>A few hours ago, my husband was showing me something on an entertainment website when another headline caught my eye.
“Stephen J. Cannell has died?!” I blurted out. My husband finally clicked on the link and we learned that he had passed away from melanoma at age 69.
Nearly five hours later, I’m still shocked and close to tears. I’m not entirely sure why it’s hit me so hard. Maybe because I “see him” regularly through his email newsletter and appearances on Castle. I haven’t read any of his novels, but when I was in my late teens and twenties, his TV shows were among my favorites. I loved seeing him typing at the end, then tossing the finished page into the air where it transformed into the letter C. That video clip changed over the years, his hair got grayer, but the image was familiar, one might say comforting. It was like seeing an old friend.
Cannell’s career as a television writer began back in the ’70s. He wrote episodes for shows I either watched with my parents as they aired or saw later during their second lives in syndication: Adam-12, Switch, Columbo, Baretta. He created Baretta and Black Sheep Squadron, which my mother watched because she liked Robert Conrad, and The Rockford Files, which mom and I both liked.
In 1981, he created one of my favorite series of the ’80s, The Greatest American Hero. A few years ago I won the complete series on DVD, and I really enjoyed watching all the episodes again. William Katt and Robert Culp had such great chemistry together, and it was just a fun, good-hearted show. My only disappointment from the DVD came from the replacement of some of the songs that were such a big part of the earlier episodes, I’m assuming because of a rights or royalties issue.
He went on to create Hardcastle and McCormick, Riptide, and The A-Team. Then came The 100 Lives of Black Jack Savage, which I watched until the bitter end, primarily out of loyalty to Cannell, because most of the characters weren’t at all likable; I guess it was just ahead of its time.
Cannell also created 21 Jump Street, which launched Johnny Depp’s career, Wiseguy; Renegade, Silk Stalkings and a handful of other series that weren’t as successful. Tenspeed and Brownshoe, for example, ran for only eight episodes, but it made a name for Jeff Goldblum.
In the past few days, we’ve lost Eddie Fisher and Tony Curtis, two old-timers who also left us with impressive entertainment legacies. My sympathies to their families, but their loss didn’t break my heart the way Stephen J. Cannell’s did. Maybe it’s because 69 is not that old, at least not at my age. Maybe it’s because my father and his parents all died of cancer.
Fisher was a crooner whose greatest legacy, in my world anyway, is his daughter Carrie. You know, from Star Wars? Curtis played a lot of fun, irreverent characters in comedies that I’ve enjoyed.
Cannell, though, was a writer, a creator. When I started watching his shows, I was the shy kid who liked reading and writing and making up stories. When I started seeing that video of him at his typewriter, I was of an age to think that I’d like to have a job like his. Perhaps this loss has hit me so hard because in some small way, we were kindred spirits, joined by words that turned into stories that made me laugh and sometimes cry and which still bring a smile to my face.
Goodbye, Stephen J. Cannell. You made the world – at least the entertainment world, my world – a better place.