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The 10 Most Memorable Reasons to Mourn Stephen J. Cannell

I had thought about suggesting that TV fans turn their sets off for an hour tonight as a tribute to the legacy of Stephen J. Cannell, who passed away yesterday as a result of complications associated with melanoma, but since I don’t think it’s possible for an hour to go by without one of his shows airing somewhere on your dial, I’m sure he’d much rather you watch his work than mourn his loss. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I sat back and took stock of just how much Cannell had contributed both to my childhood and my teenage years. I mean, my God, you hate to overuse the word “ubiquitous,” but if you look at how many times his name turns up in the credits of series which are considered to be staples of the 1970s and 1980s, you realize that you couldn’t turn around without hitting a series that he had either created or co-created.

Here are the 10 series from Stephen J. Cannell’s body of work that I’ll continue to enjoy ’til…well, ’til I join Stephen J. Cannell. If I’ve left out one of your favorites, be sure to cite it in the comments section.

10. Baa Baa Black Sheep (1976 – 1978): Based on the experiences of USMC flyboy Pappy Boyington and his “Black Sheep Squadron” during World War II, I couldn’t have cared less about this series when it was originally on the air, but it was required viewing for my father. Later, I realized that the man who played Pappy was the same guy who’d been kicking ass as James T. West on “The Wild Wild West” – Robert Conrad – and decided to give the show a chance. I don’t know if it was as historically accurate as it was probably supposed to be, but it proved that Conrad could even make WWII cool.

9. Baretta (1975 – 1978): Obviously, Robert Blake’s subsequent shenanigans in his personal life has tarnished his reputation as an actor, especially since there’s now an entire generation who only knows him for his work on Court TV, but in his day, Baretta was a full-fledged bad-ass…and so, for that matter, was his theme song.

8. Hardcastle and McCormick (1983 – 1986): The only thing that screams “the ’80s” more than McCormick’s car is the theme song, but Brian Keith and Daniel Hugh Kelly had good chemistry, and Keith helped set the decade’s industry standard for curmudgeonly characters.

7. Tenspeed and Brownshoe (1980): So, wait, which one’s Brownshoe again? You won’t believe how young Jeff Goldblum looks in this show, but if you’ve ever wondered where he honed the neurotic characteristics that have come to define his performances, look no further. Again, Cannell had an eye for chemistry. Who else would’ve imagined that Goldblum and Ben Vereen would work so well together?

6. Riptide (1983 – 1986): It’s the robot, right? Chicks dig the robot. Cody and Nick were cool, sure, but looking back on the show now, Tom Bray’s performance as Boz helped to define the concept of “geek chic.”

5. 21 Jump Street (1987 – 1991): A lot of people only think of “Jump Street” in terms of having been the show that really gave Johnny Depp his start, but let us not forget that, thanks to Richard Grieco, we were also blessed with the awesomeness that is “Booker.” Okay, actually, maybe we should just focus on Johnny Depp.

4. Wiseguy (1987 – 1990): The first season is nearly untouchable. Too bad we’ll probably never get the opportunity enjoy a non-bootleg version of Season 2′s “Dead Dog Records” storyline, which featured Tim Curry, Debbie Harry, and Glenn Frey. Damned music rights…

3. The Greatest American Hero (1981 – 1983): God bless William Katt, but the real heroes of this show were Robert Culp – Bill Maxwell is the FBI agent that actual FBI agents wish they could act like – and Joey Scarbury, who crooned the most insidiously catchy theme song of the decade.

2. The A-Team (1983 – 1987): Personally, I kinda liked the movie. But you can’t go wrong with the unbridled cheesy action of the original series.

1. The Rockford Files (1974 – 1980): Half-credit, of course, goes to co-creator Roy Huggins, whose success with James Garner on “Maverick” no doubt helped convince him to do the series in the first place, but there are virtually no one-man detective series on television today that don’t owe some degree of their success to the road paved by Jim Rockford. It might not be the single best show of the 1970s, but there are precious few from the decade that hold up as well.

