Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Stephen J. Cannell, 1941-2010 - A Hardboiled Eulogy

A special note to our readers: Normally Jim toes the line and likes to ride in the middle of the road a little bit, and that's why we love him. But this post gets a little crazy and he's turned off the cuss filter. Sensitive readers probably never read this blog anyway but are hereby advised. You must be this tall to read this post.

Like a lot of people, I was shocked by the sudden news about this man's passing. Unlike most people, who took it as an opportunity to briefly remember one of their favorite TV shows in a five-minute nostalgia snack that was quickly forgotten with the troubles of the day, I took it pretty hard.

Stephen J. Cannell was one of my heroes.

One of the few (Hell, right now I can't even think of any) who was still alive before this fucking bullshit happened. From melanoma, of all things. It reminded me of how terrible cancer is, and why. At least, I think I have the answer to that one. Cancer is the dickpunch response of fate, God, whatever you want to call it, to a life well-lived. Think about it. Melanoma - too much time in the sun. Colorectal, aka "ass cancer" - too much red meat or good booze. Ditto for stomach cancer. Lung cancer - too many tasty cigarettes with their smooth, toasted tobacco. Leukemia - being a cute kid with a little hat and a little baseball glove.

Ok, maybe it's a stretch but that how cancer always seemed to me. Whenever someone passes from this dread disease, what do all the people around you (or maybe even you, though I'd like to think the readers of this blog are too cool for this kind of crap) say? "Oh, well, you know, that was too much booze/cigarettes/tanning/steaks/Danny Thomas telethons". How do you avoid these cancers? Be a vegetarian teetotaller who wheezes and coughs when a man merely happens to smell like a cigarette, stays out of the sun and only watches PBS. In other words, a shell of a man. One who is not enjoying the best life has to offer.

I mean, who the fuck goes around on a sunny day with a parasol? Goths, tranny hookers with airs and Michael Jackson (but I repeat myself - sorry, fellow MJ fans, but I gotta speak truth here, we'll always have "Off the Wall" and "Thriller").

No, to be a man, to be a real human being (to use the unecessary PC term), you stand out in the sun. Maybe you work in a field, or maybe you did as a boy. Or maybe you just feel the rays of that life-giving orb, that wonderful thing that makes this planet something besides a cold rock in space, and you feel damn good, because it is a sunny day and there are kids playing in a park somewhere, birds are singing, dogs are running around in the yard, there's brats on the grill, all that shit.

This is what I'm trying to tell you about Cannell. He was a manly man, that's why he was my hero, but it was more than that. I realized the other day, brooding about his death like I have been - he was the man that made me want to be a writer.

Who could forget that clip at the end of your favorite TV show? Here's a highlight reel for those of you who don't have it seared in your memory like a scar from a childhood accident or a tattoo that you regretted the moment you got it but now love because it makes you who you are:

I can't remember the exact moment I first saw it - it was probably at the end of an ep of The A-Team, or maybe The Greatest American Hero. Goddamn, that show. I remember my mom buying me the Underoos set - t-shirt and briefs for that show, all red with black trim, and the mysterious logo on the shirt, and for days I wore it under my clothes to school. I was a goddamn superhero in the 3rd grade, and I needed that right then. Anyway, the point is, there's that clip of him, banging away at the typewriter like a whorehouse piano-player, puffing on his pipe, and he TEARS a sheet off the typewriter and throws it into the air, because he just wrote the scene where Rockford punches a dude in the face and closes the case, or the A-Team mounts a gatling gun in the back of their van and saves the girl, and his face, his body, just everything - it's like he just won the lottery. The man is having the time of his life. In that brief, brief glimpse of that world, Stephen J. Cannell told me "Don't you want to be here? Every day I sit down and just make up stories. And I get paid to do this! Doris, get me a Martini!"

It probably took a few times seeing it - and yeah, I saw it hundreds of times I'm sure. But it sunk in. I wanted to be in that office, smoking that pipe and writing an awesome TV show and getting paid to do it. Why the Hell would I want to do anything else?

