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Cannell's experience gives "The Plan' flavor

Stephen J. Cannell seems blessedly free of the burden that most first novelists carry _ the burden of anonymity. The writer-producer of such popular TV series as The Rockford Files, Wiseguy and The Commish _ not to mention 21 Jump Street, Hunter, Riptide and The A-Team _ already has a name-recognition quotient that many novelists with four or five books behind them would envy. Cannell, who wrote his first TV script in 1966, for Adam 12, has written 350 episodes for the different series he's created, 50 of them for The Rockford Files alone.

But when I met up with Cannell in Chicago, on the first leg of his 12-city tour to promote The Plan (see review to the left), he was as edgy and elated as any first-time writer I've ever seen.

"This is a really exciting time for me," he says, with none of the reserve and ironic detachment that some writers affect. "This is a dream come true. It's been everything I hoped it would be."

Much of the flavor of The Plan comes from Cannell's behind-the-scenes knowledge of how TV and the media operate. But he seems most proud of the political side of the book, which he researched, much of it with Carter adviser Patrick Caddell, who told Cannell when he read the manuscript: "You're writing my nightmare."

Should we expect to see a miniseries of The Plan sometime between next year's New Hampshire primary and the 1996 Super Tuesday? Cannell admits there are some possibilities in the works, nothing he wants to discuss at the moment, but he makes clear that if he'd wanted to make a miniseries, he could easily have gone ahead and done it _ that for him, writing a novel was the satisfaction of a lifelong dream.

Cannell, who is severely dyslexic (he flunked English in high school and flunked out of two colleges) has been a strong advocate in promoting public awareness of what dyslexia is and how it acts as a reading disorder, rather than a measure of intelligence. He speaks freely of the challenges he's had to overcome, without rancor or any air of vindication over the fact that he's gone on to make a cool billion dollars.

One of the appealing traits of Cannell, in fact, is his almost total lack of bile, in an industry noted for its competitiveness and backbiting. You have to appreciate a guy who doesn't have a mean word to say about anybody, who's still married after 30 years to the woman he began dating in the eighth grade and who, after making oodles in TV, still carries the lifelong dream of writing a novel.

David Walton is a writer who lives in Pittsburgh.