Producer Stephen J. Cannell
"In the 1980s Stephen J. Cannell defined the state of the art of the prime-time action/adventure hour. No one was more prolific as a series creator (both individually and collaboratively), or as a writer, producer, executive producer, or even as a studio head." (Marc, pg. 205)
Jack Webb started the TV crime series with his white, middle-aged Republican protagonists. Beginning in the late 1960s, Aaron Spelling integrated the drama. Then Cannell took it from there with The Rockford Files (NBC, 1974-80), The A-Team (NBC, 1983-87) and Wiseguy (CBS, 1987-90).
Born May 2, 1941, Cannell grew up in a Pasadena mansion. His parents, Joseph and Caroline, were loving and firm. His dad was an entrepreneur, best known for his chain of furniture stores. Stephen struggled through school, unable to spell. Later in life, he was diagnosed with dyslexia.
He graduated with a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Oregon in Eugene, dropping classes when he encountered teachers who would penalize him for spelling mistakes.
A creative writing instructor at the University of Oregon encouraged Cannell. "He told me, 'You have a gift, and you should never stop writing.' That gave me courage."
Stephen graduated from college in 1964. He married Marcia, his high school sweetheart. (They have two daughters, a son and two grandchildren. Their eldest child, Derek, died in 1981 at age 15. A sand fort he was building on the beach collapsed and suffocated him.)
Cannell went to work for his father. He drove a truck during hte day and wrote scripts at night. After five years of writing five hours a night, Cannell sold nothing. He concentrated on "spec" scripts for television, believing that was the best opportunity to make a living doing what he loved.
In 1968, Stephen sold his first script to the show It Takes a Thief. He was hired as a writer and story editor by Universal, a factory of almost indistinguishable TV programs. Though known for quantity over quality, and speed over detail, as well as profits over everything, Universal pioneered the made-for-TV movie, the rotating "umbrella seris and the miniseries. (Marc, pg. 206)
Universal made so much product that it frequently gave rookies like Cannell the chance to direct or produce episodes and series years before anyone else would've taken such a chance.
During the late sixties and early seventies, Cannell wrote for such shows as Adam 12, Ironside, Columbo, The D.A., Madigan, Jigsaw and Escape. He created eight shows for the studio: Chase, The Rockford Files, Baretta, City of Angels, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Richie Brockelman Private Eye, The Duke and Stone. His signature style: "Macho male camaraderie among rightminded heroes too profoundly individualistic to be establishment figures, high-speed chases (By land, air, or sea), mountains of twisted metal, and the triumph of Good (though not necessarily the Establishment) over Evil." (Marc, pg. 207)
Cannell worked for such pioneers as Jack Webb and Roy Huggins, Cannell's mentor during the early seventies.
In 1979, Stephen's Universal contract ran out and he formed his own production company, Stephen J. Cannell Productions. His first show was Tenspeed and Brownshoe, which ran in 1980 on ABC.
A gentle soul, Lionel Whitney, nicknamed Brownshoe (Jeff Goldblum), allows his love of hardboiiled detective fiction to become a private eye rather than a stockbroker, as his family wishes. The scripts frequently refer to Brownshoe's favorite novelist "Stephen J. Cannell." Brownshoe at times offers his favorite quotation from "Cannell." The show was a ratings dud and Cannell was deeply in debt. The 1980-81 season was the first in six years to open without a Cannell show in primetime.
His next show The Greatest American Hero (ABC, 1981-81) garnered modest ratings. It's his first show to finish with the now familiar company logo of Cannell working away at a typewriter that launches the written page onto the video screen at the end of every episode.
As the 1982-83 season opened, Stephen was in perilous financial straights. His company was saved by The A-Team (NBC, 1983-87).
According to one story, Brandon Tartikoff, the head of NBC Entertainment, loved the 1981 Australian film The Road Warrior and he sought a series that would puts its vigilante themes into a contemporary American setting. Cannell mentioned The A-Team idea to Tartikoff who replied: "The A-Team: Mission: Impossible, The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven, all rolled into one and Mr. T. drives the car."
The premise of the series was stated by an unseen narrator at the opening of each episode: "Ten years ago a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security military stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, maybe you can hire... The A-Team."
According to the book Prime Time, Prime Movers: "Contemporaneously with Sylvester Stallone, Cannell helped initiate a historical revision of the Vietnam era that would become a central theme of American popular culture during the 1980s.
