When I was a child my grandfather and I bonded over several things: Clint Eastwood films, James Bond and The Rockford Files. Some of my fondest memories I have of him are watching an episode of the latter whenever I would stay at my grandparents’ house. My grandfather loved the show. Even though he never verbalized it to me, I think he admired private investigator James Rockford (James Garner) as a stand-up kind of guy with the ability to talk his way out of almost any situation, often with a good sense of humor and played fair even when those that conspired against him did not. He was an honest man in a profession not known for it.
The show was created by producer Roy Huggins and writer Stephen J. Cannell, originally conceived of as being about a private investigator who only took on closed cases. Huggins assigned Cannell to write the script who then proceeded to tweak the clichés and conventions of the genre. Garner signed on to the project and NBC agreed to finance the pilot episode. The show ran the gamut of the crime genre as Rockford investigated murders, blackmail, missing persons, finding stolen money and so on.
Rockford is an ex-convict (wrongly convicted) turned private investigator who worked the Los Angeles area in his gold-colored Pontiac Firebird with his base of operations a mobile home located on the beach. He doesn’t even have a secretary – just an answering machine (immortalized in the opening credits) to take his messages. His father, Joe “Rocky” Rockford (Noah Beery) is a retired trucker who constantly gives his son grief over his profession. Detective Dennis Becker (Joe Santos) delights in giving him a hard time but helps out when he really needs it. Santos is an underappreciated character actor who was the ideal foil for Rockford as the street-smart cop. He is definitely set in the same mold as the frumpy Andy Sipowicz that Dennis Franz would later make popular on NYPD Blue.
“The Girl in the Bay City Boy’s Club,” showcases Rockford’s ability to recognize and deal with potential conflict as he sorts out someone doing a poor job of tailing him while also stopping at a nearby Jack in the Box for food. When it turns that the person following him is a potential client (Blair Brown), he confronts her. This episode features an early, memorable appearance by Evelyn “Angel” Martin (Stuart Margolin), a lovable ex-con cum con man that occasionally helps out Rockford when he’s not hitting him up for cash or getting him in trouble, much to his friend’s chagrin.
Like many shows, some of its most memorable episodes feature appearances by notable guest stars. Case in point: Isaac Hayes in “The Hammer of C Block.” He plays Gandy Fitch, an ex-convict and Rockford’s former cellmate. It seems that Fitch served 20 years for killing his wife but claims that he didn’t do it. Rockford owes him a favor and Gandy has come to collect, asking him to find the real killer. Hayes brings a gruff edginess to the role of a surly ex-con who keeps calling Jim, “Rockfish,” much to his chagrin. Hayes brings an authentic, tough guy swagger that plays well off of Garner’s laid-back nature.
Occasionally, Rockford would play hard to get if he felt a case could be solved by the police unless the money was right and the potential client made a compelling argument like in “The Real Easy Red Dog,” when a woman (Stefanie Powers) is convinced that her sister’s suicide is actually murder. Rockford would rather eat a sandwich he just prepared and watch a football game but she finally wears him down. The woman turns out to be a rival private investigator and her job offer is just a smoke screen. This puts him at odds with Lieutenant Diel (Tom Atkins), a gruff police officer with a thing for P.I.s, specifically Rockford. The playful banter between Rockford and his female counterpart is a joy to listen to with Garner and Powers looking like they’re having fun with it.
Garner brings a considerable amount of charm and leading man good looks to his role. He has a snarky sense of humor but knows when to play it serious when the situation warrants it. I like that Rockford solves cases through good ol’ fashion legwork – searching for clues, reading and questioning people and using his smarts to solve the case. The show is set up so that we figure things out along with him. We’re rooting for Rockford as we like him and that’s down to Garner’s amiable take on the private investigator. It’s easy to root for him as he’s the perpetual underdog, often at the mercy of dangerous and powerful crooks that have no qualms about hurting or punishing him, but he keeps plugging away, using common sense, intuition and his wits to survive.
The Rockford Files is also a fascinating snapshot of Los Angeles in the mid 1970s: drive-in diners on the beach, rotary style phones, big cars and so on. The show certainly wasn’t groundbreaking, adhering to the tried and true crime/mystery format but doing so in a very entertaining way with well-written scripts that are well-acted by the reliable cast. Watching an episode of The Rockford Files is the equivalent of reading a really good mystery novel, albeit condensed into one hour. It was a prime time hit with a strong six-year run, enjoying a cult following in the 1980s thanks to syndication and this led to a series of made-for-television movies from 1994-1999.
For me, there is something reassuring and almost comforting about watching The Rockford Files. It is like revisiting an old friend. There is a lot of enjoyment in watching Rockford’s noble pursuit of the truth over the course of a given episode with Garner’s genial take on the private investigator guiding us through his character’s various misadventures. Sometimes he won, sometime he didn’t but it was always enjoyable to see what kind of case he was mixed up in.