F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed that "there are no second acts in American lives." A more contemporary social observer with a mohawk and gold chains, like, say, Mr. T, might add, "But I pity the fool who says that about Stephen J. Cannell!"
Cannell is best known as the creator/ writer for dozens of TV series, including pop culture hallmarks like The A-Team, The Rockford Files, The Greatest American Hero, 21 Jump Street, Wiseguy and Baretta. But over the past decade, he's managed a nice second act as a best-selling thriller novelist with 11 books, many featuring L.A. detective Shane Scully, to his credit. This week, fans can get a double dose of Cannell's talents at the Alamo Drafthouse, where he will host screenings of the pilot episodes of The A-Team and Hero, and sign copies of his latest novel, Cold Hit.
In Cold Hit, Scully is investigating "The Fingertip Killer," a sicko with a penchant for murdering homeless Vietnam vets and chopping off their digits. When one killing turns out to be a political hit involving the Russian mob and a corrupt head of California Homeland Security, Scully and his fellow officers attempt to solve the case before it's taken from them in the name of "national security."
Cannell is concerned about the Patriot Act and the lesser-known Foreign Intelligence Service Act and their effect on civil liberties, such as the ones protected by the Fourth Amendment (for non-potheads, that's the one about illegal search and seizure).
He's also worried about how little Americans seem to know about legislation that's been passed. "Some people told me, 'Hey, whatever it takes to slam these terrorists in jail,' and others said, 'It's too much like Big Brother.' But no one could tell me specifically what they liked or disliked." Even poring over the actual text left him scratching his well-coiffed head. "The way the government writes...it's impossible to read this shit!" he laughs.
Cannell did a lot of research hanging around agency offices and squad rooms and finding the right people to badger. ("It helps to be kind of famous in opening doors," he says.) That allowed him to pick up details about cop life -- for instance, did you know that if a traffic cop sees a set of handcuffs draped over a steering wheel, he'll assume the vehicle belongs to an on-duty officer?
Despite his new career track, Cannell has no problem revisiting his television successes, particularly now that many are available (and selling well) on DVD. "It's amazing that these series endure like they do," he says. After all these years, does he have any dirt on fan-fave Mr. T? "T is a terrific human being with a huge heart. He used to spend all his weekends going to children's hospitals," Cannell recalls. "But he was also very street savvy. He knew that wrestling was going to take off big time. So when I saw him out there with Hulk Hogan and it was huge, I was like 'fuck...he was right!' "