"The success of the A-Team changed the way that Cannell made television. Abandoning the craftsmanlike personal approach that had characterized each project from Rockford to The Greatest American Hero, he sent his studio into assemblyline production. Cannell himself began to refer to the company's work as the "manufacturing" of television programs. By the mideighties he would be supplying the networks with as many as six prime-time series in a single season." (Marc, pg. 212)
Hardcastle and McCormick (ABC, 1983-86) featured Hardcastle (Brian Keith), a retired judge who, during his career on the bench, was forced by the criminal justice system to let criminals go free. Now he operates in the private sector delivering justice to the criminals the "system" forced him to let go.
Cannell secured the licensing rights to the merchandise inspired by the Rambo films, including action toys, chewing gum, and lunch boxes.
Riptide (NBC, 1984-86) was about three Vietnam vets who form their own detective service while living out of a cabin cruiser moored in a Southern California harbor.
Hunter (NBC, 1984-91) was one of Cannell's "longest running, if least-celebrated hits." The protagonist Rick Hunter (Fred Dryer) is a cop and his partner is a woman, Dee Dee McCall (Stephanie Kramer). In an episode written by Cannell, Hunter knocks a suspect unconscious and then suggests to McCall that she read the scum his rights before he wakes up.
In 1987, Cannell supplied the new Fox TV network with its first hit - 21 Jump Street - a group of cops who pose as high school students. Stephen also created Wiseguy, his most critically acclaimed series after The Rockford Files. Wiseguy introduced the "arc" structure to prime-time series television, running stories for up to ten weeks before coming to a narrative climax. This new format combines elements of the nighttime soap opera (e.g. Dallas) with the action/adventure series.
"With its intelligent dialogue, its attempts at thick characterization, and its socially critical swipes at current events, Wiseguy is perhaps best understood as a high-IQ adaptation of The A-Team aimed at an upmarket audience." (Marc, pg. 215) Television was now shifting its commercial emphasis from grabbing the most viewers to targeted demographics.
A change in federal regulations made the life of independent producing too difficult. So in 1995, Cannell sold his TV empire to New World Communications (now owned by 20th Century Fox) for $30 million. He published his first novel in 1996 and has ground out one a year since then. He still oversees syndicated TV programming like Renegade and feature films.
An article in Forbes on "Hollywood's Idea Moguls," contains this on Cannell:
"He remembers getting $1 million a year plus a cut of the back end at his peak. His output: Adam 12, Baretta, and The Rockford Files. The trouble was that in calculating the net, Universal was charging him for everything on the lot, including the caterers in the commissary and the tram drivers working the back lot tour. In eight years of service, he saw little more than his fee.
"So in 1979 Cannell financed his own company with a $60 million line of credit and went on to produce 35 hour-long series, including The A- Team, Hunter and The Greatest American Hero. Suddenly the profits were real, but he was a little ahead of the boom and on the wrong side of the business. Cannell had no sitcoms to sell. In 1996 he sold out to New World Communications for $30 million, a modest windfall by current standards.
"He's since decided that this market is too hot to let even his old shows languish in a vault. A rapidly expanding pay-TV market overseas has given life to libraries of hour-long dramas that historically had limited resale value. Earlier this year Cannell reacquired his library from News Corp., New World's parent, in exchange for an 8% distribution fee. In August, a few days before flying off on a Westwind jet to his 150- foot yacht docked in the Mediterranean, Cannell signed a deal that brought him $5 million from a handful of European territories." (Forbes, 9/21/98)
On March 8, 2002, I met producer Stephen J. Cannell at his office building on Hollywood and La Brea Blvds. Like his building, Cannell stands tall, straight and impressive. He wears gold jeans and an army jacket.
Luke: "I've spent hours reading about you. Is there any one book or article that you think best captures you?"
Stephen: "Most of them are condensed. One guy wrote his doctorate thesis on me but it was so wrong. I'm willing to cop to shortcomings but this guy had two theories. And one theory was that everything I was writing was chronicling my personal life and career at the major studios."
Luke: "That's interesting."
Stephen: "But it's stupid. He was so fascinated by life at the studios that if I wrote Baretta as a wild man, it was because I was angry at Universal. But I was never angry at Universal. Those guys were all my friends. I'm still friends with all of them. Then he had a theory of recombinance - that the same themes reoccurred over and over again in my life and writing. And there's some truth to that. But then he'd pick on episodes of some series, the scripts of which I didn't even write, that was similar to something I'd done in 1980. It was a doctorate thesis written by some kid. I interviewed with him because I wanted to help him but then I'd really disagreed with his conclusions.
"I know what my motor is. I know how I write. I know what intrigues me. I know how I get my ideas. And I'm certainly not writing my own biography every time I sit down at the typewriter. There is one theme that reoccurs throughout my work - underdogs. I prefer underdogs. If that's recombinance, then I cop to that. As a dramatist, I'd rather write about David than Goliath.
"There have been some nice puff pieces, which have made me look much better than I am."
Luke: "I haven't seen any one slam you?'
Stephen: "I don't get slammed often. I got slammed once in Time magazine around 1983. I was hot at the time. And both Time and Newsweek asked to do a story on me at the same time. I picked Time because it was a little more prestigious magazine. This lady called me from Time and I brought her in like I'm talking to you. And I talked to her. And she shadowed me around. And she writes her article. She calls me up for the fact-checking part of it. And she says, 'It's a good article. You're going to enjoy it. It's really turned out good. I'm really happy with it. And you'll be pleased.'
"So now the article comes out and it's titled, 'The Merchant of Mayhem.' And it is a complete character assassination of me top to bottom. It says that I am an egotist and that I do everything for money. There wasn't one nice thing about anything in there. So I called her up. 'I just saw the article in Time and I've got to tell you, I'm not real happy with it.' And she starts to cry on the phone. I say, 'Don't cry. It's not the end of the world. I can take it.' And she says, 'No, no. It's not the article I wrote. It's nothing like what I wrote.' So I said, 'Who wrote it?' She said, 'I can't tell you but it isn't my article. And I apologize to you.'
"So I look at the bottom of the article and there's another name down there - Harry F. Waters, the entertainment editor of Time magazine. So I call the guy up. I've never met him. 'Harry, Stephen Cannell.' He goes, 'Oh yeah, hi.' 'Listen, I'm curious about this article in Time magazine. I hear that you rewrote it.' He said, 'I didn't get what I wanted from my writer in Los Angeles and so we did some changes.'
"I said, 'I may have a healthy ego but I don't know that I'm an egotist. People have to have healthy egos in this business because there's so much rejection. If you don't have a healthy ego, you get run out of the game. But I don't go around beating on my chest. As far as doing anything for money, I've never done anything for money. I was born wealthy.'
"He stops me right there. And he says, 'I've read your press package. Nobody's ever written anything bad about you. Maybe you just can't stand the heat.' I said, 'Well Harry, if you wrote, which I am now assuming you did, maybe you're just a complete asshole calling me an egotist when you've never met me. How can you make a personal evaluation of what kind of human being I am when you've never met me? It's perfectly ok by me if you hate my television, but to brand me an egotist and a money grubber never having spent a second in my presence.'
"Then he goes in to this whole thing about how he loved the Rockford Files and Tenspeed and Brownshoe and he hated the A-Team. And his whole opinion of me as a sellout was that I'd done two shows he loved and now I'd turned on him. So he decided that he was going to smack me. The whole reason that he put her on the story was to get a negative article. And when she didn't write it, because she came out and met me and she had some sense of who I was... I'm a lot of things but I am not what he wrote. That was the one time I felt hammered.
"A friend told me this once. 'The press is like a fuzzy cute furry little puppy and we all want to hold the puppy. But sometimes it bites you.' And I was holding the puppy and I got bit. So you've just got to laugh about it and move on. Nobody remembers that article except me and Harry Waters and the woman he rewrote. Most of what has been written about me has been positive. And I think that's because my motives for doing what I'm doing are simple. I really just want to make something that I like, whether it's Rockford or Wiseguy or Tenspeed or A-Team, when I was making each of those shows well, I'd go home, watch them, and go, 'Yes!'"
Cannell makes a fist.
"One of the things that has surprised a lot of people, particularly my critics, is that such diverse product has come out of one head. You wouldn't think that the person who did Wiseguy would've also done the A-Team."
Luke: "Surely you are revealed in your body of work? What does your body of work say about you?"
Stephen: "Some things but not everything. There are certain things that intrigue me as a writer that wouldn't intrigue somebody else. And I can't say what those things are. I tend to enjoy writing comedy more than heavy drama. But I'm good at writing dark things like Wiseguy. Several of my novels (The Viking Funeral, Final Victim) are dark.
