Stephen J. Cannell died on September 30, 2010. Laudatory obituaries now have appeared in both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. What this style of Hollywood eulogy invariably misses is that the person they are lauding frequently was a jerk. Such was my experience with Cannell. Back in 2000 I financed an independent movie called “Dawg” (also released in some territories as “Bad Boy” or “Money for Mercy”). It starred Denis Leary and Elizabeth Hurley. The plot was simple, it was a “battle-of-the-sexes” comedy about a mid-thirties cocksman whose life is in shambles. A lifeline is thrown to him by a crappy early-thirties female attorney who represents his recently-deceased grandmother’s estate. The old gal adored him but didn’t approve of his life style. He can earn the million dollars she left him by getting twelve of the women he screwed over to utter those magic words: “I forgive you.” It’s a daunting task, complicated by the fact that the attorney, who similarly disapproves of his lifestyle, insists on accompanying Dawg to verify that he has fulfilled the terms of the will. The body of the story is their strange, funny road trip, which includes an evolving and unpredictable relationship between them.
The budget was $3 million and for an independent film of that era, the movie was successful. It had a platform release in a dozen U.S. cities, followed by a sale of domestic television and video rights to HBO. One still can see it on late-night cable or by the DVD on Amazon for $.01 (plus shipping). I took it to the international film markets where it recouped its costs and was advanced what ended up being a 3x multiplier of the original budget. All told international revenues exceeded $12 million.
Somehow Cannell was involved with the rights to the underlying screenplay. He proved irascible and difficult to deal with. I’ll never forget a meeting in his office, where he was off-point and distracted. He dragged in Mario van Peebles, who had starred in several of Cannell’s television series such as “Sonny Spoon,” “21 Jump Street” and “Wiseguy.” These never were impressive when they were released, and in 2000 they were positively antiquated; more of a negative recommendation for the kind of project I had in mind, than a positive one. I think Cannell intended to display van Peebles as a kind of trophy. I didn’t know why he was there, and neither did he; I believe the current phrase for this is that he was “room meat.” Cannell aggressively was promoting rights to some book he recently had written, the title of which I forget.
We finally came to terms on a modest fee for the rights. Cannell had asked to be a producer on the film, and I readily made this concession, seeing as how (a) I didn’t care, and (b) based on his name recognition, I thought his involvement might be a modest plus for sales. He in turn promised to be actively involved in the development of the script, casting, marketing, etc. These commitments were set forth in a detailed agreement. Unfortunately, he did nothing. He wouldn’t even respond to letters and telephone calls and (in those days), faxes. I didn’t do anything about it, as I concluded his involvement in the project not only wouldn’t help, but also might be detrimental. Certainly he had nothing to contribute to the film’s aesthetics, and if he didn’t want to assist in marketing it, then from a practical standpoint there was nothing I could do (or that should be done).
So while the demise of one’s former colleagues and acquaintances never is happy news, frequently there are many items of note, not mentioned in any obituary. My encounter with Cannell was not significant in the scheme of his life. Nonetheless I have little doubt it was representative of an entire class of interactions, which have gone and will remain unmentioned.