Here’s to You, Steve.

Photo taken by Jason Smith in September, 2010

This file starts off with a question for you to try and answer: What do Hunter,  The Rockford Files, The A Team, and The Greatest American Hero have in common? Any guesses? (guess first before scrolling down)

They are the work of a famous Hollywood screenwriter. That’s one hint. Any further guesses? (down further AFTER you take another stab at it)

Last one: He was famous for his closing slogan with him typing on a typewriter one second then ripping out the page and flies away forming the letter „C.“  One last shot……

OK.  So there are many who probably don’t know this person. I know in Germany and parts of Europe, almost no one has heard of this person. But people like yours truly did grow up with this writer and enjoyed much of his work during his career. Unfortunately because of his sudden death on 30 September of this year as a result of melanoma- the deadliest of all cancers- we are now mourning an icon who plastered the airwaves with his work, most of which came from the 1970s and 80s. His name was Stephen J. Cannell.

Since many people probably don’t know much about the gentleman, this file entry will take you through his life and his work briefly, while at the same time discuss the importance of his closing slogan, something I never knew to have existed until stumbling across a website with a library’s worth of archives over the weekend. So without ado, let’s go to work.

Born in 1941 in Los Angeles, was raised in Pasadena and a graduate of the University of Oregon, Mr. Cannell’s career as a screen writer began when he submitted a script entitled “It Takes a Thief” to Universal Studios in 1968.  He was hired by the television arm of the studios and started his career as a writer straight away, gathering not only a number of TV shows he wrote and produced over the years but also gaining his popularity.   In the 40+ years he was in the business, all but two TV series he wrote for  were distributed through Universal, even though his office was at rival motion picture studio Paramount. This included the quartet of B.A., Hannibal, Face, and Murdock, deserted Vietnam soldiers who helped people who were in need when the law did not help them. The group, known as the A-team, spent four years on TV in the USA (1983-1987), and inspired much of the youth of that time to become like them and take the advice of the actor of B.A., Mr. T:

„Don’t be a fool! Stay in school!“

The two that were written by Cannell and were not distributed through Universal were the same ones I mentioned earlier: The Greatest American Hero and Hunter, the latter was a series consisting of a male cop named Rick Hunter and his female partner Dee Dee McCall, whose mission was to fight crime for the city of Los Angeles. That series lasted six years, ending in 1991.  The Greatest American Hero depicts a teacher who encounters a UFO, is given a red flying suit and special powers to help people and take out the criminals.  It was around for only three seasons (1980-3) but the theme song still plays on in many radio stations, and even the actor, William Katt is creating a comic strip based on that superhero dressed in a red piece caped outfit.

But of all the TV shows he had written plus at least a half a dozen books he wrote over the years (the last one “The Prostitute’s Ball” was released shortly before his passing), the most important feature that was typical of Cannell was the closing slogan. For those who don’t know, the closing slogan is produced by a motion picture studio and runs for only a few seconds right after the end credits are presented. This is only common in the USA as one can seldom see it in Europe. In fact, closing slogans can normally be found through state-run public TV services like the BBC in the UK and ARD and ZDF in Germany.  During the time of the Cold War when both Germanys were divided, there was nothing of that kind in East Germany, where I’m living (specifically in Erfurt).

One might think that the closing slogans of a motion picture studio represent the tiniest aspect of life- a mosquito which flies around saying „Here I am. I’m ready for the next meal!“ only to be quashed by its irrelevance. However, when I found out about Cannell’s passing and came across the website containing the archives of closing slogans for all motion picture studios- disregarding the type that exists- I found that there were people out there that have a passion for this hobby and wanted to share this with the rest of the audience. Well, they gained one this past weekend as I went through the library and saw how each closing slogan was described in detail, ranging from its appearance on TV to the music score, to even the degree of frightfulness of each closing slogan!!! This is weird; especially with regard to the third variant, but to understand it more further, I have an example of one with regard to Mr. Cannell’s partner, the motion picture studio Universal and its TV studio arm.