"I'd imagine that my preference for underdogs and flawed characters comes from my own beginnings as a bad student, an underdog, dyslexic, branded the 'stupidest' kid in the class. I do respond emotionally to underdogs. I much prefer the flaws of my characters to the strengths. I don't find Superman to be an entertaining character. I enjoyed watching the Superman movies because of the special effects, but as a character, Superman doesn't appeal to me because he has too much going for him. One flaw - Kryptonite - and that only shows up occasionally. The guy's good looking, jumps buildings, bend steel bars... What's the problem?
"I much prefer a guy like Rockford who's put in prison for a crime he didn't commit. The cops think he's guilty all the time. His father thinks he's a jerk for being a private eye rather than a truck driver, which he views as a good solid manly job instead of running around trying to find divorced women's husbands. Rockford's flaws and his own sense of self-irony made him a fun character for me to write. I was always looking for the flaws in my characters. If you run down the list, the A-Team had the most flawed characters of any show I've created. Everybody on that show was dysfunctional.
"On Wiseguy, Vinnie Terranova was constantly in a moral struggle with himself. He had a set of values as a blue collar cop and all of a sudden he's undercover and accepted by a Mafia family in the first arc, he's driving some guy's Porsche and living in a high rise apartment with a view of the city. He's hanging out with a bunch of actresses from Broadway shows. All of a sudden he's being seduced by the very thing he's trying to bust.
"When I pitched that at NBC, and told them I was going to take five weeks to tell every story, they didn't want to do it. So I had to keep pitching it. I pitched it about ten times and I never sold it. But about four years later, I sold it to CBS and got it on the air. I never gave up on it. It was the flaw that attracted me. This guy struggling to stay on due north when all the input around him was driving him to want to veer south."
Luke: "Did you have to struggle to stay on due north?"
Stephen: "No I didn't because I love this work. It was what I wanted. My father was my greatest hero in life. My dad was a totally ethical guy, a tremendous role model for me, and my best friend. He taught me how to be and how to think and how not to take myself too seriously. He made me realize that you had to be a team player to get anywhere. All those things were ingrained in me.
"And I was raised with money. My father [Joseph] was a self-made millionaire. My sister and were raised great. I went to private schools even though I didn't get fuck all out of them. I was expected to learn. All I've ever wanted was to be a good writer. And in my own mind, I'm an OK writer who's struggling always to get better. I have friends that I think are better than me. I read other novelists and think, 'Wow, this person is so great. Maybe one day I'll be like him.' And that keeps me growing.
"My own fastball doesn't seem that good to me. I throw it real easy. Other writers tell me, 'Oh man, you're the best.' But since they're usually talking about my easy pitch, I tend not to believe them. And I'm looking at someone else's fastball and thinking, 'Wow, I could never do that.' I'm always calling writers that I admire to go to lunch with them.
"I was just reading Andrew Klavan's book, Man and Wife, and thinking, 'I could stretch in that direction.' So I'm now writing a book called Love at First Sight, which is a strange and different novel for me. It's nothing like his book at all but I'm using some of the technique that I saw in his book. I'm using the I-narrative. This guy displays his flaws more than his own strengths as he tells his narrative. I've never written a book in the I-narrative before."
Luke: "Who are your writer heroes?"
Stephen: "David Chase (Sopranos) is one. We worked together on Rockford. I created the show and I was a boy wonder. And I remember the first script of his that I ever read and I thought it was one of the best scripts I'd ever read. Better than anything I'd ever done on the show. I'm supposed to be the guru-writer of the show and I've got a guy working for me who's better than me. Instead of being frightened of his talent, I embraced. I learned many writing techniques from David.
"Steve Bochco is another huge talent. We created a show together - Richie Brockelman Private Eye . At the time we created the show, I was the hot guy at Universal. I had Rockford, Baretta, Baa Baa Black Sheep... All primetime network shows. Everything I was creating was going on the air. Bochco on the other hand was in purgatory at Universal. He'd been a writer-producer on a show called Griff , which did not work. And the executive producer, rather than taking the blame, which he should've because he was in charge, told the head of the studio that Bochco was doing the show. So Steve, at age 25, owned that whole network failure. And he ended up hiding out as the story editor of McMillan and Wife [1971-76].
"Steven and I were friends on the lot. I was the David E. Kelley of that moment. We'd go to lunch together. One day, I had a meeting at the tower with Frank Price, head of the Universal studio. Frank asked me if I had any ideas for a new series. I could sell almost anything at that time. Without giving any thought to it at all, I said, 'Yeah, I've got this idea about a young guy who's a surfer and a private detective. He's got a surfboard on his car. He's up every morning busting through the curl at Malibu.' Frank says, 'I love it. I can sell it.' He took such a huge bit out of this thing. And I'm going down in the elevator, and by the time I get to the bottom floor, I hated the idea.