And, of course, there’s no other way we could possibly close this piece:

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The Greatest American Hero: The Complete Series

We all know about the various superheroes that have found their way from the pages of DC and Marvel Comics into the world of live-action television series, including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the like. The ones who often get short shrift, however, are the ones that have been created specifically for the small screen.

Remember Captain Nice? Mr. Terrific? Nightman? M.A.N.T.I.S.?

No…? Then you take my point: the costumed crusaders that originated from existing source material are the ones which have tended to remain in the public consciousness.

There is an exception to this rule, however, and we’re pretty sure the reason he hasn’t been forgotten is that, in addition to possessing the powers of flight, super strength, invisibility, and many others, he’s also the only made-for-TV hero who had a theme song that many of us still remember almost 30 years down the line:

Thank you, Joey Scarbury…but, also, thank you, Stephen J. Cannell, creator of “The Greatest American Hero,” for coming up with such an awesome concept for a series.

Ralph Hinkley (William Katt), a high school teacher, takes his class on a field trip and, after leaving them temporarily to go in search of aid for their van’s flat tire, encounters a UFO. Also present: FBI Agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp), who just happened to be in the neighborhood, as it were. The aliens present Ralph with a red suit and cape, inform him that wearing it will provide him with superhuman abilities, and tell him that he and Bill must work together to save the world. Sounds great…except that, while walking back to civilization, Ralph loses the instructions, leaving him uncertain as to exactly how the suit works. Cue 3 seasons and 44 episodes of superhero shenanigans, anchored by Culp’s delightfully grouchy performance and made even more watchable by the gorgeous Connie Sellecca, who plays Ralph’s girlfriend (and eventual wife), Pam.

Now, you may be asking yourself, “Didn’t they already release this set awhile back?” Indeed, they did, but that was back when Anchor Bay held the rights to the series. Since then, the rights to most of Stephen J. Cannell’s series have come to Mill Creek…and if you focus really, really hard on the awesomely low price of this set, it may help offset the depression you experience when you learn that the bonus material from the previous Anchor Bay sets stayed with Anchor Bay. The only thing you’ll get here is a 20-minute interview with Cannell. It’s something, but when compared to the inclusions on the previous sets, it sure ain’t much. Still, if you really, really wanted “The Greatest American Hero: The Complete Series,” you would’ve bought it back when it first came out. Since you apparently only kind of wanted it, though, this is the perfect chance to snap it up at a ridiculously reasonable price.

The only real drawback: you’ll never, ever get the theme song out of your head.

Click to buy “The Greatest American Hero: The Complete Series”

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RIP Robert Culp

He had his biggest success on television with Bill Cosby on  “I Spy,” historic in its way as the first inter-racial buddy adventure program on TV or, for that matter, in any medium and the tongue-in-cheek superhero comedy, “The Greatest American Hero.” Nevertheless, Mr. Culp, who died unexpectedly today from a fall at age 79, also made a notable mark on films.

Costarring with his colleague and friend Cosby, he directed an attempt to translate their TV fame into movies with 1972′s “Hickey and Boggs.”  The film, which was written by a young Walter Hill, tried to go in vastly different, far grittier and grimmer direction than the TV show and failed at the box office. Recently, however, it’s been rediscovered by some cinephiles and crime film fans.

Still, a few year before that Culp appeared in one of the real cultural break-out movies of the 1960s, “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.” For better or worse, it helped popularized, or perhaps merely capitalized, on the idea of “swinging” and “free love” among the older, married set. I haven’t seen this one either and I have no excuse other than somewhat mixed-feelings about most of writer-director Paul Mazursky’s other movies. However, in her heartfelt farewell to Culp, Cinematical’s Monika Bartyzel was kind enough to provide the lengthy, terrific clip below. This scene with Natalie Wood really shows Culp’s way with both serious and light material as he experiences a pretty broad swath of emotions in a scene that starts out as something close to straight drama and gradually eases into some pretty delightful comedy. Now, I want to see this.

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