Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Rockford Files

As a kid I loved "The Rockford Files." Although at the time some of it may have been over my head, it really showed me that every Private Eye doesn't need to be Sam Spade. And Spade, another of my favorite characters, could never be Jim Rockford. It started out as a modernized version of "Maverick" the witty western con man, whose conscience always got in the way of his big scores. Jim Rockford certainly had Brett Maverick's traits, but in the Rockford Files his character and relationships were deeper.

Unlike most TV P.I.s Jim Rockford would do his best to stay out of fights. He had no interest in antagonizing the Police Department, insisting on only working closed cases, to minimize the chance of ruffling feathers. He tried to present himself as something of a mercenary, always making sure his pay was addressed up front, but his pay day would often get disrupted by his soft spot for people in trouble. While generally a law abiding citizen, Jim spent five years in San Quentin prison for a crime he didn't commit. Although, eventually pardoned, he's still seen as an "ex-con" by many, including the police department, and even himself. This experience gave him many connections in the criminal community, most of which turned into friendships.

While he has a strong sense of right and wrong, he doesn't judge people bending the rules, except in cases where the risk is a foolish one likely to bring trouble (see Angel Martin) Rockford also served in Korea, coming home with a silver star. He seems quite content being a bachelor, although his attention is easily taken by pretty girls. He has no trouble meeting women, but never manages a long term relationship.

Jim Rockford isn't preoccupied with status or appearances, using his beach side trailer as both home and office. Aside from phone book ads, he's typically found there by his clients who often catch him in the middle of whatever he's doing, whether washing fish or watching television.

He does enjoy driving, and his car, a Pontiac Firebird Esprit. His driving skills often play a big part in episodes as chase scenes always come up. He so often used his trademark move the J-Turn (a shift into reverse, speeding up backwards in a straight line and sharply turning his wheels, spinning the car 180 degrees before shifting back into drive) that the maneuver has become known as a "Rockford"

Jim would much rather solve cases with trickery and conversation than by busting heads. He often resorts to disguises to get past gate keepers to reach those he needs to talk to. His disguises are helped along by a portable printing press he keeps in his car along with blank business cards to suit whatever alias he creates. On rare occasions he has a gun which he'll bring along for protection, but does everything he can to avoid it. While he's eager to stay out of physical confrontations, when pushed too far he can certainly take or throw a good punch.

We learn the most about Jim Rockford from his relationships. His father, Rocky (Noah Beery, Jr.) was a regular fixture on the show. He always disapproved of Jim's choice of profession, but regardless they were very close, as much best friends as father and son. Anytime Jim got into a bad situation, Rocky would be there to urge him to get a different kind of job, hopefully as a truck driver. Of course Jim wasn't interested in hearing that, but that didn't keep him from looking out for Rocky, or spending the day out fishing with him.  One thing they don't talk about is Jim's mother, who we assume passed away some time ago. But, as much as Rocky doesn't like Jim's profession, he's willing to help when Jim needs it, and when he or someone he knows is in trouble, he doesn't hesitate to turn to Jim and his talents for help.

His friend Det. Dennis Becker (Joe Santos) also made frequent appearances. When Jim couldn't find some information on his own Dennis was his go to guy.  Their relationship was antagonistic at times since Becker's superiors didn't like PI's in general, and Jim (the ex con) specifically. Despite the fact that it slowed his career down, Becker could always be counted on in a pinch. although he insisted on going "by the book" even if that Jim's situation more difficult. 

Jim also had a close relationship with Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett,) his lawyer and sometime girlfriend. She had a habit of bringing him into cases which classified as good deeds perhaps, but didn't pay. Despite their on and off romantic relationship, they remained close friends and she got him out of jail a good number of times.