"I was scheduled to have lunch that day with Bochco at this Mexican restaurant near Warner Brothers. We were sitting there having a margarita and looking at each other. And he says, 'What's wrong? You're looking really down.' I said, 'I just pitched this idea to Frank Price and he took this huge bite out of it. And it's just about the worst idea I've ever had.'
"Steve said, 'Let's hear it.'
"I told him my idea and he thought it was a good idea. Steve said, 'But you've got the wrong take. It's not about surfing, it's about age. What if he looks so young nobody will take him seriously? What if clients walk into his office, see a guy who looks 16-years old sitting there and they do a U-turn and they're gone? So he has to get the guy down at the end of the hall who's an accountant to pretend to be him. So he tells the clients, 'No, no. I'm not Richie Brockelman. Let me go down the hall and get my dad.'
"So we sat there until 5PM banging this thing out, putting the bones on it, coming up with the pilot idea [Richie Brockelman Private Eye]. So when we were done, Boch said, 'This will be great. Go sell this to Frank.' And I say, 'Boch, you've got to do it with me.' And he says, 'I'm not going to do it. They think I suck.' And they did because he'd been battered so badly by this experience on Griff.
"I said, 'I would never have gone in this direction if it weren't for you. I just had a stupid idea. You've got it going in the right direction. I'm not going to write this without you.' He goes, 'Well, if you put my name on it, there's no way it will ever go beyond the first meeting.'
"I said, OK, why don't we just write it on spec? And when we send it up to the Tower, I'll just put a cover page on it with no name. Once it's sold it, I'll say, 'By the way, this is a co-authored script with Bochco.'
"I called Frank Price up and said, 'I've got an idea for the script. I'm going to start work on it.' And Frank said, 'I've already talked to NBC. They love it. They want to go forward.'
"Boch wrote half the script and I wrote half. We wrote a 90-minute pilot and sent it up to the studio with no cover page. NBC loved it. Then I said, 'Oh, by the way, Bochco is my co-author.' And by that time, they didn't care because they had it sold.
"I always knew Steven Bochco would be huge. I was surprised that it took David Chase so long because David was as good when we did Rockford in 1976 as he is today.
"I love Dick Wolf, David Kelley, Don Bellisario. I gave him his first script assignment."
Luke: "Who are some of the other people who've worked for you?"
Stephen: "Frank Lupo, Patrick Hasburg (21 Jump Street) , Juanita Bartlett, Randall Wallace (Braveheart, We Were Soldiers), David Burke. Director Rob Bowman worked here as a gopher and then as a production assistant. I gave him his first directing jobs. He went on to do the X-Files feature. My job as a studio owner was to find people who were young and inexperienced but I thought had talent. I could buy them cheap and I would train them. Often they were diamonds in the rough and they didn't know how to plot a story or understand three act structure. I'd try to make them stars. If a writer did a good job on the script, and the picture turned out good, I would always take the writer to the network with me. We'd physically screen our pictures for the network. It was a great chance to expose young writers to the network. The network would tend to give me all the credit. But I wasn't going to be able to grow my studio if everybody thought I was the only person with any ability over here.
"If it was a good movie and I brought the writer over and gave him credit, you could just see the writer begin to grow in their eyes. At some point, I would want that writer to have a pilot. And if the network wouldn't go for it, often I'd have to say that I'd co-write. I hated doing that because I much preferred writing my own stuff. But to get the writer that first gig, I'd do it. And if you'd ever see anything that was cowritten by me and another writer, that writer's name is on top. I always took the second credit. my goal was to push those people up.
"Eventually, the network would offer these guys million dollar contracts. I'd be paying them half that. The writers would come in to me and say, 'What am I going to do? I want to stay here but Disney is offering me one million.' I'd tell them to go. You can't turn a million dollar deal down. I can't match it. So I'd be constantly looking for the new young person."
Luke: "Did you know that you had the producer in you?"
Stephen: "My dad was my hero. He was an entrepreneur. He taught me that you need to support other people to be successful. My father used to say, 'Don't go around catching someone doing something wrong. Catch someone doing something right. It's much more effective.' And as a kid, I used to watch him do it because I worked for him in the summers. He owned a bunch of furniture stores. Cannel & Chaffin. He'd walk the floor on these furniture stores and he'd see something he'd like. And he'd stop and ask, 'Who did this?' 'Oh, Lowell did that.'
