September 09, 1996 12:00 PM

HE HAS NEVER PACKED A PIECE OR busted a bad guy, but Stephen Cannell—the man who created Rockford, Baretta and more than 30 other hard-boiled, softhearted TV heroes—is still one tough cookie.

“Stephen’s been able to overcome a lot of things that would send many people spinning out of control,” says Brandon Tartikoff, former chairman of New World Entertainment, a subsidiary of the corporation that last year purchased Cannell’s production company for $30 million. Cannell is dyslexic, but that didn’t stop him from releasing his second novel—Final Victim, about the search for a serial killer—in July and then collecting a cool $1 million for the movie rights.

“There were people who didn’t think I could do this,” says Cannell, 55, who repeated second grade because of his learning disorder, which makes it hard to read. “I went to a class reunion a few years ago, and an English teacher who flunked me because I couldn’t spell came up to me and said, ‘It really baffles me that you make your living as a writer.’ ”

Yet if dyslexia has been bothersome baggage for Cannell to carry in his life, he has also shouldered more crushing burdens. In 1981 his 15-year-old son, Derek, was buried alive when an enormous sand fort he was building on a California beach suddenly collapsed on him. “I can’t explain how horrible it was for us,” Cannell says of himself and his wife, Marcia, 54. “The darkness of it, the sense of complete loss, was overwhelming.” Cannell’s friends didn’t forget him. “The day after it happened, there were 100 people at our house,” he says. “People I’d known in high school, people from the network, people from my shows. They’d come to hold onto us.”

“Stephen was very brave throughout the whole ordeal,” says James Garner, star of Cannell’s The Rockford Files from 1974 to 1980 and a close friend. “He was stronger than the rest of us.” Through the support he received, Cannell says, “I learned how to be a better friend—how not to let my little TV pilot or whatever I’m working on be so important that I forget to be there for friends and family.” After the loss, Cannell vowed to spend more time with his wife and daughter Tawnia, then 13. (Two more children, Chelsea and Cody, now 14 and 13, were born after Derek’s death.) He hasn’t backslid over the years; he tries to get to his Pasadena home by 6:30 every night. “And when he gets home,” says Marcia, “it’s family time.

Ironically, concern for his family is what led Cannell to the discovery of his dyslexia in 1981. He had noticed that his daughter Tawnia, then in the sixth grade, was having the same difficulties he had experienced. After she was tested and diagnosed as dyslexic, Cannell took the same test, and the results revealed his affliction. He still has trouble with numbers and directions, but he has learned how to get through busy workdays. “I put blinders on and focus myself,” he says, “and let a little bit of information in until I’ve finally absorbed everything.”

Perseverance has always been part of Cannell’s character. Raised in a posh section of Pasadena, Calif., the second child of Joseph Cannell, a successful interior designer, and Carolyn, a homemaker, he struggled through grade school and high school and made it into the University of Oregon only on a football scholarship. “I was told from first grade on that I was the stupidest kid in the class,” he says. “I was trying to do well, but the teachers thought I wasn’t.”

Still, Cannell gutted it out, avoiding classes that would penalize him for poor spelling. One such course, creative writing, changed his life when Cannell discovered he had a talent for crafting stories and dialogue. “Writing is what got him through college,” says Marcia, who met Cannell in the eighth grade and married him in 1964. “He learned he was really good at it.” After graduating, he worked as a gofer for a local TV game show and tried interior designing, but he put most of his energy into writing scripts with a friend. Cannell’s first solo sale—a 1968 script for Adam-12, written in two days—so impressed producers that they made him the show’s head writer.

After his first hit series, The Rock-ford Files, won an Emmy in 1978, he started his own company and produced dozens of shows—each, like Hunter and Wiseguy, featuring his signature mix of gumshoe action and wisecracking humor. Now at work on his third novel, Cannell is the executive producer of three TV shows currently on the air—Renegade, Silk Stalkings and Two—and has several more in the works. So prolific is the man who flunked second grade that a graduate student recently sent him his thesis. The subject? Cannell’s career. “He said everything I’ve done was rehashed elements of the same things presented in a different light,” chuckles Cannell, not one to let criticism bring him down. “But the only thing I do over and over is the David and Goliath story. I always like writing about the underdog.”

ALEX TRESNIOWSKI

CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Pasadena

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