“The Rockford Files” always opened with a phone message for knockabout private detective Jim Rockford – offering a bitter mouthful from bill collectors, bookies, the IRS, repo men, ex-girlfriends, long lost relatives he would have preferred to stay lost and thugs spewing bodily threats (“Hey, Rockford. Very funny. I ain’t laughing. You’re gonna get yours.”).
Rockford’s bad news signaled the start of great news for fans of the NBC 1974-to-1980 Friday night staple, setting the (dial) tone for another turn – filled with 180-degree hairpin turns in his battered Firebird – by the sardonic private eye who absorbed more than his share of black eyes, physically and otherwise (though mostly physically).
From “Maverick” to “The Great Escape” to “Victor/Victoria” to his Polaroid commercials with Mariette Hartley, James Garner connected with audiences by exuding rugged charm and a put-upon Everyman persona during a remarkable six-decade TV and movie career. But Garner, who died
Saturday at age 86, will be best remembered for giving us Jim Rockford, a relatable lug of an anti-hero for his time – and all time.
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“The Rockford Files” debuted 40 years ago this September, barley a month after Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign from office amid a breach of faith. Trustworthy characters also were nowhere to be found on “The Rockford Files,” where the major suspense would revolve around who would get in the first sucker punch or betrayal.
For all the show’s car chases, Rockford biggest race was to keep one con ahead of his foes or even his often deceitful clients. The (wrongly convicted) ex-jailbird knew the game and played it – Rockford wasn’t above breaking and entering, or impersonation – though usually not particularly well.
Rockford, who lived in a ramshackle Malibu trailer that seemed to get ransacked by goons at least once an episode, eluded glamour far better than he did the legions after a piece of the $200 a day (plus expenses) that clients rarely bothered to pay him.
The most reliable part of Rockford’s’ world was his (mostly) unreliable friends, whose names he would spout in two syllables of exasperation. There was the endearingly sleazy conman Angel (Stuart Margolin), and Dennis (Joe Santos), the cranky police sergeant with a reluctant symbiotic relationship with Rockford. There were memorable guest appearances by Rockford’s tough ex-cellmate Gandy (Isaac Hayes), who endlessly annoyed him by calling him “Rockfish,” and ex-prostitute and spirited Rockford pal Rita Capkovic (Rita Moreno in her Emmy-winning role). Rockford’s tough and loyal, if befuddled and trouble-prone dad Rocky (Noah Beery Jr.) provided the closest thing to stability in his life.
“The Rockford Files” debuted in a TV season packed with more than 20 cop or detective shows, ranging from “Baretta” to “Barnaby Jones.” Save for the sitcom “Barney Miller,” Garner’s program emerged as the only one primarily fueled by a comic sensibility. “Rockford” co-creator Stephen J. Cannell would go on to produce other successful shows combining action and humor, most notably “The A Team” and “The Greatest American Hero.” But “Rockford” remains the best and most durable of the prolific TV powerhouse’s creations.
Chalk that up to the talent of James Garner, an actor who turned his likeable character's flaws into strengths. Some viewers wanted to be Jim Rockford, while others would have been satisfied to be his friend – someone whose messages the detective might actually have returned.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.