"My dad would hunt Lowell up and say, 'Lowell, come here. That is great. We need more like that.' He always had people just churning to do more.
"When I was at Universal, I believed in the value of a contract. It would never occur to me to threaten breach of contract to get a better deal. I signed a deal as a head writer to make $600 a week. I was the cheapest writer on the lot. It was the lowest deal you could do by Writers Guild standards. But I'd been working for my dad for $7000 a year. I was at Universal for eight years and I never renegotiated my deal but once. It was late in my arrangement with Universal. There was one thing in my deal that my agent had managed to get in there - I had good fees for my pilots. The reason they did it is that they never thought I was going to write a pilot. So they'd give me $70,000 to write a two-hour pilot and a $100,000 production bonus if it ever got made. Then I became the hottest pilot writer at Universal. I was writing two or three pilots a season. I was making $400,000 a year in pilot fees.
"Because people wanted me to write pilots, I eventually had four shows on for Universal. And I was so under water, that I couldn't do any pilots. So in success, my gross income went down. So my agent said to Universal, 'Steve's been so successful that he can't do a pilot this year. He's got four shows on the air. This is good for Universal but bad for Steve.' And they said, 'Yeah, we see the problem. And we'll address it but we want two more years on his contract.'
"So I called up Sid Sheinberg, the head of the studio at the time. I told him the problem and added, 'You've got to know that if you don't give me a dollar, that's OK I signed this contract and I will live up to the terms of it. And I'm not going to come in here and limp my way through the next two years. I'm going to come in here and swing from my heels like I always have. I just thought you guys wouldn't want to see me get punished because I did a good job for you. But I'm not going to give you two years.'
"Sid didn't know what to do. He wasn't used to hearing this kind of presentation. I didn't threaten him. I just asked him to be paid. There was no anger and no recrimination. And a month later, he changed my deal. My father would say, 'Live up to your agreements.' I used to call him up and ask what I should do. And he'd say, 'Son, you're only as good as your word in life. If you give some guy your hand, they'll always remember that you didn't renege on it. Even if it wasn't in your best interests, that commitment will follow you through your entire career. That story will get told. And that's more valuable than the money.
"Another thing I learned was that many of my friends had a tendency to overvalue themselves. I remember having lunch with a talented writer, producer and director. And he was trying to renegotiate to get his fees improved. So I was the wrong guy to be talking to.
"I sat listening to him yammer about how good he was. And what a talent he was. And how Universal didn't know what they had. I'm thinking, this guy needs to cool down. And he says, 'If I leave this goddam show, nobody else can do it. Not a soul on this fucking lot can do it.' So when he took a breath, I leaned across the table and said, 'I can do it. I can do it good. If they call me up and ask me to do your show, I'll do it. You'll probably see the difference and I'll see the difference. But nobody watching television will see the difference. Calm down. You're going to make an enemy out of this studio. Don't do it. You're too angry. And you're wrong. I can do your show and you can do mine.'
"I used to see so much of that. People saying, 'We've been ripped off. We've been screwed. The studio is fucking us.' They're fucking you? You're making more money than heart surgeons, and many of you didn't even get out of college. They're fucking you? Maybe compared to other people in show business but this is never-never land. We should all be spanked for cashing our checks. This is lunacy.
"Everybody bought into that lunacy but I never did because my dad was so pragmatic. I'd say to myself, 'I'm lucky I'm here because these people don't know what a dollar's worth.' Since I was 13, I had to go to work in my father's factories. I was working with Mexican-Americans who had nothing. Who had no education and had no chance to see what was in life and the world. I'd work all summer with a guy and like the guy and I'd realize how limited his whole existence was because he didn't have opportunity. And I'm being paid all this money to sit down and tell stories. And that guy's working eight-hour shifts on a screenprinting machine in 100 degree heat for a little over minimum wage. Get the fuck out of here.
"Even though I was raised with in a lush environment, I was raised by a man determined that I wasn't going to become a bratty spoiled kid, and that I was going to know the value of a dollar. And that I wasn't going to hang out at the tennis club all summer. When I got to Universal, it meant something to me to make my shows for the money. If Universal told me that I had to make a Rockford Files episode for X number of dollars, I'd make it. And I really cared that I got it in the can for that price. They were paying my salary and I was their employee and I was being given an order. I understood on a business level that there is only so much profit studios can make on every hour of this stuff and if I spent twice the budget, I'd eat up the profit.
