Over the course of the last five months, my Dad and I watched The Rockford Files on DVD in chronological order and no more than one episode a day. Sometimes we took a break and didn’t watch the show for a few days.
Starring the incomparable James Garner and boasting perhaps the best supporting cast for a detective show in television history, The Rockford Files, ran for six seasons from 1974-80 and earned multiple Emmy awards. It routinely makes the list of the greatest TV shows of all time.
I’ve loved the show for years but it wasn’t until watching the complete episodes without commercial interruption that I realized how brilliant, funny, groundbreaking and prescient it really was.
It holds up incredibly well and never feels dated like Starsky and Hutch or Charley’s Angels.
Let me now ruminate in meandering fashion on the show for the sake of sheer enjoyment and to deliver up, perhaps, some useful cultural commentary.
One car. But THE CAR of 70s television. The golden Pontiac Firebird that was totaled a half dozen times and burned more than any vehicle in showbiz history.
Rockford never carries a revolver, but owns one. He stashes it in his cookie jar along with his Oreo cookies, the cookies he dunks in milk about every other episode.
One of my favorite bits in the early seasons was Rockford would haul around a tiny printing press that he used to print up phony business cards in the front seat of the Firebird. I never seen that in a novel, TV show or movie. I want one for myself.
The best shows are when he runs cons in the pursuit of justice.
The beatup trailer right next to the beach! No neighbors except the ocean, a taco stand, and restaurant with a lounge. Maybe watching this trailer as a kid introduced me to the idea of RV living, although a trailer isn’t really and RV, but close enough. The minimalism of it all is bliss.
He’s fishing all the time, usually for surf perch. He eats a lot of spicy street tacos.
The beach plays a central role in many episodes.
The poignant scenes between a middle aged Rockford and his elderly father Rocky were groundbreaking in their depiction of a caring father and his older son when originally aired and really never surpassed that I am aware of.
His checkered blazer and slacks look, often with sneakers. He also rocked a windbreaker like no other character in television history. Watching this show has made me start wearing my windbreakers (yes, I own two). My God, maybe I am transforming myself into James Rockford! I am writing detective fiction these days.
The guest stars! Issac Hayes, Tom Selleck, Rita Moreno, Abe Vigoda, Joan Van Ark, Lindsay Wagner and LAUREN BACALL!
What about that supporting cast? Angel (Stuart Margolin) Beth (played by Gretchen Corbett of the Portland Corbett family) Dennis. Rocky. Chapman. The cast really made the show work.
Rockford was so fundamentally a decent guy and a nice anti-hero. He couldn’t say no to anyone who needed help. He never quit on a client or friend.
He charged $200 a day plus expenses and practically never collected from his clients or earned the fat finder fees he was owed. He’s always broke and practically a loser in that realm of life, but a winner everywhere else.
One of my favorite bits is what I call the Rockford Maneuver, where he always holds a woman by the arm when they’re walking. I tried it out myself a couple times, announcing it as the Rockford Maneuver and it always got a big laugh.
The rocking and bluesy theme song that was actually a chart hit.
I was also struck by some of the prescient nature of the shows. There was one where a father wouldn’t accept his gay son. There was another about right wing, white power, conspiracy nuts (now currently running the Republican party in Oregon and elsewhere) and a show about the dangers of a corporation using computers to collect private information from American citizens and then use it to generate wealth. This was 20 years before the Internet.
The show points out, on occasion, the terrible effects of mass incarceration because Rockford was an ex con.
All the lock picking and calls from telephone booths. How the phone recorder sometimes played a central role in the plotting of an episode.
And how could I forget how many times Rockford gets roughed up by various “apes, gorillas, goons, cavemen” etc.
I did read somewhere there have been a few attempts at a modern reboot. I believe pilots were even shot. Nothing clicked, however, and we are left with the original. Let’s hope it’s never remade. Look what happened to Perry Mason.