June 6, 2020


FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE ROCKFORD FILES--ALL OVER AGAIN: James Garner and 'The Rockford Files' didn't just humanize the TV private detective; for some, the show was a kind of guide to life. (NATHAN WARD, 6/04/20, Crime Reads)

To an eleven-year-old, Jim Rockford had a life I could happily imagine for my future self: He lived alone in a beaten green and white trailer on a promontory over a Malibu beach, where he spent much of his free time surfcasting, often with his dad, a semi-retired longhaul trucker known as Rocky, whose whole existence seemed to revolve around fishing with his adult son; when he worked, Jim Rockford charged clients an impressive-sounding "$200 a day plus expenses" for snooping around and he drove a cool gold Pontiac Firebird Esprit in which he outmaneuvered Mob wheelmen and hot-headed Feds. (The car chase thrived on 1970s TV the way the epic guitar solo dominated '70s rock.)

Over five and a half seasons, Jim Rockford would offer a number of life lessons: That you can gain entry to many social functions simply by wearing a blue sport coat or phony glasses; when impersonating salesmen, it's good to have a variety of drawling accents and bold hats; any business office can be accessed either with a set of quality lock picks or by double-talking the receptionist and showing fake business cards you can print in your car; in a high-speed chase, you can often outsmart goons with a cool reverse J-turn move they somehow never expect; sometimes you'll work for people you detest, so know how much you're willing to take; likewise, being a good listener is not only nice manners but also can be professionally useful. And finally, if you want the dream of a home office without paying a secretary, then rent an answering machine (rather new at the time).

The Rockford Files' opening sequence did not show the usual action shot, chalk corpse silhouette, or hero swirled in police lights but a pan of Jim's untidy desk laid with playing cards and a large standing photo of his dad, as the answering machine plays. Jim's messages famously began every episode, ensuring that fans of the show would be in their seats as it opened: "Hey Jim, this is Louie down at the fish market--you gonna pick up these halibut or what?"

Jim's style may be sardonic, but he can be decent to a fault, rare among world-weary sleuths, perhaps because his father Rocky believes the best of people. Rocky was appealingly played by Noah Beery, with his can-do 1940s cowboy demeanor. (If you have seen Red River he is part of the montage of cowhand faces howling to launch the famous cattle drive). Rocky is always telling his son to drive a rig (it's safer) or come up to the cabin to hunt and relax from the hazards of the investigator's life. Writer Stephen Cannell created Rocky thinking of his own father, who was puzzled by his strange choice of profession instead of joining the family business. There is scant evidence in the show that Jim ever had a mother; perhaps it would be too painful to talk about.

Rocky hopes Jim will get married and find a less dangerous line of work, but always helps him out when goons come to the trailer, which is often. (Rockford's trailer may be the most-tossed location in TV history.) After one close call, however, Rocky finally blows up: "I am through talking to you! Look at you, an inch or two to the right and you'd be missing that eye!"

"Yeah," answers Jim, "but look at it this way, an inch or two to the left and he'd have missed me completely." Rocky is not amused.

The Rockford Files seemed revolutionary in being so funny and still delivering a tense crime plot. It is hard now to appreciate the freshness of Jim Rockford's adventures against its era of old school police dramas and newer crime shows with smirky tag lines (Kojak's "Who loves Ya, baby?' or Baretta's "And dat's the name of dat tune"): One of the funnier Rockford episodes, "A Clean Bust with Sequel Rights," spoofs such shows, when Jim is hired by an insurance company to "babysit" a celebrity cop (Hector Elizondo) whose police exploits have become a bestseller, movie, TV show and kids' toy line. It pains Jim how his father is thrilled watching the TV detective shout, "Freeze, Turkey!" as he makes the bust. (In fact, Rockford Files began as an unused plot idea for another project of producer Roy Huggins, the short-lived Detective series Toma, which itself then morphed into Robert Blake's Baretta.)

Jim had none of the hard-drinking tough guy detective who needs to be saved from himself and he would not be caught walking around with Baretta's cockatoo on his shoulder, either. In the second season ("The Big Ripoff," Ep7) we get as close as we come to a Rockford code: Jill Clayburgh plays a young artist's model who rescues Jim after he's been badly beaten up. As he returns to his dangerous work, she asks, "Is there any thing you won't do for money?" "I won't kill for it," Rockford answers, "and I won't marry for it. Other than that, I'm open to just about anything." At the time The Rockford Files appeared, the closest thing to it was Harry O, whose private eye worked on his boat when not solving crimes. But Harry retained the gravitas of the police detective he once had been; Rockford's sense of justice comes from his serving five years for a robbery he didn't commit, before receiving a pardon and learning to become a PI. Still, I'm sure the ex-cop and ex-con could have gone fishing together in Harry's boat.

Not many CVs that can beat: Maverick, Rockford, Marlowe and The Great Escape.

Posted by at June 6, 2020 8:50 AM