"I would work to stay on budget. And quickly the production department knew I was a good guy. The guys in the Universal production building knew that I gave a shit about that problem. So if I couldn't get a show on pattern budget, I'd tell them.
"Every series has a pattern budget - what the average show ought to cost. They're all custom shows, but we're not making Fords that all look the same. So each show would budget out differently though we'd have a pattern for what each show ought to cost. We'd shoot three days on the lot and four days off the lot... We'd use X number of actors as day players and guest stars. X number of stunts. Let's say that Rockford back then would cost $650,000 [per episode]. And that was your pattern budget. And every show had to be on or below pattern before they would approve it.
"Sometimes you'd squeeze 'em down so they would be on pattern, but they weren't realistic boards. So when you went out and shot them, there'd be a lot of overtime and then you'd have a fucking budget disaster. And the production department would yell at you and drag you into meetings. There was constant shit like that going on all the time. Producers on the lot wouldn't cut their scripts to bring them down to budget. So the production department wouldn't let the producers cast.
"The reality is that the better actors in the guest star acting pool work all the time. If you could get to the actor you wanted eight days before shooting, he might be available. But if it's two days before, he's probably already working.
"After I'd produced for a year or two, they realized that I took the pattern budget seriously. If I couldn't get a show on pattern, I'd call up Dick Berni, who was head of production at Universal. 'Dick, I've got a problem with this show. Let me tell you why it is going to go 10-15% over pattern. And here's the problem I can't solve. Maybe you can help me.' And eventually, he'd let me have the extra 15% if I promised to get it back to him in the next two shows. And they trusted me. So I got some leeway that the other guys didn't get.
"When my eight-year contract with Universal expired in 1979, they offered me over a million dollars a year to re-sign. No writer had ever been offered a million dollar deal. I was flattered but I started thinking. I created all these shows and I make no money from them. I just get my fee and a tiny creator royalty. The programs are owned by Universal. If they make $300 million from the Rockford Files, I get none of that. Then my entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. And wanting to be my dad, my hero, I went to him and asked, 'What do you think? Do you think I should try to form my own independent studio?' If you look around, you'll see that David E. Kelly and Steve Bochco Productions are all underwritten by major studios. Those are Fox-owned shows.
"I decided that I didn't want to have a studio as a partner. I wanted to be myself and own my own shows. My dad asked, 'Can you do it?' I said, 'I think so. I think I understand how this animal works. I learned how to control budgets for Universal. I think I can do it for myself.'
"So I walked away from that Universal deal and I formed Cannell Studios. I made a deal with ABC. They guaranteed me three pilots. It was a complicated deal with trigger mechanisms in it for extra series and other things. I signed up. I went off and made Tenspeed and Brownshoe, for which I won a Writers Guild award for the Best Screenplay of 1981. It was a good script and I really needed a good script on my first privately produced deal."
Luke: "And it was touch and go for you the first three years?"
Steve: "I made a lot of mistakes. It turned out that I didn't know what I was doing. I wasn't as smart as I thought I was.
"At the beginning of Tenspeed, I had a small company. I was trying to keep my overhead down, something I learned from my dad. You know what an alligator is? It's a business where the overhead eats the equity. I didn't want my company to be an alligator.
"The pilot sold. We were shooting the first episode of Tenspeed. And I said to Alex Beaton, my line producer, 'I came in to my office this morning and I didn't see my daily production report.'
"At Universal, producers would get a daily production report on their desk every morning. The top of the report would have the budget of the show and then under that would be whatever additions or subtractions occurred when we shot last night. If we went over two hours, into union golden time, there's probably $15,000 in add-ons. If we went under an hour, maybe there'd be a $2000 savings. Underages never equal overages. If something went wrong, like our camera got hit by a car, that would be in there. And then at the end, it would have a new adjusted budget for the show. And that was important. You could look at the new budget and drive the show economically. 'Geez, we're $100,00 over. Maybe we don't need 40 extras in this party scene. Maybe we can get away with 20.' But if you don't know what things cost you, you're flying blind.
"So Alex said to me, 'There isn't a daily production report.' And I was personally at risk. I said, 'How can there not be a report?' And Alex said, 'Steve, there's a whole building at Universal that generated these things for you every morning. A whole building that works all night long. And we've got one production accountant and he's working on next week's show.'
