TV or Not TV?

That's no longer the question for visionary Stephen J. Cannell, who lives the novel life

Talk long enough with any television exec over 55, and sooner or later he'll get around to mentioning the La Brea Tar Pits, that enormous shimmering stinkhole in Los Angeles where the liquefied remains of some 660 species of organisms still burble. These old-timers, with skin light brown and pockets pale green, see themselves as the real L.A. dinosaurs--living fossils killing time at the Polo Lounge till they wet their toes in the sticky goo of extinction. They grumble about them damned kids ruining the networks; they grouse about being passed over by schmucks whose knowledge of television's past goes back to Chandler and Monica's engagement. The audience has gotten younger, and so have the executives, who insist a 60-year-old just can't write for 28-year-olds. So the geezers are handed a pair of bathing trunks and pushed off the plank into the pits.

Look no further than David Chase, a 56-year-old television writer who for years waited his turn in the deep murky. In the mid-1970s, Chase was hired to write for The Rockford Files, and when he turned in his first script, his boss thought it so brilliant he considered trying to "subtly fuck it up," because the boss worried about relinquishing his own crown as TV's Boy King. But Chase would spend the next few decades in limbo, writing scripts for movies never made and TV pilots never aired; running Northern Exposure, a show he didn't create; scribbling Rockfordreunion movies for the nostalgic old farts. When he struck upon the idea of a show about a tormented New Jersey mob boss in therapy, all four major networks passed. Eventually, Chase was forced to take his show to cable, where only HBO finally allowed him room to introduce The Sopranos.

"I was looking at David and wondering, 'Why isn't this guy the biggest, hugest person in Hollywood?' says his former employer, Stephen J. Cannell, who co-created Rockfordand some 40 other shows. "He's always been great, but he was in the tar pits and getting really depressed. Now along comes The Sopranos, and he's doing what he should have been doing the day he left Rockford, only nobody would let him exercise his vision. Nobody 22 years old could have done that show, because it takes a lot of experience and a lot of living to be able to write that cool psychodrama he's writing, and it's too bad. That's why everything's being pushed to the center: because the people evaluating the ideas are all in the same demographic group, and they all want the same kind of thing. And they don't trust anybody over the age of 28 to do it."

Before we proceed, understand Cannell isn't terribly upset about the state of television. He's 60 now--beneath facial hair and freckles, he looks much younger--and a millionaire hundreds of times over after 30 years of writing for, creating, running and, often, owning such series as The Rockford Files, Baretta, Baa-Baa Black Sheep, Hardcastle and McCormick, The A-Team, Hunter, 21 Jump Street, Wiseguyand The Commish. All told, he's had more shows on the air than almost anyone else, and he no longer produces TV shows by choice: In 1993, when Congress gave the OK for networks to make and own their own product, Cannell sold his production studio and began his now-successful career as a writer of crime novels, the latest of which is the just-published The Viking Funeral. When CBS bought the series Trapsfrom him in 1994 at $100,000 an episode, Cannell finally balked and walked. Too much hassle for lousy pocket change. Cannell was "legislated out of the business," he stresses, never forced out.

So he doesn't hold a grudge against those kids blindly throwing darts at a network schedule; and he doesn't consider himself a dinosaur. After all, what fossil releases a best-selling book a year? What relic has seven movie deals in the works, three based on his novels? What artifact climbs on his own private plane to schlep cross-country every year for a book tour? If he never again makes a television show, it's fine with Cannell; who needs the tsurisof running a show when you can board your own 150-foot yacht and sail away?

"I think Steve could be a player in TV if he was super-hungry for it," says David J. Burke, who wrote for Cannell's beloved Wiseguy, which starred Ken Wahl as an ex-con doing undercover work for the feds. Burke, like all who once worked for Cannell, has only kind words for his ex-boss; as empire-builder, he was also a mensch. "You can't dismiss a guy like that. I think Steve is not real interested in being as aggressive as he needs to be, because he's very rich and very comfortable. He enjoys his life immensely. And there's something, in a way, more noble about writing a book, expressing one's own thoughts, not taking the kind of notes you get from dimwits. In large parts, the people at the networks and studios are dimwits--well-educated, but dim-witted nonetheless. And I assume Steve just doesn't want to do that battle."

He doesn't. But press him long and hard enough, and Cannell will admit he's not quite finished with television. He will also lay out, with an insider's acumen and a veteran's wary insight, just why the networks now offer little more than stale turds stamped out on a factory assembly line.

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