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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen J. Cannell’

When Emmy-winner Stephen J. Cannell died in 2010 his IMDB credits were extensive. I can’t image many others who wrote 450 TV episodes or produced more than 1,500 episodes. But there’s really no secret to how he did it—it’s basic math. He began his days at 3:30 AM:

“You know, when you say, ‘He created 42 primetime television series—how’d he do that?’ Well, you’d be surprised at what you can do if you get up and write for five hours a day everyday for 35 years.”
Stephen J. Cannell
Script magazine interview with Ray Morton

How did he get into that position where he was getting paid well to write for five hours? Again no secret—more basic math.

After Cannell graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Oregon he worked for his father. After work he went home and wrote for five hours every night. And he did that for more than five years without seeing anything he wrote get produced.

“I was like a machine. I swear I had a stack of material you could sit on.”
Stephen J. Cannell

That’s a great image to leave you with today. I’m not sure how big that stack of paper was, but if you measure the height of a 100 page stack of paper and multiple it by the height of an average chair you’ll come up with a pretty accurate number. Basic math.

P.S. And Cannell’s IMDB credit list continues to grow after his death. Most recently he was credited for the 2012 movie version of 21 Jump Street and the 2014 sequel 22 Jump Street because he was co-creator of the original TV series starring Johnny Depp.

Scott W. Smith 

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“You have to over perform. It’s the secret that almost nobody’s willing to do.”
Stephen J. Cannell

Earlier this month, after Emmy-winning writer-producer Stephen J Cannell died I wrote a post (Stephen J. Cannell’s Work Ethic) on how prolific a writer he was in writing over 400 TV episodes. But yesterday I stumbled upon an older article in Script magazine that cements Cannell’s work ethic. Here are some excerpts from a Ray Morton article and interview he did with Cannell in ’08 when Cannell was the recipient of the Final Draft Inc. Hall of Fame Award.

“Working for his father during the day Cannell would come home and write for five hours every night. He did this routine for five and a half years.”
Ray Morton

(Keep in mind that this was before a single word was produced. Five and a half years of writing five hours every night.)

“I was like a machine. I swear I had a stack of material you could sit on.”
Stephen J. Cannell

“I would spend nine days getting ready for a 45-minute (pitch) meeting. My rule was that when I did pitch (I would) have six or seven fully worked-out three act plays where I could tell you every scene. Then I would come up with four or five ‘springboards.’ A springboard was a set-up and a solution—’Here’s what happens and here’s how it ends’— but I didn’t have the second act. And then I would have four or five ‘what ifs.’ A ‘what if’ is ‘What if this happened?’ I wouldn’t know the ending—it was a jump ball. So I would have 15 to 20 ideas and I would go in—and I never missed.”
Stephen J. Cannell

Morton pointed out it was that drive that lead Cannell to not only write more than 450 episodes of television, but co-create over 40 television series and start his own production company that at one point employed 2,100 people. (That’s more than a lot of towns here in Iowa.) After some FCC changes in 1995 changed the way Cannell could do business in the TV world and he turned much of his attention to writing novels and his 16th novel was just released two days ago.

When Morton asked the multiple lifetime achievement award-winner for advice to aspiring writers this was Cannell’s response:

“You have to write everyday. It’s like lifting weights. It’s just the way it is—you get stronger the more you do it, and if you aren’t working, you aren’t getting stronger. I’m very disciplined about the way I go about (writing). You know, when you say, ‘He created 42 primetime television series—how’d he do that?’ Well, you’d be surprised at what you can do if you get up* and write for five hours a day everyday for 35 years.”

* Just for the record, Cannell began his days at 3:30 AM. One more writer to add to  the Writer’s Breakfast Club.

Scott W. Smith

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Stephen J. Cannell, who died just a few days ago, overcame severe learning disabilities (and flunking three grades) to become one of modern televisions most prolific writers. He wrote more than 400 episodes including some of the most popular TV shows of their day; Adam-12, Baretta, The Rockford Files, 21 Jump Street, and The A Team.

Dennis McLellan in the Los Angeles Times wrote that “in the spring of 1986, (Cannell) had six hourlong shows on in primetime.” The LA Times also quoted writer David Chase (The Sopranos), who worked with Cannell back in the 70s,  as saying that Cannell’s characters displayed “weaknesses — they were fallible human beings. That was the beginning of viewers seeing a TV protagonist as someone like themselves.”

Cannell, who did not even know he was dyslexic until he was in his 30s, also wrote 15 novels.

“When I was 13-years-old (my father) said to me, ‘you’re going to work,’ and I said, ‘Dad, it’s summer all my friends are going to the tennis club and the golf club and down at the beach’—and he said, ‘No, no you’re going to work.’ So I had to get a work permit—because at 13 you had to have a work permit to work—and I went to work at his wallpaper company. It was about four acres under a roof in Burbank and I was down there working on a screenprinting machine…and I used to come home and think, ‘What am I doing this for?’…(My father) said, ‘This is what people do to feed their family. You’re going to see what this is all about.’ And I was really angry about that, but you know what, he instilled in me a work ethic…and one of the reasons I’ve been so successful is that work ethic.”
Stephen J. Cannell
Interview on TV Legends


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