Created By Roy Huggins And Stephen J. Cannell
"This is Jim Rockford. At the tone, leave your name and number. I'll get back to you..."
So began each weekly episode of The Rockford Files, certainly the best private eye series to ever grace the television screen, and arguably one of the greatest private eyes of all time. In fact, by the time CBS was promoting one of the made-for-television movies, ol' Jimbo was being called "America's favorite private eye." Not bad for a guy who would probably still rather go fishing.
Mind you, having the lead played by handsome, affable James Garner, one of America's most beloved film and television actors -- and actually building the character around him -- certainly didn't hurt in initially attracting viewers.
Just as co-creator Roy Huggins fooled around with the conventions of the western genre in his classic TV series Maverick (which also starred Garner), so did he wreak havoc on the P.I. genre with The Rockford Files Where other gumshoes were courageous loners fighting for justice and honour, obsessed with discovering the truth, JIM ROCKFORD was a semi-cowardly con artist with a gift for gab who would rather go fishing. And he was always being nagged by his father to get a real job.
This was no slick TV private eye.
He kept his gun in a cookie jar ("I don't shoot it, I just point it"), and a small press in the backseat of his car to print instant business cards to go with his numerous aliases and scams. He lived in a house trailer on the beach, first at 2354 Pacific Coast Highway in LA, and later at 29 Cove Road in Malibu (and thus set the precedent for "cute' living arrangements for TV eyes -- blame Rockford for Magnum's mansion and Spenser's firehouse). He was a Korean War vet who'd served five years of a twenty year sentence at San Quentin, before the discovery of new evidence earned him a full pardon. Upon his release, he set up shop as a P.I., originally only taking cases the police had given up on.
But what really set Rockford apart was his large circle of friends and associates, each as finely etched and endearing as Rockford was. They weren't a bunch of only-on-television self-consciously quirky "types" -- they were real people whose eccentricities were an offshoot of their characters, not a add-on dreamed up by a committee.
Of course, there was his dad, Rocky (played by Noah Berry, Jr.) , a crusty, cranky semi-retired trucker, always worrying. The warm relationship between father and son was one of the foundations of the show, and has become a running theme through many of Cannell's later series.
Jim's lawyer, and on again/off again love interest Beth Davenport appeared for the first four seasons, offering Jim advice and, often, cases he would have run screaming from had she not been there to cajole him.
Constantly beleagured LAPD Sergeant (later Lieutenant) Dennis Becker was the mandatory police contact, but his friendship with Jim was more than a token, never-seen allusion. There was no doubt they were friends, arguing, fighting, but ultimately true pals. Actor Joe Santos has since appeared in about a million movies and TV shows, almost always as a cop, it seems.
And then there's Angel, Jim's former cellmate, always on the con, constantly scheming, looking for the perpetual big score which inevitably blows up in his face, played to weasel-like perfection by Stuart Margolin. Cowardly (he makes Jim look like Hercules), venal, selfish, without any redeeming qualities to speak of except, perhaps, his overpowering drive to survive, a suckerfish trying to swim with the sharks, Jim nonetheless remains loyal to him throughout the series. Margolin, a talented actor/director, lurked around Hollywood for a few years after the show wrapped, but after eventually pulled up stakes and moved to British Columbia, where he went on to star in another memorable -- if far less successful -- private eye series, the CBC's Mom P.I..
But Angel wasn't the only friend Rockford remained loyal to throughout the series: Isaac Hayes, for example, appeared three times as tough-talking and hot-tempered Gandolph Fitch, the one-time "Hammer of C Block," who never could get Rockford's name right; John, former outlaw biker turned criminal lawyer, who replaced Beth as Jim's lawyer and Meghan, a blind psychologist, fiercely independant and, it seemed for a while, Jim's one true love.
Another notable recurring guest was streetwise hooker Rita Capkovic, determine to go straight, who came to Rockford for help three times. Actress Rita Moreno won an Emmy for the character's first appearance, "The Paper Palace" (Jan. 20, 1978).
As well, a goodly number of fellow private eyes, each one of them stranger than the last, kept crossing Rockford's path. As Maverick had done for the classic western, The Rockford Files regularly turned and twisted the conventions of the P.I. story back upon themselves to point up some of the absurdities behind the genre's assumptions. These guest investigators were ideal for just that purpose.
