where I said, 'This is something I've got to try.' I didn't go out and cut a deal on this book before I wrote it. I didn't write a hundred pages and an outline. I wrote the whole book. I didn't want to sell it if it wasn't any good. And, having never written one before, I thought that would be a good way to do it."

Asked how he fit it into a seemingly full schedule, Cannell said, "You can find time for things that are important to you. It's a matter of prioritizing. I couldn't do it at the expense of television, so I had to basically write more in that year than I ever have in my life. I would write 100 pages of the book, then I'd write two or three TV scripts, then I'd go back to the novel. .... I was writing just about every day, including Saturdays and Sundays."

Besides, Cannell had an idea that intrigued him. Although the book moves along as it follows both producer Ryan Bolt and his sometime friend, murderous mobster Mickey Alo, Cannell is also painting a nightmare scenario for the nation. Given the importance of television to presidential campaigns, The Plan shows criminals taking control of a TV network and using it to hijack the Democratic presidential nomination.

"I think it's very plausible," he said. "Look at what happened in the '50s, when (J. Edgar) Hoover said there was no organized crime and turned the FBI to fighting communism. To be able to appoint a director of the FBI, or to appoint an attorney general who won't prosecute in one direction, that would be a powerful motive (for the mob). What good is having $3 billion if you're in Leavenworth?

"And more what I was interested in pointing out is that our political system is front-loaded," he said, referring to the load of early presidential primaries forcing candidates to rise or fall very quickly.

"It's to keep candidates like Jimmy Carter from happening again. So we have media candidates who are trying to deal with very complicated issues in one-liners. A well-financed candidate has a real good shot at hijacking it. Ross Perot is a real good example of someone coming out of nowhere, literally buying half-hours on the network."

Cannell did considerable research for the book, including long discussions with political consultant Patrick Caddell.

"He was terrifically helpful to me," Cannell said. "I would ask him questions, and he would tell me how to get where I wanted to go. Some people are not good technical advisers because they're so into the way it really is, they can't go with your idea. ....

"I started telling Pat my idea, and I had originally had my candidate be a Republican, because I'm a Republican and I didn't want to be accused of trashing Democrats. And he said, 'You can't do that. If you're in the underworld and want to pick a guy who can win in Iowa and New Hampshire, it has to be a Democrat.' "I said, 'Why? What's the difference?' And he said, because Republicans are all the same guy. Whether it's Dole or Kemp or Gingrich, they're basically conservative, business-oriented, doing the same thing. The Democrats, on the other hand, are all over the road. .... That's why the Democrats always run like 13 candidates, and they chop each other to pieces. You have a real opportunity to jump in."

But the book is not a somber political treatise. Like many of Cannell 's TV shows, it has action (and far harsher violence than Cannell presents on the TV screen), a terrifying but charismatic villain in Alo and a hero trying to rebuild his life after a personal tragedy.

"I've often written about broken heroes," he said. Bolt and his allies "are a collection of broken heroes who come back together. And that's always something interesting for me to write."

Novel writing, for that matter, now has Cannell 's full interest. A heavy TV schedule looms again, but that's not the only thing in Cannell 's typewriter. He has already started a second book.

A 1996 interview about "Wiseguy" and a reunion movie:

Wiseguy was one of my favorite dramas in the '80s, at times the best thing going in series television, but it came to a bad end.

Ken Wahl, the temperamental star, left the series in 1990 and an attempt to keep it going with a different cast failed after a few months. But the CBS series still has a cult of fans of its 1987-90 episodes, and it looks even better with age.

Kevin Spacey, a best supporting actor Oscar winner this year for The Usual Suspects, caught a lot of people's attention as a Wiseguy villain. So did Stanley Tucci, who on April 23 wrapped up an Emmy-deserving turn as the evil Richard Cross on Murder One.

The series fascinated not only with charismatic villains but by playing out over several episodes an ongoing moral dilemma co-creator Stephen J. Cannell has summed up as "the seduction of Vinnie Terranova."

The undercover federal agent played by Wahl "was always a character who was grappling to keep his moral compass on north," Cannell said. "The idea was, what would it be like to be a guy making $30,000 or $40,000 a year, and then to be handed the keys to a Porsche and a penthouse?"

And that's the same turf occupied by Wiseguy, the reunion ABC movie premiering tonight at 9. Wahl is back as Vinnie, Jonathan Banks as his boss and friend Frank McPike, Jim Byrnes as Vinnie's contact "Lifeguard." This time Vinnie is going back in the field after years of "sitting on wiretaps" (and, judging from Wahl's bulk, sitting under beer taps). His target is a dangerous businessman played by Ted Levine, best known as serial killer Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs but much smoother, and almost as menacing, here.

Naturally, what begins as crime-busting quickly becomes a war for Vinnie's soul. Nor does it help that McPike's superiors are corrupt and unappealing. Cannell recalled recently that at the beginning of the series Vinnie didn't like McPike, either, to make the lure of the villains even stronger. While the two have become friends, the temptations in the new Wiseguy are many and powerful.

The movie is not the greatest Wiseguy I've seen, if only because what used to develop in detail over five episodes is now reduced to a two-hour movie. But Cannell acknowledges that the multi-episode stories may have hurt Wiseguy's series ratings, much the way Murder One struggled this year under the weight of a season-long story.

Not that Cannell would have done the series any differently. The story needed more than a single episode, he said. And he would not have advised producer Steven Bochco against trying the longer arc in Murder One.

