The Rockford Files: Season 1
February 23, 2006
I have fond memories of watching The Rockford Files as a child 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 Jim Rockford (Garner) as a stand-up kind of guy who always got the job done and played fair even when those who conspired against him did not. He was an honest man in a profession not known for its honesty.
The show was created by producer Roy Huggins and writer Stephen J. Cannell and was 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 cliches and conventions of the genre. Actor James Garner signed on to the project and NBC agreed to finance the pilot episode.
Rockford is an ex-convict (wrongly convicted) turned private investigator who worked the Los Angeles area in his gold-coloured Pontiac Firebird and 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 (Beery) is a retired trucker who constantly gives his son grief over his profession. Detective Dennis Becker (Santos) delights in giving him a hard time but helps out when he really needs it. The show ran the gamut of the crime genre as Rockford investigated murders, blackmail, missing persons, find stolen money and so on.
The first episode has Rockford investigating the Kirkoff killings – a son (James Woods) is accused of killing his parents so he hires Rockford to find out who really did it. James Woods plays the role with his usual oily charm and Abe Vigoda is a tough-talking labour leader who is linked to the murder. We soon find out that Rockford is a lousy fighter, getting beat-up three times in the first episode alone.
Garner brings a considerable amount of charm and leading man good looks to his role. He has a snarky sense of humour but knows when to play it serious when the situation warrants it. Joe Santos is an underappreciated character actor who is 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 Rockford Files is a nice snapshot of L.A. in the mid ‘70s: 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 ‘80s thanks to syndication and this led to a series of made-for-TV movies in the ‘90s.
The only extra is a new eight minute “James Garner On-Camera Interview” where he talks about the appeal of his character. Rockford wasn’t a perfect guy but likable. The network didn’t like the humour but for Garner it was a crucial ingredient. The veteran actor did all of his own driving stunts and even hand-picked his Pontiac Firebird.
Universal has failed to include the original 90-minute pilot that aired in March 1974 which is a disappointment for fans of the show and the only blemish on an otherwise fine set.