"I asked, 'How many people do we need?' Alex said that we needed at least four people to track this stuff and they won't be up to speed until the fourth episode. I couldn't afford four people. And by the time of the fourth episode, I could be out a million dollars out of my own pocket. It had never occurred to me that I wouldn't be getting a daily production report every day because I'd never looked behind the curtain.
"I finally hired two people and they were slow getting these numbers to me. Well after the episode wrapped, I'd find out that I'd spent $250,000 of my own money. Then the next episode wrapped, and I'd find out that I'd spent another $250,000 of my own money. I was only 32 years old. I was thinking, 'I don't want to sell my house over this.' The network gives you a license fee for a show but it generally doesn't cover your entire cost of production. You sell your foreign rights, and if you're careful, you can get close to covering your costs. [The big TV payday comes in syndication.]
"I'm thinking that I'm going to be in debtor's prison by the end of this 13-episode production. I called Tony Themopolis, head of ABC. 'Tony, I have a major problem. I'm trying to manage a new studio. I've got the final figures on the first two shows and I'm out half a million dollars. And you know that's out of my pocket. If this keeps on, I will be out of business. I need you guys to underwrite some of this.'
"Tony says, 'I see you problem. And the shows look really nice. But we have a contract.' I said, 'I know we have a contract. I'm begging you to give me some relief here.' And I knew at the time that Aaron Spelling had a cost-plus deal at ABC [whereby ABC would shoulder his extra costs], so he could never go into his own pocket. Whatever his overages were, ABC would pay. And Aaron would still own the negatives. Spelling had the best deal in town.
"I didn't want to say, 'Give me Aaron's deal.' They would laugh at me. We had several conversations until I said, 'Tony, I'm going to have to cut the value of the shows down.' He said, 'Don't do that.' I said, 'Put yourself in my place. I don't have any partners. It is me and my wife Marcia. I can't spend $250,000 dollars a week of my own money. I don't have that kind of cash. I only have one option. I have to cut down the value of the shows. I'm going to have to start making some pocket shows.' And he says, "Don't do that. If you do, you'll end your career with ABC.'
"I said, 'Tony, come on man.' He said, 'I'll call you back at 5PM.' He calls me back. 'You keep going the way you're going and we will make some accommodation at the end.' I asked, 'What kind of accommodation?' He said, 'I don't know.' I said, 'Will you put that in writing that you will make an accommodation?' He said no. I said, 'Tony, what if you get hit by a bus?' He said, 'Steve, that's the best I can do.'
"So I had to put my whole life on the line to make the last six episodes of Tenspeed and trust ABC not to let me swing when it's all over, to just look me in the eye and say, 'It didn't work and so we're not going to cover you.' I made a heroic choice to go forward with nothing more than Tony's word. And when it was over, he took care of me. He didn't make me whole completely but he picked up 70%, enough to allow me to stay in business.
"I thought I knew what I was doing, but I plainly didn't. Even though I was a good advocate for Universal, they were still tougher than I was. There were times that they refused me things that I would've probably gone ahead and done if I was my own boss. They wouldn't have let me but I wanted the shows to be better. I didn't want it to look like shit so I'd spend the extra money. When you pile all those things up at the end of the year, it ends up being major dough.
"My overhead was too low and I had to start acquiring more people. Then along comes the A-Team, which we sold to NBC, and suddenly we have our first big hit. And I couldn't afford it. It was costing me half a million dollars a week because of all the stunts. And I knew if I took the stunts out, I didn't have a show. And NBC wasn't about to give me more money. So we had the whole board of my studio in this office and we did a cost analysis and we realized that we wouldn't be able to make our payroll in three months.
"My CFO said we were either going to have to get bank financing or we will have to sell the show to another studio. We'd be selling the number one show on television, which could be worth $100 million. But we've got to be able to stay in the game to collect.
"We hunted around and finally the Wells Fargo bank said they'd be interesting in financing our show. We worked the papers out and there was one thing that seemed odd to me. They wanted me to put my house up along with everything else. So I called my dad and he said not to do it. He asked me how many times had I met with the bank and for how long had we negotiated. I said we'd met four times and negotiated for six weeks. He said don't do it. They will make the deal without it. The only reason that they want your house in the deal is that they want you emotionally committed to this deal. They'll do the deal without making you commit your house. So I kept saying no and they kept saying they wouldn't make the deal. It went right to the eleventh hour on the deal and at the last minute they agreed to make the deal without forcing me to put my house on the line."