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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Rockford Files

(James Garner as Jim Rockford)

One of the best shows ever to run on TV was The Rockford Files, which lasted from 1974 to 1980. The show has been in syndication ever since. I've watched a number of episodes recently (you can see them on

The show starred James Garner as private eye Jim Rockford. Rockford was a departure from previous television heroes in that he would lose half the fistfights he got into, and was also a self-professed coward. All previous private eyes had essentially been superheroes. Garner was perfect for the role, exuding a regular guy-ness which was refreshing in that era.

Almost every show had a designated turkey, usually Rockford's friend or client, as well as a villain. The turkey -- often Angel Martin, played by Stuart Margolin with consummate sliminess -- was there to give Rockford a foil, as well as someone to rescue.

The Rockford Files ended mid-season in 1980, not because of sagging ratings, but because Garner's various injuries were causing him too much pain. (Garner did most of his own stunts.) There hadn't been any studio-related contractual dispute, either, as it was Garner's company, Cherokee Productions, which produced the show. (Garner is one quarter Cherokee.)

Watching the show now, the frequent car chase scenes seem curiously anachronistic. (Garner had raced cars when he was younger, and must have encouraged the inclusion of such scenes.) Rockford is a little too good to be true, though that's forgivable for a TV hero, and Rocky (his father) is a bit too cornpone. And the plots don't always make perfect sense.

But the shows are still worth watching, both for the dialogue and the humor.

Much of the humor is set up by each show's designated turkey. In one episode, Rockford is trying to help a young lady who is being scammed by a corrupt "guru" who is in fact only interested in her money. When Rockford asks her a specific question regarding her situation, she airily replies, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" (This was a popular pseudo-mystical, Zen-derived expression of the era.) Later on, when the guru's scheme unravels and the girl provokes him, he slaps her. Rockford witnesses this, then informs her, "That was the sound of one hand clapping."

One of the funniest episodes revolved around Rockford's unwilling partnership with another private eye, Lance White, played by Tom Selleck (soon to become famous as Magnum PI). White is adored by all the characters Rockford is despised by, including the police lieutenant Rockford regularly locks horns with. White is also impossibly idealistic and naive -- but turns out to always be right, against all odds. In one scene when he and Rockford are held captive by an aging, legendary criminal kingpin (who has just been rejected for asylum in Israel), White high-mindedly informs the man, "You should know by now -- crime doesn't pay." (Of course, it has for this kingpin, and spectacularly so.) Both the kingpin and Rockford roll their eyes at this. But of course, White is able -- through a very lucky set of circumstances -- to bring the man to justice. And Rockford, though he saves White on several occasions, ends up looking like White's ineffectual sidekick.

Unfortunately, this episode is not available on Hulu, but many others, all worth watching, are.


Anonymous said...

I always enjoyed this show, glad to hear it has your 'thumbs up'. And that gold Firebird was cool.

- Ed

John Craig said...

Thank you Ed. I've thought about it a little further, I think part of the reason people like the show so much is because there's just something very reassuring about a guy -- like Rockford -- who always reacts with common sense, no matter how crazy the people around him.