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: