ROCKFORD FILES, THE

U.S. Detective Drama

The Rockford Files is generally regarded (along with Harry O) as one of the finest private eye series of the 1970s, and indeed of all time, consistently ranked at or near the top in polls of viewers, critics, and mystery writers. The series offered superbly-plotted mysteries, with the requisite amounts of action, yet it was also something of a revisionist take on the hard-boiled detective genre, grounded more in character than crime, and infused with humor and realistic relationships. Driven by brilliant writing, an ensemble of winning characters, and the charm of its star, James Garner, the series went from prime-time Nielsen hit in the seventies, to a syndication staple with a loyal cult following in the eighties, spawning a series of made-for-TV movie sequels beginning in 1994.

The show was created by producer Roy Huggins and writer Stephen J. Cannell. Huggins originally sketched the premise of a private eye who only took on closed cases (a conceit quickly abandoned in the series), at one point intending to introduce the character in an episode of the cop show Toma. Huggins assigned the script to Cannell--a professed aficionado of the hard-boiled detective tradition--who decided to have fun with the story by flouting the genre's clichés and breaking its rules. After the Toma connection crumbled, James Garner signed on to the project, NBC agreed to finance the pilot, and The Rockford Files was born.

Cannell was largely responsible for the character and the concept that finally emerged in the pilot script and the series. Jim Rockford did indeed break the mold set by television's earlier two-fisted chivalric P.I.s. His headquarters was a mobile home parked at the beach rather than a shabby office off Sunset Boulevard; in lieu of a gorgeous secretary, an answering machine took his messages; he preferred to talk, rather than slug, his way out of a tight spot; and he rarely carried a gun. (When one surprised client asked why, Rockford replied, "Because I don't want to shoot anybody.") No troubled loner, Jim Rockford spent much of his free time fishing or watching TV with his father Joe Rockford (Noah Beery, Jr.), a retired trucker with a vocal antipathy to "Jimmy's" chosen profession. Inspired by an episode of Mannix in which that tough-guy P.I. took on a child's case for some loose change and a lollipop, Cannell decided to make his creation "the Jack Benny of private eyes." Rockford always announced his rates up front: $200 a day, plus expenses (which he itemized with abandon). He was tenacious on the job, but business was business--and he had payments on the trailer.

For all of its ostensible rule-breaking, however, The Rockford Files hewed closely to the hard-boiled tradition in style and theme. The series' depiction of L.A.'s sun-baked streets and seamy underbelly rivals the novels of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. Chandler, in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," could have been writing about Jim Rockford when he describes the hard-boiled detective as a poor man, a common man, a man of honor, who talks with the rude wit of his age. Rockford's propensity for wisecracks, his fractious relationship with the police, and his network of shady underworld connections, lead straight back to Dashiell Hammett by way of Chandler and Rex Stout. As for his aversion to fisticuffs, Rockford was not a coward, but a pragmatist, different only by degree (if at all) from Philip Marlowe; when violence was inevitable, he was as tough as nails. Most tellingly of all, he shared the same code as his L.A. predecessors Marlowe and Lew Archer: an unwavering sense of morality, and an almost obsessive thirst for the truth. Thus, despite his ostensible concern for the bottom line, in practice Rockford ended up doing as much or more charity work as any fictional gumshoe (as in "The Reincarnation of Angie," when the soft-hearted sleuth agrees to take on a distressed damsel's case for his "special sucker rate" of $23.74).

Ultimately--perhaps inevitably--all of Cannell's generic revisionism served to make his hero more human, and the stories that much more realistic. Jim Rockford could be the Jack Benny of private eyes precisely because he was the first TV private eye--perhaps the first literary one--to be created as a fully credible human being, rather than simply a dogged, alienated purveyor of justice. The Rockford Files was as much about character and relationships as it was about crime and detection. The presence of Rockford's father was more than a revisionist or comic gimmick. Although "Rocky" and Jim's wrangling was the source of much humor, that humor was credible and endearing; their relationship was the emotional core of the show, underlining Jim's essential humanity--and subtly, implicitly, sketching in a history for the detective. By the same token, a tapestry of supporting and recurring characters gave Rockford a life beyond the case at hand: L.A.P.D. Sergeant Dennis Becker (Joe Santos), Jim's buddy on the force, served a stock genre function as a source of favors and threats, but their friendship, which played out apart from the precinct and the crime scene, added another dimension of character; likewise, Jim's attorney and sometimes girlfriend Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett) further fleshed out the details of his personal life, and served as an able foil for Becker and his more ill-tempered superiors (in the process imparting a dash of seventies feminism to the show); and Angel Martin (Stuart Margolin), Rockford's San Quentin cellmate, the smallest of small-time grifters, the weasel's weasel, at once hilarious and pathetic, evoked Rockford's prison past, evinced his familiarity with L.A.'s seamier side, and balanced Rocky's hominess with an odious measure of sleaze. These regular members of the Rockford family, and a host of distinctive recurring characters--cops, clients, crooks, con-men, ex-cons--helped create, over time, a web of relationships that grounded Rockford, investing it with a more intense and continuing appeal than would a strict episodic focus on crime and detection.

