Monday, October 4, 2010

R.I.P. Stephen J. Cannell. His shows live on, and so do the cars.

Tonight my wife said, "you know Stephen J. Cannell died, right?"

Of course, I knew that.  As if.  In my world, this guy built one of the most enviable careers I've ever seen. I mean, he created some of the greatest cheeseball one-hour cop and detective shows ever shown on television.  Shows that, by the way, I am still absolutely addicted to today.  This is the guy that came up with The Rockford Files, The Greatest American Hero, Hunter, and The A-Team. 

He was able to develop those awesome bits of guilty pleasure, become rich and famous, and actually have movie studios hire real actors, blow things up, coordinate car chases, and televise all this to a national audience.  Seriously, for someone like me who stresses over a measly little blog, this is amazing, fantastic, cataclysmic, otherworldly awesomeness that cannot be explained in words. 

He died of cancer last Thursday, which totally stinks.  But his TV shows live on on television and DVD. 

In keeping with the car theme of this place, I decided to talk about some of my favorite Stephen J. Cannell shows in the context of the cars that were on them.  I'll bet you remember a few of these:

The Rockford Files (1974-1980). 

First of all, The Rockford Files wasn't a cheesy show.  If was well-written, perfectly cast, and convincingly acted.  I think it was one of the best, most quality detective dramas ever made.  Of course, I love the old Philip Marlowe type detective movies, and this show was sort of a 1970s update of that same premise.  James Garner played the part perfectly driving around in his new gold Firebirds.  When the series started, they were Esprits, but later, the Esprit emblems went away.  I've read that some of them were Formulas with different hoods, although that was probably on the Internet, and who knows.  And even though Rockford seemed to get new cars most of the time, the four headlight sunken into the urethane nose look came out in 1979, and the TV car never upgraded to that for the last two seasons.

The A-Team (1983-1987). 

I love how certain shows needed an unlikely vehicle based on the number of characters that had to use it.  There were four A-Team members, so they had to have something that would hold them all.  A windowless GMC cargo van doesn't seem too glamorous, but somehow they made this one an icon with some wide red wheels, fender flares, a spoiler, and a big stripe.  Of course, since they were running from the military throughout the whole show, this van wouldn't exactly be inconspicuous, and someone probably would have fingered Mr. T along the way when he went in to pick up his dry cleaning, but it was still cool, indulgent '80s fun.  And isn't that what mattered most?  I love it when a plan comes together.

Hunter (1984-1991). 

Fred Dryer's character went through lots of different cars throughout this series, but in the beginning, they had a running shtick about how the captains hated his rouge police procedure so bad that they saddled him with the worst cars in the motor pool.  Hunter often drove a '72 Impala coupe during those episodes.  The doors would stick, it wouldn't start sometimes, pieces fell out on the street, etc.  It was good stuff.  And if he couldn't catch the bad guys with his car, he'd just stand in the middle of the road and shoot at the perp as he sped towards him, usually resulting in the bad guy veering off into some parallel parked car, flipping a couple of times, and exploding.  Works for me.

Riptide  (1984-1986). 

These were sort of your typical California beach bums with their own private detective business.  Two of them were muscle-bound surfer types, and one of them was the '80s version of a computer nerd, complete with taped glasses and his own robot.  Oh, and they had a  pink Sikorsky S-58T helicopter with a face on it.  But their car wasn't an old Woody (although they did turn up sometimes).  Nope, it was a '60 Corvette with some bad flames and Cragar slotted mag wheels.  They chased with it and jumped it and drove through things with it.  It's not the kind of stuff most people would do with their old Vette.  And it was good.

Hardcastle & McCormick (1983-1986). 

This was a textbook Stephen J. Cannell show.  An ex-racecar driver gets busted for stealing his own car.  Then the curmudgeon judge sentences the brash young hot shoe to live with him and close unresolved cases that passed through his bench, all while tearing around California in the same car the guy was convicted of stealing.  Is this a realistic plot?  Eh, not so much.  But was it action-packed entertainment?  Oh, baby.  I remember not really liking the car at the time.  They called it the Coyote on the show, and it had an added soundtrack like a Ferrari.  I think it was supposed to be like a replica Porsche or something.  Whatever--it was some kind of bad Volkswagen-based kit car.  Brian Keith did use a '64 Corvette convertible in some of the earlier shows (in one of them he jumped it onto the beach, and the fiberglass busted apart all over the place).  Quality entertainment.  Now we're cookin'.

Stingray (1985). 

I remember this show pretty well, and thought it was around longer, but I guess it only lasted one season.  I'm surprised it still isn't with us, though.  I mean, it is such a good premise.  In sort of a creepy, Miami Vice setting, the mysterious "Ray" drove around doing favors for people, and expected favors in return.  And he did it in a black '65 Corvette coupe that had been upfitted with '80s-style sport mirrors and turbine wheels.  Nick Mancuso still lands significant roles in movies to this day, but he will always be remembered for his riveting performances in Stingray.

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