WRITER? CANNELL AND THE CRISIS OF CHARACTER
I don’t usually get upset over the deaths of celebrities—I think the only one that’s ever driven me to a ceremonial toast was Roy Scheider.
Until September 29.
Stephen J. Cannell, who passed away at the age of 69 and with whom I share a birthday (February 5!), had a profound effect on my life. I was a child of the 70s, but a teenager in the 80s, and I watched every single Cannell show there was. In fact, I used to sit in front of the television with a tape recorder and record scenes, so that I could listen to them all week long and get my fix. I have dialogue in many scenes of The Greatest American Hero, Hunter, The A-Team, and Black Sheep Squadron (sometimes called Baa-Baa Black Sheep)—to this day—memorized. And yes, I still have all those cassettes.
Many people will tell you the stuff wasn’t that great. While, yes, we can all say that The A-team wasn’t realistic because of all those explosions and no one ever got hurt (it’s television, get over it), that Riptide had some of the worst acting ever (except for maybe the guy who played Boz), and that Hunter was really just Dirty Harry with a chick, what can’t be argued is that most of them were hits. They were hits because of the distinctive characters, and they were hits because of the conflict between those characters.
Have you forgotten Howlin’ Mad Murdock or Judge “Hardnose” Hardcastle and his former thug-sidekick Mark McCormick? Or that lovable geek Murray Bozinski? Or B.A. Baracus and Baretta? Probably not. That’s because Cannell’s characters were bigger than life and so outlandish that they appealed to the television audience’s broad variety of personalities.
Take, for example, Hannibal Smith and Howlin’ Mad Murdock.
If you take natural leadership, organization, high IQ, and the need to control with little else and mix them all together in one person, you get Hannibal Smith. So, if you identified with Hannibal Smith, it probably wasn’t because you saw yourself as a cigar-smoking, emotionless military strategist who quoted every famous General in the world. It was because you saw yourself as a natural leader. Or you saw yourself as highly organized. Or you saw yourself as a person who is always in control in any given situation.
Similarly, if you identified with Murdock, it probably wasn’t because you considered yourself insane. It was because you considered yourself playful. Or fun-loving. Or loud and garish. Or having a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants attitude toward life.
With each character covering three or four personality types, put four of them together in one television show and you’ve pretty much covered everybody.
And yet the cores of these characters were pretty everyman. DeeDee McCall’s favorite meal was chicken marsala and she was obsessed with keeping her brand-new Dodge Daytona in mint condition; Brownshoe was an accountant with a nagging fiancé; Ralph was a high school English teacher who did everything he could to help his students strive for a better future than hot-wiring cars; Bill Maxwell was always profoundly moved by the death of a friend (which happened on more than a few occasions in The Greatest American Hero, as I recall). I never got the sense that I wasn’t like these people, or that I couldn’t grow up to be one of these people if I so chose.
There was also a give and take between these characters and among their peers; they related to each other in ways unique to them, and usually, their polar-opposite personalities caused conflict. Maxwell was career-oriented; Ralph was family-oriented. Sloppy Hunter was going to eat chili dogs in McCall’s car; neat-freak McCall was going to threaten death after she’d cleaned the upholstery. What happened in every episode—no matter which series you watched—was a clash that made cheesy dialogue suddenly witty, exciting, and colorful. The conflict was what made the good story. The conflict is what audiences thrived on, and this is evidenced in the other successful shows of the 1970s and 1980s: Starsky & Hutch, Scarecrow & Mrs. King, Simon & Simon, CHiPs, Emergency!, Adam 12, Moonlighting. Although none of these were Cannell (he did do some script work on Adam 12, however), all of these were hits because they mirrored his, as they worked on the same premise that he helped bring to the surface. Characters and conflict were key.
What’s sad is, television shows like those are mostly gone now. The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Monk had these qualities, but all are long off the air. House, Treme, and The Glades all have potential, but they’re missing something. There’s a new show coming out that appears to be about the conflict between a corporate head and an ecomaniac (and I think they’re married) that looks promising, but we’ll see.
So what was Cannell’s secret? I think it was in the way he viewed himself as a writer. Today, I hear many writers talk about how we are the masters of our universes, that we can manipulate our characters and make them do whatever we want. I don’t think Cannell thought of himself that way. In the show Renegade, for example, Cannell wrote himself in as the villain. He was, in essence, not acting as God, creator of worlds, but as Devil—the creator of conflict within those worlds. Perhaps, as writers—of television or otherwise—we’d be wise to shift our focus. Look at ourselves a little differently. It may just lead to more memorable characters, more memorable stories. I know I’m going to give it a shot.
Now to work on the issue of not enough jeeps flipping over anymore…