We all associate Universal Studios with the revolving globe, but the origins of it go as far back as 1962, after the TV studios was created thanks to the purchase of Decca Records by MCA Inc. Decca owned Universal Pictures at the time of its merger.  Over the years up until its current slogan was introduced in 1997, the only changes that were made to the globe were the size and type of the fonts, which remained gold and yellow in color, with the name Universal sticking out. The subheadings above and below the UNIVERSAL name were the only variants that changed throughout the years with the bottom subheading representing the company that owned the TV studios, MCA, which was later replaced with the website of Universal Studios in 1998.

As for the music that went along with that, up until 1985, the score consisted of something resembling a jazz ensemble, consisting of French horns, tubas, trombones, and in the case of one score that existed between 1976 and 1982, the rumbling of the bass drum into a crescendo. The degree of „scariness“ was extreme, as there were reports of people having nighmares involving this music score. It was later changed to feature the keyboard, then the orchestra, and when the slogan was changed in 1990 (in connection with both its 75th anniversary and its purchase by Panasonic Inc.), the music score changed as well, and its mellowness served as a relief to those who were too sensitive to the loud blaring of the brass and percussion. Some examples of how the closing slogan of Universal has developed over the years can be seen in the website enclosed at the end.

Going back to Mr. Cannell’s closing slogan, it represented a unique way of ending an episode, and it inspired many small productions to be as creative in its closing slogans as he was. Basically it represented Mr. Cannell sitting at his desk, sometimes smoking a pipe, typing his script on his typewriter and after he reached the end of his page, he would rip it out and the page would fly away, eventually forming a C-shape. The music score represented an orchestra that started out in C major and eventually ended with an electric guitar blaring its signature score in E-flat major. A link to how the closing slogan looked like can be found at the end of this entry. Over the years, the attired changed together with Mr. Canell’s appearance and the music score was altered through the usage, swapping, and addition of musical instruments. This included the exchange of brass instruments with a single flute. But all in all, the format remained the same, and it inspired many TV shows to imitate Mr. Cannell’s signature closing, including the Itchy and Scratchy Show in the Simpsons, which was released in 1993. Can you imagine a cat and a mouse sitting down and typing up their own script about their own chase and catch adventures?

While it is unclear what the future will now hold now that the creator of the shows and his own production is now gone. But one thing is for sure: Whoever takes over will have two big pairs of shoes to fill, as he or she will have to have learned the secrets of Steve’s success in order to continue navigating the ship, which includes being creative in the TV shows to attract an audience and not beg for more money- something that Mr. Cannell only had to do once in his entire 40+ year career. Plus that person would still have to maintain strong ties with the production facilities that worked together with Mr. Cannell in the first place; namely Universal, which is now owned by GE Inc. but is part of the NBC-Universal Television consortium under the name Universal Media.

But most interesting is how he or she would have to create a new closing slogan, while at the same time not alter the signature one that was used by Mr. Canell for all those years. Long gone will be the typewriter,  the vintage lamps, the wall of degrees and certificates and the library of books in the background, one will have to resort to either a PC or laptop, a printer, a state-of-the-art LED reading ramp, wardrobes hiding all the literature, only a few pictures in the back-and  foreground, and a music score representing techno-music.  Can you imagine a closing slogan like that? If so, I dare you to try it in his honor.

In either case, if there was a piece of advice I would have for anyone wanting to become a successful writer, it would be to refer to the works of Stephen J. Canell, as he presented some of the best and most unique pieces of work in recent memory, both in terms of screenwriting as well as his books. Some of the former has been adapted to motion picture films, like the A-Team, others will be rerun on many cable channels. The latter you’ll find in many book stores or you can order online.  But from my perspective, he will be remembered for attracting many people to the TV screens on a Friday night for an hour or two of the shows that became famous when they came out of the typewriter and will remain famous to not only those who have seen them already, like yours truly, but also those who have not seen them yet but would like to; especially after writing this eulogy in his honor. Now I wish I had a typewriter to rip this last page out of this file instead of typing it on a laptop- while travelling by train on top of it.

And that is it from the Files.  Until next time, folks.

Links:

http://www.closinglogos.com/page/Universal+Television

http://www.closinglogos.com/   The closing slogans for Stephen J. Cannell can be seen on the front page

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Front_%28The_Simpsons%29

http://www.cannell.com/

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