R.I.P. Stephen J. Cannell, 1941-2010

Jan. 30, 1983 is one of the most important dates of my childhood. That day, the only man from my hometown to make the NFL won the Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins. Following the game, The A-Team came on.


Though The A-Team actually premiered a week earlier (with a different guy playing Face), few of us had seen it. My parents forbade me and my brother from watching The Dukes of Hazzard, of all things. But after the Super Bowl, the series' second episode immediately filled the screen with shooting and car chases and explosions, none of any real serious consequence. The damage was done, and for a nine-year-old it was the coolest thing you'd ever seen.

The next day was a snow day. No school. We gathered in a neighbor's back yard to play football, and the biggest argument wasn't who got to be called the Redskins, it was who got to be called the A-Team.


Stephen J. Cannell, the creator of The A-Team, died yesterday from complications of melanoma. He had a profound impact on television, well beyond creating a show that exemplified the guns-blazing machismo of the action genre in the 1980s.

His first big hit was The Rockford Files, as important to pie-eyed adolescents in the 1970s as the A-Team and The Greatest American Hero was a decade later. In 1987, Cannell delivered 21 Jump Street, one of the first hits for Fox, helping it get off the ground when the idea of a fourth broadcast network was almost absurd. And later, for CBS, Wiseguy undoubtedly influenced the award-winning gritty, cinematic adult serials of pay-cable, such as The Sopranos and The Wire.

Others can speak to his contribution there. For me, and for my generation, Stephen J. Cannell produced our first understanding of appointment television. Tuesdays. 8 p.m. NBC. Be There. To be grounded and unable to watch The A-Team was a horrible punishment. To be shut out of the discussion during break on Wednesday at North Elkin School was my first real lesson of the need to be culturally current.

Antiviolence campaigners hated The A-Team, but give me a break. A fifth-grader knows a car plunging headfirst off a 200-foot cliff, its driver fake-limping away just before the fireball explosion, meant the whole thing was a gag.


As profane as it might be by comparison, The A-Team was the cowboy serial of my generation, black hats and white hats, Col. Decker and Hannibal, suckas and fools, everything playing to type. We knew how it would begin. We knew how it would end. We knew, in the middle, that Mr. T would make a rocket launcher out of a washing machine.

It was such an obvious plan. And yet it always thrilled us when it came together. Thank you, Stephen J. Cannell.

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