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Telling Stories
Stephen J. Cannell

Stephen J. Cannel

. . . is a writer, the man behind such classic television action shows as The Rockford Files, The A-Team, 21 Jump Street and The Commish. Mr. Cannell is also a bestselling author of novels including Riding the Snake and The Devilís Workshop. In addition to being a successful businessman, Mr. Cannell effectively deals with his challenges as a dyslexic.

Excerpts3:59 secs

What do Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Stephen J. Cannell have in common? Dyslexia. It's a brain condition in which the creative right side dominates. Cannell, hugely successful in Hollywood and as a novelist, says it's English teachers who are confused, not dyslexics. Spelling is not writing. And writing is what Cannell does.

Cannell is a prolific writer. He is the creator of classic television action shows including "The Rockford Files," "21 Jump Street," "The Commish" and more than 30 other series, more than 1500 episodes in all. He changed how Hollywood does business before leaving television to write 5 best-selling novels. Steve Cannell may spell idiosyncratically, but the tales he has spun are at the heart of America's largest export -- the entertainment business.

Cannell is a writer's writer. The craft, he believes, brings art and entertainment together, with a nod to Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and Elmore Leonard. Stick to storytelling's basic three act structure: Define the problem in the first act; Complicate the story at the top of act two and let that curtain fall on the hero's plans destroyed; Solve both the original and more complicated problems in the third act. It works, says Cannell, who has proved it over and over and over again.

Please don't confuse the characters with the actors who play them. It diminishes both. And it irritates the stew out of the writer.

Another caveat: don't be deceived by the glitter and glitz of showbiz. There is no "Hollywood" anymore. Cannell is part of the reason. He started the trend of taking American television production to Canada, where he built Canada's largest studio. Now the entertainment industry is just a collection of individuals, Cannell reports, some better behaved than others. Yes, creative people are tightly wound, it comes with the package. The successful ones are also highly disciplined -- television, especially, is a business of deadlines.

Cannell, a veteran of independent production, decries the sameness he sees in today's television programs. He believes young network executives fail to understand what makes a writer great. It's a great ear for dialogue that counts, not seeing an 18 to 34 year old face in the mirror.

Cannell leaves the spelling to his secretary and the English teachers. He's content to push out the boundaries of his own knowledge so that he can tell us yet another story. How many ways can you spell "success"?

Conversation 1

Steven J. Cannell speculates with Paula Gordon and Bill Russell about how stories change as society changes. He notes that the basic tenets of storytelling -- which he describes -- stay the same. He describes his own need for fresh stories, the pleasure he takes in pushing back the frontiers of his own knowledge, with examples.

Conversation 2

James Joyce’s Ulysses offers an test case against which Steve Cannell and Bill Russell bounce ideas about high art and entertainment, with further examples from Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and Shakespeare. Mr. Cannell describes the “second act” and its importance in telling a story, with examples. He uses architecture as a metaphor for better understanding the craft of writing, assigning a confined place to inspiration. From his own extensive experience in Hollywood, Mr. Cannell describes in detail the great discipline required to succeed there, especially in television with its unrelenting deadlines.

Conversation 3

With examples drawn from Mr. Cannell’s novels, he describes the kinds of people Hollywood attracts to America’s Number One export. He offers his own trick for getting the best from people of all sorts and describes some of the real life characters on whom he has based fictional ones. In explaining why there is no “Hollywood,” Mr. Cannell offers his view on why being “tightly wrapped” is part of the creative process, with vivid examples of a full range of personality types. He describes writers’ and performers’ personal challenges. He tells us why writers write and how that sometimes produces bad behavior.

Conversation 4

A dyslexic himself, Mr. Cannell discusses how people misunderstand the condition, especially English teachers who get writing and spelling mixed up. He worries about school aged children who are undiagnosed dyslexics or are afflicted with Attention Deficit Disorder or Learning Disabilities. He notes potentially dire consequences for these children’s frustration and anger. He counsels parents to be watchful of potential learning problems and urges parents to have under-performing kids tested. He fears we may be throwing away some of our best innovative thinkers, reminding us that Einstein and Edison were both dyslexic. He describes how dyslexia favors abstract creative right brain functions. He notes new scientific findings about how brains work.

Conversation 5

A demonstrably successful story teller, Mr. Cannell describes other things he does less well. He tells us why he never goes dry or has writer’s block. He describes the differences between what one would encounter in his pilot screen play for “The Rockford Files” and James Garner (the actor who brought the title character to life) , distinguishing actors from the characters they play. Mr. Cannell declares a good writer can write for any audience and a great ear is what make a writer great, using examples from his own work and that of others.

Conversation 6

Mr. Cannell reviews the path that took him from script writer to one of television’s most successful businessmen, from Universal Studios to his own production company employing over 1500 people. He recalls starting today’s trend toward taking film production to Canada, where his was the country’s largest studio. He tells us why he left the television business to write novels. He notes that during the 18 years he had his production company, he wrote from 5 to 11AM every day. Using “The Commish” as a striking example, Mr. Cannell suggests why much of today’s television programs -- now produced and owned by the networks that air them -- have an air of sameness.


The Commerce Club in Atlanta was as accommodating as always when we recorded this Show in their Jones-Maddox Room. It is surely the world’s most beautiful “studio.” We thank everyone at The Commerce Club for their unerring attention and help.

Related Links:
Stephen J. Cannell’s most recent, best-selling novels, Riding the Snake and The Devil’s Workshop, are published by William Morrow & Company, Inc.

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