And then there was Angel Martin (Stuart Margolin) Jim's former cellmate. Angel always appeared with a new scheme that Jim saw immediately as a bad idea and Angel needed help getting out of. Angel was a natural coward and couldn't stand up to pressure of any kind, even implicating Jim in events he had nothing to do with, if it meant escaping punishment himself. Rockford knew that Angel was more trouble than he was worth, yet always helped him out of trouble. They would argue endlessly and although Angel never listened to reason, there was never any doubt about their friendship.

Jim Rockford became one of the most memorable TV characters, thanks to Garner's unmistakable presence, and Stephen Cannell's writing. Cannell kept Rockford a P.I., but changed all the expected trappings. Rockford didn't care about having his name etched in a glass door, and his answering machine was his secretary. He didn't need a fancy suit, he'd just throw on a jacket to look presentable. While he crossed paths with the shady underworld just like every detective before him, he'd likely leave his gun at home to avoid the chance of using it. He didn't look for fights, but when he couldn't avoid one, he could handle himself. It was fairly likely though, that he'd hurt his own hand as much as someone else's jaw.

He'd often have second thoughts about cases especially when they put him or others in danger, but he'd still see them through to the end. It just wasn't in Rockford's character to abandon anyone who need him. While Rockford was smart and had some serious skill, he wasn't a genius detective, and very often cracking the case was just a matter of knocking on the right doors, usually the ones that were off limits. He was the most relatable detective there was, and the most human. I enjoyed watching his relationships with others as much as his crime solving skills.

Despite his attempts to appear like he was all about getting paid, Rockford genuinely cared what happened to people. And while it would have been easy to portray him brooding over the injustice of his life, including five years in prison for something he didn't do, he  instead chose a sense of humor and a very real optimism. Rockford seemed to think that if you took the right case, and did the work, it would all work out, and for him it usually did. It probably helped that the things he wanted were simple, like fishing, a date, or hanging out on the beach.

As with "Maverick," "The Rockford Files" was all about James Garner. Watching him play Rockford, it's difficult to separate the two, since he did such a wonderful job, making Rockford a real person, bolstered by an amazing supporting cast. There may be better detectives on Television, but none of them make me smile like Rockford did. The second I hear the theme song, I'm already firmly invested a world where a guy like Jim Rockford can manage every complication that life and his cases throw at him and still keep his decency while getting the job done, where people can argue and disagree all day without questioning their importance to each other. Garner, Cannell, and everyone involved did something truly magical here, combining just the right amounts of humor, excitement and character to make a one of a kind show that I enjoy know every bit as much as when I first discovered it.


le0pard13 said...

A TV series that only stands taller as the years pass. Like there is only one James Garner, there is only one Jim Rockford. Long live both.

INDBrent said...

Absolutely! It only gets better over time. Guys like Garner and Rockford are only come along once, but it's great the series is available to everyone.

Unknown said...

What a wonderful tribute to one of THE best TV shows ever. I will always have a soft spot for THE ROCKFORD FILES as it was one of my grandfathers most fave shows and I have many fond memories of watching them at a young age, not really knowing what was going on some of the time, but appreciating it all the same. Of course, as I grew up I really began to appreciate the show on a deeper level. James Garner is one of the greats. He brought an affability to the role, but also wasn't afraid to get rough if the situation demanded it.

INDBrent said...

Thanks, J.D.! WHen I first watched it I'm sure it was over my head, I definitely wasn't the target age demographic. yes, Mr. Garner was one of a kind.

Unknown said...

God i used to watch this show with my grandpa along with Mannix, Hart to Hart, Starsky and Hutch, Columbo, Baretta, Matt Houston, Ironsides, McCloud and Vegas. I did love Jim Rockford, but not as much as Dan Tanna.

Sol Ta Triane said...

Nice writing here. I also didn't get it in my youth. I'm 59 and watched 50 shows. Good stuff, fun, intelligent lighthearted. Sure, every show isn't great but most are very good and have surprising elements. Garner is always gregarious. Enjoy with your wife, friends, or alone. It's certainly better that that new tripe you are struggling to consume. Cool, relaxed.