Lessons From a Limo...
“Mr. Cannell would like to take you to lunch,” said the experienced-sounding assistant over the phone. “How’s tomorrow sound?”
“That works,” I said, “Where would he like to meet?”
“Somewhere convenient to you,” she said. “Where do you live?”
“In the Valley,” I answered. “But it’s not a problem. I can get myself over the hill.”
“He’ll come to you,” she said. “What’s your address?”
“Steve doesn’t have to drive,” I said. “I can meet him wherever.”
“He’ll pick you up,” she insisted. “Okay if he picks the restaurant?”
“Of course,” I said before dictating my address. As I hung up, I said to myself “Wow.” The one and only Stephen J. Cannell is not just going to take me to lunch, he’s gonna drive to the Valley and pick me up. Damn, that man must really like me.
Excuse me? You’ve never heard of the late great Stephen Cannell? Then before you read on I suggest you Google or IMDB him.
First of all…
“It’s Cannell, rhymes with ‘channel,’” an old gal pal and former Cannell employee reminded me many moons ago. “And he’s the nicest man on earth.”
As it turned out, I pretty much grew up under Stephen Cannell’s TV tutelage. For a big chunk of my youth, he practically owned network television, having created and produced everything from The Rockford Files to Baretta to the iconic A-Team. And when I first moved to LalaLand, I recall his name was nearly as big the Hollywood sign, emblazoned on the roofline of the mini-studio he owned, conveniently close to the single bedroom dive I shared with two actors and our collection of uninvited cockroaches.
Close as I lived—and he worked—it wasn’t until some years later that the opportunity arrived for me to meet the TV icon. While I was grinding out a career as a go-to screenwriter, Señor Cannell was getting out of TV and into a new career as a best-selling novelist. That doesn’t mean Hollywood had stopped calling. In fact, movie studios had been digging through their own popular TV titles in hopes of turning old programming into shiny new motion picture franchises.
This, you might surmise, is why Stephen Cannell was taking me to lunch.
“You expecting a limo?” shouted the War Department.
“No,” I said to my wife. “Expecting Steve Cannell. He’s taking me to lunch.”
“In a stretch?” she asked.
I thought she was pulling my leg. That’s when I glanced out the gate of my suburban hacienda and, sure as sunshine, parked out front was a black stretch limousine. Polished to a sick gleam. My initial reaction was that the limo was a neighbor’s airport ride was that the driver was merely borrowing the curb in front of my house as a wait station until his actual pick-up time.
Only the driver wasn’t waiting in the limo. He was at my gate, ringing the doorbell.
“Wow,” I catalogued. “Steve Cannell tools around L.A. in his own limo?”
Now, this was something new. Yes, I’d been lucky enough to travel on the occasional private jet. But contrary to popular belief, most celebs and the super rich choose to navigate themselves around the surprisingly pot-holed streets of Los Angeles. Limos were usually reserved for stepping out at premieres, trips to LAX, or alcohol-fueled high school prom parties.
I kissed the War Department so long and trundled down my walkway to the limo door, held open by the uniformed chauffeur. As I climbed in, I found Steve Cannell seated at the rear with a mobile phone to his ear. He held up a polite, single digit index finger signaling that he’d be only a moment. I buckled up for what I thought would be a short ride to one of the many nearby Ventura Boulevard eateries.
“The A-Team,” Stephen announced as he hung up his call. “We’re gonna talk about that over lunch.”
“I’m all yours,” I answered. “Pick me up in a limo and you can talk about anything you damn well like.”
Now, like ‘em or not, quite a number of those old TV shows had already been shaped into movie ticket gold. I’d already been offered one or two, showing little to zero excitement over any of them. Then came Mark Gordon with the A-Team title. I recall shaking my head and cynically chuckling at the prospect. I’d never really cared for the show, hit or otherwise. Overall I thought the tone was pretty silly. Then Mark suggested we toss out the show as we understood it and keep just the title. A brainstorm session followed. From which came a pretty cool idea that molded the well-known title into a brand new origin story.