"There's always the chance that he'll do it better than me," Cannell said with a laugh. "And these are all noble experiments. ...

"My job is to make a show I believe in, not to try to torque it to what the audience wants." He feels the same way about Profit, a Cannell series for Fox, which is terrific viewing even though "people are not lined up to see it" and Fox will yank it from its lineup after next Monday.

Still, Cannell thinks two hours is enough for a Wiseguy. And even though Wahl made noises about giving up acting in a recent TV Guide magazine interview, Cannell thinks Wahl would come back for more Wiseguy movies. "It's a perfect gig for him," Cannell said. "You work for 21 days and it's over. I don't think he wants to do a series again."

In fact, you have to wonder if he ever did. "I remember when he walked in when I was casting Wiseguy, in 'cycle boots and an old leather jacket, chewing on a nail and saying, "I don't want to do television but I read the script and I want to do this.' "

The result, Cannell insists, was perfect casting, "a unique mixture of leading man with soulfulness that makes the guy believable and real."

From a 1997 interview, after he had begun focusing more on novels:

Stephen J. Cannell is one of the most prolific writers in television, as well as a producer and occasional actor.

While any one of those careers would keep someone busy, Cannell -- whose credits include The Rockford Files, The A-Team, Wiseguy, Renegade and Silk Stalkings -- has in recent years added novelist to his list of occupations. Since 1995, he has published a novel a year: political thriller The Plan followed by Final Victim, about the hunt for a serial killer, and now King Con, where crime lords and con men square off.

"I love the process of writing novels," Cannell said in a recent telephone interview. "For me it's a much more fulfilling way to write than television or motion picture writing. I look forward to the time I spend doing my novel writing.

"You have so many more tools available to you. . . . For instance, omniscient author. That I can get into a character's head and deal with his innermost thoughts in a private way is very interesting to me. And as a screenwriter you can't do those unless you do voiceovers, which is kind of corny. So what you end up doing is creating circumstances whereby people say things they wouldn't say to each other so the audience can be let in on the drama.

"You get very skilled as a screenwriter at doing that, so it doesn't feel contrived. But it is so much easier, and you can deal in so much more subtlety when you can just walk into a character's head. . . . "The other thing I like is, you have a very elastic time frame. If I want to go back five years and write two chapters about five years ago, I can. I wouldn't do it without a great deal of consideration, but it's certainly doable. And in a character's thoughts I can go in any direction I want. And the other thing I like is you can write metaphors and similes in your description, and they become part of the work.

"You can certainly do it in a screenplay when you're writing shot descriptions," Cannell said, "but not many writers are going to spend a lot of time polishing and constructing metaphors that are only going to be read by the grips and electricians. . . . I'm having a ball with it."

King Con (Morrow, $24) takes Cannell into an area he has explored with great success on Rockford, the elaborate scam, in this case one designed by Beano X. Bates, a trickster so adept he's earned the title "King Con."

Beano gets tangled up with mobster Joe Rina and his brother Tommy, for whom "murderous" sounds euphemistic. To get the Rinas, Beano joins up with federal prosecutor Victoria Hart, who has her own score to settle with the Rinas. And they set out on a course that, even with a certain whimsy in the con games, has a lot of darkness, danger and violence along the way.

"I think the darkness is basically in the character of Tommy Rina," he said. "It's not in Beano or Victoria -- or Paper Collar John or Fit-Throwing Dusty or any of the other really fun characters. I do believe this is much closer to the tone of, say, The Rockford Files than Final Victim. Final Victim was the darkest thing I've ever written.

"What I thought was interesting about Tommy Rina is they choose him to run the con on because he's the stupider of the two, and he's obviously going to be the easiest one to pull it on. What they're not aware of is that this guy is a complete wackadoo, and at any moment he can blow sky-high and shoot your head off. He becomes this vial of nitroglycerine that they're hoping they don't jiggle too hard.

"I wanted the audience to realize this wasn't a romp," he said. "I wanted my villain to be powerful and dangerous."

Cannell decided to do a con novel because he had read novels about con men and little scams, but not one with a huge scam in the middle. He looks back to the movie The Sting for a parallel and thinks in a way that King Con "is The Sting for today."

Where structure is obviously a big consideration in a book like this, Cannell still said, "It's always more fun to write the dialogue and the characters than the plot. Plot is the framework of the building -- the footing, the cross-beams, the load-bearing walls. I know what I need to hold up the story and I know I have to put those pieces in. . . . But the fun of it is the people. When I've got Tommy Rina with a gun clicking at Beano's teeth. . . . He's a fun guy to write."

Cannell plans to try to keep up the novel-a-year pace, along with screenplays and some television work "if the right television stuff comes along. . . . "I'm doing Silk Stalkings for another season. I rehung (updated) Hawaii Five-O for CBS. It did not make their fall schedule but I'm told they're still interested for midseason, and I'm doing a pilot for Fox," he said.

He had hoped another syndicated drama, Two, would get a second season but felt it got lost when the production company, New World, was bought by Fox. "Those guys are really interested in talk shows, and I couldn't get them interested in Two," he said.

And his novels are providing him a basis for still more screenplays for the movies and TV.

"Final Victim is at Morgan Creek, at Warner Bros., and the script is written and we're in the midst of trying to cast the leads. I've finished the script on King Con, and it's at MGM, and I heard they were pleased with my first draft. . . . I'm talking to some television people about doing The Plan as a miniseries. When I wrote that book, I had 13 main characters in the book, so I think it best suits itself as a miniseries."

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