As the preceding might suggest, The Rockford Files was underlined with a warmth not usually associated with the private eye genre. Much of the show's distinctiveness was its emphasis on humor, exploiting Garner's comic gifts (and his patented persona of "reluctant hero") and the humor of the protagonist's often prickly relationships with his dad, Becker, Angel, and his clients. In later seasons the series occasionally veered into parody--especially in the episodes featuring dashing, wealthy, virtuous detective Lance White (Tom Selleck), and bumbling, pulp-fiction-addled, would-be private-eye Freddie Beamer (James Whitmore, Jr.)--and even flirted with self-parody, as the show's signature car chases became more and more elaborate and (sometimes) comical (as when Rockford is forced to give chase in a VW bug with an enormous pizza adorning the top). Even so, the series was faithful to its hard-boiled heritage. Yet the series also brought a contemporary sensibility to the hard-boiled tradition's anti-authority impulses, assailing political intrigue, official corruption, and bureaucratic absurdity with a distinctly post-Watergate cynicism.

Rockford's most profound homage to the detective tradition was first-rate writing, and a body of superbly-realized mysteries. Cannell and Juanita Bartlett wrote the bulk of the series' scripts, and most of its best, with writer-producer David Chase (I'll Fly Away, Northern Exposure) also a frequent contributor of top-notch work. Mystery author Donald Westlake, quoted in The Best of Crime and Detective TV, captures the series' central strengths in noting that "the complexity of the plots and the relationships between the characters were novelistic." John D. MacDonald, critiquing video whodunits for TV Guide, proposed that in terms of "believability, dialogue, plausibility of character, plot coherence, The Rockford Files comes as close to meeting the standards of the written mystery as anything I found." During its run the series was nominated for the Writer's Guild Award and the Mystery Writer's of America "Edgar" Award, in addition to winning the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series in 1978.

The Rockford Files ran for five full seasons, coming to a premature end in the middle of the sixth, when Garner left the show due to a variety of physical ailments brought on by the strenuous demands of the production. Yet Rockford never really left the air; not only has the series remained steadily popular in syndication and on cable, three of a projected six made-for-television reunion movies aired on CBS between 1994 and 1996 (the first scoring blockbuster ratings). In addition, a loyal cult following celebrates the series on the Rockford Files Web site, and Internet discussion groups. The show's rather rapid canonization as a touchstone of the private eye genre is evinced by its conscious imitation or outright quotation in subsequent series including Magnum P.I., Detective in the House, and Charlie Grace.

The Rockford Files marked a significant step in the evolution of the television detective, honoring the traditional private eye tale with well-crafted mysteries, and enriching the form with what television does best: fully-developed characters and richly-drawn relationships. In musing on the hard-boiled detective whose tradition he helped shape, Raymond Chandler wrote, "I do not care much about his private life." In Rockford, Cannell and company embraced and exploited their detective's private life. Television encourages, even demands this intimacy. For all the gritty realism of Spade and Marlowe's mean streets, they were, in their solitary asceticism, figures of romantic fantasy. Jim Rockford was no less honorable, no less resolute in his quests; he was, however, by virtue of his trailer, his dad, his gun in the cookie jar, just that much more real.

-Mark Alvey

 


The Rockford File

CAST

Jim Rockford ...........................................James Garner
Joseph "Rocky" Rockford
....................... Noah Beery Jr.
Detective Dennis Becker
..............................Joe Santos
Beth Davenport(
1974-1978).................. Gretchen Corbett
Evelyn "Angel" Martin
............................. Stuart Margolin
John Cooper
(1978-1979)............................. Bo Hopkins
Lieutenant Alex Diehl
(1974-1976) .................Tom Atkins
Lieutenant Doug Chapman
(1976-1980)..........James Luisi
Lance White
(1979-1980) ............................Tom Selleck

PRODUCERS Meta Rosenberg, Stephen J. Cannell, Chas. Floyd Johnson, Juanita Bartlett, David Chase

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 114 Episodes

NBC
September 1974-May 1977                   Friday 9:00-10:00
June 1977                                             Friday 8:30-9:30
July 1977-January 1979                        Friday 9:00-10:00
February 1979-March 1979              Saturday 10:00-11:00
April 1979-December 1979                    Friday 9:00-10:00
March 1980-April 1980                    Thursday 10:00-11:00
June 1980-July 1980                             Friday 9:00-10:00

FURTHER READING

Chandler, Raymond. The Simple Art of Murder. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.

Collins, Max and John Javna. The Best of Crime and Detective TV. New York: Harmony, 1988.

Grillo, Jean. "A Man's Man and a Woman's Too." N.Y. Daily News, TV Week (New York), 10 June 1979.

Kane, Hamilton T. "An Interview with Stephen J. Cannell." Mystery, January, 1981.

MacDonald, John D. "The Case of the Missing Spellbinders." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 24 November 1979.

Martindale, David. The Rockford Phile. Las Vegas: Pioneer, 1991.

Randisi, Robert J. "The Best TV Eyes of the 70s." Mystery, January, 1981.

Robertson, Ed. "This is Jim Rockford . . .": The Rockford Files. Beverly Hills: Pomegranate, 1995.

Torgerson, Ellen. "James Garner Believes in Good Coffee--And a Mean Punch." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 2 June 1979.

Vallely, Jean. "The James Garner Files." Esquire (Chicago, Illinois), July 1979.

Wicking, Christopher and Tise Vahimagi. The American Vein. New York: Dutton, 1985.

 

See also Cannell, Stephen; Detective Programs; Garner, James; Huggins, Roy