The most prominent of this bunch was Richie Brockelman, played by Dennis Dugan. Brockelman was an eager novice investigator and the character actually took over the Rockford time slot for his own five-episode series in the spring of 1978. That show wasn't strictly a spin-off, however, since Richie was first introduced in a 1976 two-hour movie. His first appearance on The Rockford Files a few years later, "The House on Willis Avenue" (February 24, 1978), was primarily intended to build an audience for the Richie Brockelman, Private Eye series. Obviously, that didn't work out, but Brockelman returned for a second appearance, "Never Send a Boy King To Do a Man's Job" (March 3, 1979).
But the most memorable P.I. to visit the show was undoubtedly Lance White, the rich, elegant, and flawless male model private eye; the walking cliche who drove Rockford crazy. White debuted in "White on White and Nearly Perfect" (Oct. 20, 1978) and made a comeback in "Nice Guys Finish Dead" (Nov. 16, 1979). This latter took place at a private eyes' awards dinner, and is a real hoot. The relatively unknown actor who did such a fine comic turn as White proved to have a future in the TV P.I. business-- his name was Tom Selleck. He starred in Magnum P.I., a show that owed more than a little to The Rockford Files, although it's always seemed to me that Thomas Magnum was essentially Lance White with the wink whited out.
The Rockford Files wasn't perfect, mind you. The plots often centered around intricate conspiracies and were often just too damned convoluted and confusing to be satisfactorily resolved within an hour-long TV program, resulting in some occasionally jaw-dropping, head-spinning wrap-ups. And other shows were padded out by a few too many car chases. Still, it should be said that even the occasional wham-bam endings and car chases were typically clever and well-done, a definite cut above the rest. And hey, it's better to reach high and fail than to succeed at being mediocre, and if James Garner liked cars and wanted car chases, well, that seemed like a small price to pay in exchange for arguably the best private eye series to ever air.
And, despite the great cast, a lot of the show's success boiled down to the writing. Huggins and Cannell set the pace, but they assembled a fine pool of writers, with input from some serious outliers.
THE RETURN OF ROCKFORD
In 1995, CBS brought back Rockford in a string of eight made-for-television movies that managed to capture much of the charm, if not the energy, of the original series. Alas, Noah Beery Jr., who played Jim's caring, overly-protective truck-driver dad, Rocky, was missing, having passed away before production began. In fact, the first, 1994's I Still Love L.A., was dedicated to his memory, a decidedly classy touch.
Then again, Rockford always had his priorities straight. The simple pleasures of friendship and family were what he has always been about. Oh and a little fishing.
By the time Rockford these films were made, Garner was getting a tad long in the tooth. But, to their credit, the writers and directors never let us forget it his age or his limitations. In each of the films, the passage of time became a major plot hook. The past always came calling, usually in the guise of old pals in trouble, and Rockford, with an exasperated sigh, a grimace and a grunt, would once more try to help them out.
This was honest television, done with sensitivity and style; not some cranked-out soulless movie-of-the-week rehash of some old show, bearing view traces of the original.
But with so many great actors reprising their original roles and so many loose ends from the original series being tied up, there was a warm sense of homecoming and continuity about the whole affair. Over the course of the films, we caught up with most of the old crew: Dennis, Rita, Beth, and of course, Angel. No surprise, I guess: loyalty means something to Rockford. And, by all accounts, Garner himself.
The Rockford movies may also have been the first time we've seen an elderly version of a private eye we already knew and loved. Fortunately, our memories of the original show were treated with dignity and respect, a true rarity when it comes to TV "revivals." A true class act.
In 1996, perhaps inspired the the TV movies, Forge published The Green Bottle, an original Rockford novel, set in the nineties, by Stuart Kaminsky, author of the Toby Peters series. Kaminsky pulled it off admirably, allowing us to get into Jim's head, through first person narration. Turns out Rockford is as appealing a character on the inside, cranky but easy-going, as he is on the outside. A follow-up novel, Devil On My Doorstep, was released in 1998.
There were eight movies in all, but they never quite caught the public's attention the way the original series, by then in heavy rotation through syndication, was. The last one aired in 1999.
