Note: This article originally appeared in Crimespree Magazine in 2010.
I recently spent the winter weeks revisiting The Rockford Files.
It’s a little tough, now, to grasp what a radical, quirky show Rockford represented in the early 1970s.
James Garner was known to me: I’d recently seen him in Support Your Local Sheriff (an ABC “Movie of the Week” or the like). My mother had told me about Maverick — had nearly named me “Bret” after Garner’s character before opting for “Craig” Stevens of Peter Gunn fame.
Friday night, October 11, 1974: twisting channels (pre-remote days, don’t you know), I saw, “James Garner in…”
The first episode I caught was one called “Tall Woman in Red Wagon,” scripted by Stephen J. Cannell from a story by Roy Huggins.
Befitting the series title — but not typical of the show’s overall format — this episode was framed in flashback.
It opens with Jim Rockford digging up a grave — you wouldn’t catch Mannix, McGarrett or Cannon doing that.
In the course of the episode, we get Rockford’s déclassé digs — a house trailer with a million-dollar Malibu view. We meet his hectoring but loveable old man and we see that sweet tan Firebird (license #853-OKG).
We’re introduced to the slick mini-printing press Jim uses for cranking out on-the-spot business cards. We see a frustrated Rockford back his Pontiac into a suspected tail — at speed. Something else Barnaby Jones would never have the stones to do.
Requisite T.V.-P.I. closure?
Yes and no. From the get-go, Rockford didn’t toe the party line.
As the series evolved, we got a floating pool of recurring characters that gave weight and novelistic scope to Jim’s world.
The writing, featuring some early, brilliant work by David Chase, was sly, knowing and rarely risk averse.
The tone of the show deftly merged comedy and drama, suspense and parody and even some unexpected, powerfully mounted social commentary (season three’s “So Help Me God”) in a way precious few series have come close to matching.
Even the clunker episodes are never less than amiably watchable, and a couple of truly radical episodes are, in their strangeness, charmingly jaw-dropping.
Of the latter ilk, I personally favor “Irving the Explainer,” scripted by David Chase. It’s a wild concoction of art treasures stolen by the Nazis, a sinister German chiropractor, agents of the Sûreté, a vintage and sleazy 1940s-era Hollywood murder and two men who share the name Irving.
The result is a dizzyingly convoluted thicket of suspects, motives and crimes, so complex Rockford resorts to hiring a UCLA logic student to flow-chart the case.
About once a season, in a wink at Maverick, Garner would unleash the persona of cowboy-hat wearing tycoon Jimmy Joe Meeker (think Brett Maverick with a car). These episodes, perhaps attempting to cash-in on the early 1970s’ success of The Sting (which in turn plundered the classic Maverick episode “Shady Deal at Sunny Acres”), turned on big-store con games:
Jim sold natural gas rights back to crooked real estate agents and mounted a phony King Tut exhibit among other bunko schemes run in the name of (cockeyed) justice.
By the time The Rockford Files reached its fifth and final full-season, the show was arguably at the top of its game.
Of course it had to end sometime.
Rockford’s end was more bittersweet than most.
A frankly uneven sixth season was suspended abruptly when its star’s health collapsed.
Garner — an intensely loyal man — had exacted a heavy toll on an already beaten-up body by increasingly doing many of his own stunts, partly it was reported, to spare his longtime and ailing stunt double.
When Garner’s illness lingered, NBC cancelled the series, and, in time, studio suits and Garner found themselves in litigation over accounting practices. (Legal entanglements with studios is a kind of running motif in Garner’s career: He also wound up in legal battles decades earlier regarding matters related to Maverick.)
The series went into heavy syndication…remained a fond memory.
In the 1990s, quite unexpectedly, the first of what would prove to be eight Rockford Files reunion movies debuted. The first four of these are now available on DVD.
Although a couple of the films feel slightly padded to fill their running time, for the most, the movies work extremely well. The chemistry is still there among the key players (although Noah Beery, Jr.’s “Joseph ‘Rocky’ Rockford” is sorely missed).
Returning writers Cannell, Chase and Juanita Bartlett used the movies to pick up dangling threads from the series and round out some story arcs lingering from the old days, bringing back, among others, Rita Moreno’s Rita Kapkovic and Rockford’s memorable ex-flame Megan Dougherty, played by Kathryn Harrold.
In the purest sense, the movies are a gift to longtime Rockford fans left frustrated by the series’ sad and jagged end.
While the movie cycle also didn’t end definitively — the last movie sat on the shelf for nearly two years before finally being aired — it was, on balance, a strong note to end on. It felt, for the most part, some capstone had been fit.
Everything, it seems, gets (or receives talk of) a remake.
Eventually, someone had the audacity to suggest a Rockford relaunch.
Lord knows, from Doctor Who to the latest Star Trek film, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by many a reboot.
But the idea of a wholly new Rockford goes down hard and thick.
If somebody want to mount some homage and slap a different name on the title character, well, go for it, I suppose.
But the personas of Jim Garner and Jim Rockford are too inextricably bound for any passing of the baton. (Granted, the same might have been said of Maverick’s leap to film, but Garner was very much a player in that one, and, from a character standpoint, could easily have been playing the Bret Maverick we recalled from the original).
Some things just shouldn’t be done (take shot-for-shot remakes of Psycho, for instance).
At this writing, it looks like NBC is plunging ahead with this mad scheme; I’m crossing my fingers the situation reverses and saner heads prevail.
Why spoil a wonderful memory?