Imagine that. I was sold on my own idea. From that point, of course, I was in.
“Great,” said Mark. “Now all we gotta do is sell your vision to Steve Cannell?”
“Steve Cannell, rhymes with channel?” I jokingly recalled.
“Yes. That Steve Cannell,” shrugged Mark. “His show. He created it so he’s gotta be involved.”
As much as Mark and I dug my rethink on the A-Team, I was quick to admit that I’d pretty much eviscerated the original TV show, leaving little more than a title and some character names.
I gulped back my guilt.
“Worse thing that happens is that he hates it,” massaged Mark. “But hell. At least you know I still like it.”
As it turned out, so did Stephen Cannell. We’d met in Mark’s office. I’d instantly taken a liking to the man and was surprisingly at ease pitching my reincarnation of his hit show. Steve, in turn, sparked and soon joined the conversation. We’d left the meeting feeling positive, yet sanguine that we’d need to put more flesh on whatever presentation we were going to make to Paramount, the studio who (at the time) held the rights.
“Never been a limo before?” asked Steve.
“Just to and from the airport,” I said. “Not to lunch.”
“I realize how it looks,” said the man who was known for hiring truck drivers to write TV scripts, “Ostentatious as hell. But I’m a practical man. We live in L.A. And when you start adding up how much time we spend in our cars…”
“You may as well do it in comfort,” I wrongly finished for him.
“Yeah, it’s comfortable,” admitted Steve. “But you wanna know the real reason?”
Glaucoma, I thought? Seizures?
Steve reached over next to him and lifted a custom lap desk, placing it squarely over his two thin stems. He opened the lid, removed a legal pad and a pen.
“Never an excuse not to write,” he said, hoping—knowing—as a writer I’d understand. “The hours we spend in traffic. And accomplishing what? Phone calls? Please. When I calculated the amount I was losing just from home to the office and back…”
“Holy crap,” I said. “It’s your rolling writing room.” I was, and still am, in awe.
“We’re both parents,” said Steve. “When I’m with my kids I want to be with my kids. And when I leave for work, well, I want to work.”
Yes. Steve Cannell who’d scribbled out ten million TV shows, was still concerned about maximizing his writing time. Something I’ve preached from the dais at screenwriting panels to showbiz podcasts to this here blog. Before you creatively write, you must create opportunities to write. I think back of all the places where, when I could steal the moment, I’ve opened my laptop. From Irish pubs to the passenger seat of my car at my son’s baseball practices. From the homework room at my daughter’s dance academy to tapping out something on my smart phone from a back table at a hotel bar mitzvah. Always always always reminding myself that one never had an excuse not to write when the opportunity presented itself. And there I was in Steve Cannell’s stretch limousine, no less, marveling at how after all his massive success, he was still pioneering ways to maximize his own precious writing time.
“We writers,” grinned Steve. “We gotta write. Right?”
Indeed we do.
I fully admit I thoroughly enjoyed my short time with Stephen Cannell. Every second of it. I had the privilege of hashing out story with a man who’d already told more stories than ten of me could ever accomplish. It was pure joy. And when we finally presented my rethink of Stephen Cannell’s A-Team to the suits at Paramount, the man with the limo was one hundred percent behind my take.
Only Paramount had other ideas. They were hoping for a broader, louder version of the TV show. A cartoon take for the big screen. Not that unlike the movie Twentieth Century Fox eventually mounted with Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper.
That said, I departed the project with no regrets. I’d gained so much in the mere experience.
Sadly, Stephen J. Cannell died in 2010. Too soon, I might add, due to complications from cancer.
Meanwhile, the War Department just celebrated a birthday. For her big night, her lovely parents rented a big black stretch limo to deliver us to and from the Santa Monica restaurant. The lousy traffic we encountered on the 405 was not unexpected. Yet as I sat in the back of the car, I thought of Stephen Cannell and quietly wondered if the limousine was outfitted with a lap desk.
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