Need a mental image to picture best-selling author and TV producer Stephen J. Cannell? Just remember the writer who pulls a page out of his typewriter at the end of a hit TV show and tosses it on the floor. Cannell is coming to Jimmy’s Place on September 9, 2005, at 7:00 PM, to sign copies of his latest novel “Cold Hit.” The books are provided by Centuries & Sleuths for $24.95 and the reception at Jimmy’s Place is $15.00.
“Cold Hit” is another gripping installment in Cannell’s series on L.A. police detective Shane Scully. In 369 fast-paced pages, Scully attempts to catch a serial killer, save his partner’s career and fend off the sinister forces of Homeland Security.
Those who are unfamiliar with Cannell’s literary works may have watched the TV shows he created: The Rockford Files, The A-Team and The Commish, among others. Cannell’s success in TV enabled him to start his own giant production company, purchase TV stations and build the largest film studio in Canada. Still, with all of his accomplishments, Cannell remains an approachable, down-to-earth person, who hasn’t forgotten the struggles he faced in school.
Like his protagonist in “Cold Hit,” Cannell is a life-long Californian and a devoted family man. He and his wife of 41 years, Marcia, have three adult children: their daughters Tawnia and Chelsea have careers in TV and Cody is entering his senior year of college. Family-man detectives, like Shane Scully, are a rare breed in police procedurals. Equally rare are the political overtones in “Cold Hit,” which address potential abuses of the Patriot Act.
“I’ve done pretty well for a guy who couldn’t get out of 4th Grade,” Cannell said, referring to his struggles with dyslexia. Severe learning disabilities caused Cannell to be held back three times on his way to high school. These problems persist to this day, as Cannell still spells phonetically. Thankfully, he has a staff to correct the misspellings in his text. “If I hit the spell check button on a computer, it would start smoking,” Cannell joked.
In fact, the acclaimed author uses a Seletric typewriter, just as he does in his TV promos. “It’s actually faster for me to write on a typewriter,” Cannell said, “I produce five pages, pencil edit it and my staff types it up into my first draft. I can get 15 pages done on the Selectric in the same time it would take me to do 7 pages on the computer.”
Cannell’s interest in writing was first piqued by a plagiarized poem. “I wrote a poem about Martin Luther King and turned it in to the public high school I was attending. I got a B-. My sister didn’t want to write a poem so she took mine and handed it in to her private school. She got an A and the poem appeared in the school literary magazine under the name Lynn Cannell.”
Though he didn’t get direct affirmation for his writing, Cannell was encouraged. Besides poetry, his other big passion in high school was playing football. “I was a running back and I was pretty good. Football saved me from becoming a defeated person in high school. It gave me self-worth.”
Cannell went on to the University of Oregon, where a creative writing teacher named Ron Salisbury mentored him. “He told me: God gave you a gift. You must always be a writer.” After graduation, Cannell went to work for his father’s trucking firm but never forgot Salisbury’s words. “I’d get home from my dad’s company at 5:30 and write until 10:30 PM. After five years, my stuff began to sell. Then I got a contract with Universal and quit the trucking business.”
Cannell’s remarkable writing discipline remains to this day. “I get up at 4:30, lift weights for forty minutes and start writing by 6:00. I write from 6:00 to 11:00 seven days a week.” Cannell’s goal is to produce 15 pages per day. The only time he deviates from this regimen is when he’s on a book tour or acting on a movie location. Cannell has appeared in four motion pictures.
In 1995, Cannell oublished the first of ten best-selling novels, “Vertical Coffin.” It was a Shane Scully novel, written before Cannell switched from third person to first person narration. Discussing the back-story of his fictional detective, Cannell explained how he developed the character of the mother of Scully’s college-age son, Chooch.
Cannell’s police friends told him about the “Black Widow,” a former prostitute, who became a police informer. She was a smart businesswoman who offered to help investigate suspects, in exchange for a portion of the police budget. For example, if the police allotted $200,000 for surveillance, the “Black Widow” would deliver the suspect for a six-figure fee.
“She would research the suspect, find out his interests and where he hung out,” Cannell explained, “After she ‘dimed him out’ to the cops, she’d know she’d get made, so she’d start flirting to cause a fight between the suspect and one of his associates.” Usually the associate would be accused of informing. The “Black Widow” retired safely with her riches to Arizona.
There is only a passing reference to Chooch’s mother in “Cold Hit.” She was Scully’s former prostitute-informer and one-time lover, who had his son without telling him. After her untimely death, Scully raised Chooch and married his superior at police headquarters, Alexa.
There is plenty of police politics in “Cold Hit” as Scully fights turf wars with the FBI and Homeland Security to solve the “Fingertip Murders” so named because all of the victims have had their fingertips cut off. Cannell performed a great deal of research for the book, including interviews with a professor of constitutional law concerning the Patriot Act. “The abuse of the Patriot Act in my book is fiction,” Cannell said, “But I believe it’s a real danger.”
Danger, fast-paced action and crisp dialogue are hallmarks of “Cold Hit.” Cannell’s strongest influence in detective fiction was John D. McDonald, who created the character of Travis McGee. “McGee was a beach bum who lived on his houseboat, the Busted Flush. He was a salvage expert. If you’d been wronged, he’d help you and split the recovery 50-50. Rockford was my Travis McGee.”
Cannell was also influenced by Raymond Chandler but hastens to add that he enjoys many living detective writers. When he first created his character of Shane Scully, the LAPD detective was not in a good place. “He was isolated, lonely, cynical and close to suicide,” Cannell recalled. The only thing that kept his personality together was writing letters to his father. Only Scully’s father was dead.
In real life, Cannell was very close with his father. “My dad was my best friend,” he said, “He was a self-made millionaire and entrepreneur.” When Cannell formed his production company, it was a thrill to place his father on the board of directors.
Cannell started the company in order to give writers more creative control. “You’re never going to have complete creative control, unless you put up the money,” Cannell explained. “I would hire unknowns ?” some guy out of a 16 wheeler ?” and get them their first pilot. I’d help them with the pilot and they’d become big stars. After that, I couldn’t pay them the $2,000,000 Disney was paying so they’d leave. But about half of them have come back, because they couldn’t stand being micro-managed.”
Cannell is still subject to network micromanaging on occasion. “Sometimes I’ll get bad notes on a script and they’ll ask me to do a re-write. I really bust my butt to do the re-write the way they want it. Sometimes it turns out better. Other times, I’ll ask them, ‘Are you really going to shoot it this way?’ Nine times out of ten they’ll go back to my original script.”
Besides his creative projects, Cannell has been a spokesperson for dyslexia. He sponsored and performed in “Gifts of Greatness” an educational video depicting famous dyslexics in history. He also supports the Crime Lab Project. Despite the state-of-the-art forensics seen on C.S.I. shows, most crime labs remain overworked, out-of-date and under funded. Cannell helps raise money to support the labs and their crucial crime-fighting capabilities.
As for his Shane Scully series, Cannell has the next book halfway done. Cannell’s characters in “Cold Hit” have flaws and face tremendous difficulties. But by the end of the book, Cannell has redeemed many of them?”not unlike a struggling 4th Grader who was redeemed by writing.