I want to tell you something else about my own personal view of this man. When I signed the contract and made my deal for Hard Boiled Vampire Killers official - I thought of him. Because I knew I was finally on the road. I'd sell books, get respect, and eventually go to L.A., because I've always wanted to write an amazing TV show myself. And top of my list - lunch with Stephen J. Cannell. I'd buy him a dinner I couldn't afford and pump him for info. We'd be friends, go out to his ranch somewhere in Mexico and shoot skeet and fish and smoke cigars and talk about writing. And after all our bullshitting, we'd collaborate on our own TV show, to bring back the awesome so missing from most of television, an atavistic Sunday punch that would set the whole goddamn town on its ear and get them talking. We'd be at the upfronts, him in his signature turtleneck and blazer, me in my battered fedora and maybe a Hawaiian shirt, chewing an unlit cigar, and he'd say something like "This kid gets it", and I'd say "Without Stephen J. Cannell, I 'd have no reason to live".

I mean, he actually wasn't that old. He broke into the business at a young age and kicked its ass. When I'm an old man people will still be discovering his shows and marveling. It was actually possible. He was ALIVE! This means a lot to a man who seems to have nothing but dead heroes. I could actually ACHIEVE THIS GOAL!

Jesus Christ, I would've washed his car and done his laundry for free for months and months for the chance just to talk to him.

OK, that whole fantasy thing was kind of out there but I think you get what I'm saying.

Those who know me know I'm a man who holds very few illusions about life. Those I do are either too cynical, or just the ones that dance around in my hand, making it hard to sleep until I write them down. So I know this whole stupid fantasy I had about meeting this man sounds uncharacteristic. But I couldn't help it. When you see the possible, and you want it bad, you want to chase it down and tackle it hard, make it yours. So maybe you get a little crazy about it.

You say I didn't know the man, never met his wife, never had lunch with him, never spoke a word to him or knew anyone who even met him once in a restaurant while they were waiting for a table. All this is true. But I didn't need to. I saw it all in the shows.

Here are all the things I learned from this man, that came straight out of every one of his shows:

1. There are Good Guys and Bad Guys. And that's okay. It's not stupid, or cliche, it's true if you just know how to look at a situation.
2. The Bad Guys almost always outclass the Good Guys. And that's okay. Because their hardness, their professionalism, makes them cold. They have lost most of their humanity. The Good Guys screw up, their life takes weird turns, but they try to take it in good humor, because that's their way. Life to them is just one big great experience and they're happy to be there, because they know they're right, and that's what matters.
3. Evil is Organized. It is a Machine. The Good Guys are the second string, always pulling together a team at the last minute, ad hoc, it's not perfect but you work with what you've got. And that's better, because each of those men on the Good Guy team matter, they're all individuals, and that complicates things. A machine is just a bunch of gears.
4. Friends are everything, and sometimes those friendships are weird, but they make sense because of that connection those two men have. Think about Ralph and Bill in Hero. Bill is an old-school conservative, Ralph an old-school liberal - two types you rarely see anymore. They're drawn in broad strokes but the notes ring true. Despite their differences, they're still friends. Because they're men, not assholes. Ralph was the kind of liberal that wants to be a schoolteacher to help inner-city youth but isn't afraid to smack one of them around if they get out of line. Bill was the kind of conservative that thinks it's just wrong to shoot a man in the back even if it means he gets away. You couldn't do Hero the same way today because Ralph would be reading the Daily Kos and giving Bill the finger all the time and Bill would waterboard Ralph in a Very Special Episode. Cannell saw the truth - that real men, real people would see that their own views were kind of petty in the scope of an alien spaceship that dropped off a rubber suit that gave its wearer superpowers and told you both that you had to work together to save the world from itself. I don't know that MSNBC Ralph and FOXNEWS Bill would ever be able to make that team work - and that is a fucking shame.

And more meta stuff:

1. People make fun of how no one ever got shot on The A-Team. You know why? YOU KNOW WHY? BECAUSE KIDS WERE WATCHING, THAT'S WHY. He didn't want impressionable young boys and girls watching men get gut-shot and bleed in the dirt on prime-time TV. It wasn't necessary and all it would do was ruin a generation. Who has that kind of decency, that kind of thoughtfulness now?
2. So-called "pure entertainment", the "fun" (in the pejorative sense) stuff, has meaning, real and deep meaning. It connects, not through revulsion or horror or sadness, but just the stuff of pure life, that happiness, that joy even when you're in the middle of a car chase on the 405 or in the jungles of Belize/Bronson Canyon. I like a lot of the TV that's out there now, don't get me wrong. But Cannell didn't have to have one of his main characters gang-raped by Nazi bikers to make a point or make a connection, and I think that separates the Journeymen from the Masters. I'm just using an example, there are tons of others. The point is that the true master is precise, efficient. He doesn't splash across the page unless he wants to make a point when he could easily have a character toss off a quick line of dialogue that says it all. And I think that goes deeper for people, because it doesn't fire their nervous system up, it doesn't overwhelm them. They get it on a subtle level, it affects them and maybe they don't completely know why.
3. Who's-fucking-who drama is for women and can't carry a show. Want to know why I haven't bothered keeping up with House? I hate all the characters that get screentime and I hate stupid relationship drama being what drives a show. House and Cuddy hooking up was the final, indisputable jump-the-shark moment in a series of other moments that are up for debate. It's over. It went as far as it could. Sorry, guys. Maybe it would've gone further if you would've made House an ME and had him solve crime, too. That rice-burner he rides is crying out for Cannell to write an awesome vehicle chase for it. I have nothing against women and women's shows as they deserve to be on TV, too. God knows my wife has hours of TV to choose from. My point is that the type of show I'm talking about is now a rare animal and about to get put on the endangered list and that is only from me being extremely generous with my definitions (e.g. Angel was kind of a manly show, against all odds).
4. It's called a formula because it works, and the hell with you. The point is not that there is a formula. The point is what you do with it. An amateur, a loser, takes a formula and makes crap. A Master takes a formula and makes Hardcastle and McCormick, Tenspeed and Brownshoe, Hunter, Magnum PI .. it goes on. Walter White would tell you that a formula is just the beginning, not the whole thing. You cannot write it all down, you cannot make it paint-by-numbers as much as you want to. No, a formula makes it accessible, makes it easy to watch. You fold right in, there's no bullshit backstory flashbacks or goofy titles or comic-book tie-ins that explain the story. It's just there, you can get it without sperging out over it.
5. When in doubt, have a goddamn car chase. Hot damn that looks good on TV if you do it right. Again, the hell with you. A car chase has everything, everything I tell you. You can do so much with two vehicles and a stretch of road if you know what you're doing. I'm a Vin Diesel fan, but one three or five-minute car chase on The Rockford Files has more intensity than every single Fast and Furious or Whatever movie does, and those movies are all car chases.
6. Truth is so important. TV is full of fake-reality shows, that all they can do is give you the illusion of something that is really happening, with camera angles and bad actors and ad-lib scripts, but they have very little truth. TRUTH. SPEAK IT. Cannell did. Everything up there, every single one of those things is TRUTH, and if you don't see it, you need to check the back of your head for wires - you just might be a drone, a robot walking around squawking at people in a rubber facemask, pretending to be human.

I want to talk more about the man, but I can't. Because all I know about him I learned from his shows, from Wikipedia and other sites. God took him away before I ever had a chance. All I can do is tell my own story, share my own thoughts, because it's just me all alone out here, typing these words. Maybe I care too much but I can't help it.

I think it was Langston Hughes who said that a dream deferred was a dream denied. I always thought that was kind of bullshit, because it seems to me 90% of life is deferring your dreams and you still sometimes get to live out at least one or two of them. IAnd hell, a lot of those dreams were crap when you started having them, they never deserved to get realized. know I'm living proof - I spent all of my twenties feeling depressed because I wasn't already a published (let alone best-selling) author, and now I'm there. But I get now a bit about what he meant. Because sometimes you have to put those dreams on the shelf, and wait until they're ready, and then they die there, and they can never be, and you wonder if maybe if you'd just gone straight for them, if they would've happened.

I know this man has met his reward, and he deserves it. And all earthly accolades now mean nothing. But it still seems like an appropriate time to officially inaugurate the "Gavin's Golden F" awards. Usually awarded posthumously, and until now only awarded off of the Internet and in my own head, in honor of this man's achievements, Stephen J. Cannell of Los Angeles, California is hereby awarded the Golden F and shall herewith be known on this blog and all other that recognize this honorarium as "Stephen J. 'F' Cannell". For all his achievements, for all he's done, for all the lives he's touched, for all of that and more ... this man now has the right to announce himself and be referred to by others as "Stephen J. 'F' Cannell", with all the respect and accolades that Golden F may accrue to him, in this life or the next.

Theme Song for this post: Ronnie McDowell - The King is Gone

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