Since then, there have been several attempts to revive the series, as either a television series or as a feature film. A proposed pilot starring Dermot Mulroney was rejected by NBC in 2010, and plans for a film version starring Vince Vaughan a few years later seem to have been scrapped. Reactions to the announcement of both projects were far from enthusiastic.
As would be expected. The Rockford Files was a perfect storm of acting, directing and writing; an astounding and rare blend of warmth, humour, wit and intelligence that celebrated decency and loyalty. Trashing people's memories for a quick buck just doesn't seem like something Rockford would be involved in.
* * * * *
Roy Huggins also created private eye Stuart Bailey, whom he later adapted for television in 77 Sunset Strip. His protege, Stephen J. Cannell went on to create/produce Tenspeed and Brownshoe, Sonny Spoon, City of Angels, 21 Jump Street, Riptide, Hardcastle and McCormick, etc., etc., etc.
FROM THE PEANUT GALLERY
-- Craig McDonald on any potential remake, in Remembering Rockford.
-- Jim to thug, a line he lifted from Marlowe, the film he starred in based on Chandler's The Little Sister.
-- Jim in "The Kirkoff Case"
-- Vern St. Cloud in "Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, but Waterbury Will Bury You"
-- Jim on growing old, in "Quickie Nirvana"
-- "Find Me If You Can"
The first of several TV movies was dedicated to the memory of Noah Beery Junior, who passed away shortly before the show was aired. Good use of recent events in LA as we follow Jim through the "missing years" as he gets married, gets unmarried, loses his father, and finally decides to pack it all in, sell the trailer, and leave LA. But nasty things keep happening, like earthquakes, the L.A. riots of '92 and the devastating brush fires in '93 and murder. Well done, as much a tribute as an update, and both long overdue.
Jim protects the star of a film being boycotted by Angel's TV ministry.
It's homecoming week, as Jimbo rides again, and we catch up with the rest of the cast. Beth is now a famous writer, married, sporting a new do, and no longer practising law. But she makes an exception when Jim is set up on a murder rap. Angel is still scamming, and cops, well, no one's ever figured out a way to get rid of them. Dennis, Chapman and Diehl all show up. A little longer in the tooth, maybe, but all these characters are treated with the dignity they deserve. And once again tribute is paid to Rocky's memory. And for once, it looks like Jim may have found a lady friend, in the form of Dyan Cannon, who seems to have ageless legs, playing an old friend of Rocky's. A class act. Too bad the plot fizzes out at the end, but when it's rolling, it's one of the best reunion TVMs I've ever seen.
Jim's godson, Scotty Becker (Dennis' son), after screwing around and screwing up most of his life, gets tangled up in the murder of a fashion designer. Starring the usual, plus Joyce van Patten and Damian Chapa (as Scotty).
Also starring Stuart Margolin, Gretchen Corbett, Joe Santos, James Luisi, Marcia Strassman, David Proval, Wendy Phillips, James Luisi, Molly Hagan, Ivan Serei
Russian gangsters and the return of Megan! Katherine Harrold returns as Megan Dougherty, the blind therapist Jim had a major thing with. (See "Black Mirror" and "Love is the Word") Also a rather vicious (for Rockford) torture scene.
Jim gets tricked into investigating a couple of crooked cops by an ex-cellmate (John Amos) while Angel tries to get a film made of Jim's life.
A close friend of Rockford bears an uncanny resemblance to a sought rapist.
A real fan's book, done by a real fan.
Features a collection of answering machine messages left on Rockford's machine, and much much more about what many consider the genre's best show.
A new edition of Robertson's already-definitive Rockford book, "This is Jim Rockford...", with a lot more information. The book, subtitled "An inside look at America's greatest detective series," now runs close to 500 pages, more than twice as long as the previous edition.
For a generation, James Garner's Jim Rockford has been THE TV private eye: tough, shrewd, principled and ready to stand up when it's the right thing to do. Much like Garner himself. An illuminating autobiography, and oh the stories he tells. Like Garner says, "Something funny happens as you get older -- you don't hold back so much."
Author Craig McDonald reminisces about Rockford... and James Garner.
My own impulsive tribute to one of the genre's MVPs.
A few answering machine messages to whet your appetite...
Clive James pays tribute to James Garner, the man and the actor. He takes a few too many swipes at Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood, but James' affection and admiration for Garner comes shining through. From the December 2012 issue of The Atlantic.
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