Rockford Files: Not Your Regular Hero

  • James Garner as James Rockford
  • Noah Berry as Rocky Rockford
  • Joe Santos as Dennis Becker
  • Gretchen Corbett as Beth Davenport
  • Stuart Margolin as Angel Martin

September 13, 1974-July 25, 1980

Jim Rockford was almost the anti-private eye.

No hard-boiled mean streets for Jimbo. He lived in a house trailer by the sun-dappled shores of Malibu and had a beat-up answering machine instead of a sultry secretary. He liked to tool around in the Southern California sunlight in his old Pontiac convertible and had his own small printing press in the rear seat to print up a business card for whatever identity he felt the moment required.

Rockford’s inclination was to talk his way out of trouble instead of meeting it with fists flying. Hardly a lonely knight errant, he accumulated some of the most fascinating– and troublesome– friends and acquaintances ever to come down the beach.

Put it another way. Jim Rockford was James Garner and vice versa. Viewers seemed to like both of them as one and the same.

Garner reprised and refined his con man persona from Maverick (1957-1962), tossed in a few dollops of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (he played the role in a 1969 movie), and created a wonderful character who remains many viewers’ favorite private eye ever. Rockford wasn’t quite a hero but he always came through when he had to. Through it all he was forever exasperated by fate’s strange twists and turns and the people who kept messing up his life. Who couldn’t identify with that?

The show’s original gimmick set up Rockford as an ex-con (five years served for a crime he didn’t commit) who would only take on cases which were already closed by the police. That faded away after the early episodes, and The Rockford Files quickly developed and nurtured some of the most unforgettable supporting characters in television history. They in turn did more than their share to keep the hero in hot water. While Rockford’s penchant for a wisecrack (“Does your mother know what you do for a living?” he asked one thug in a classic TV moment) led to some of his problems, most of them he ultimately owed to friends and family.

From the beginning there was Rocky, Jim’s old man, a semi-retired truck driver forever spouting empty dictums and hovering worriedly around his son. His presence alone took Rockford out of the basic PI setting and the various scrapes he managed to get into provided the impetus for several episodes. Attorney Beth Davenport provided a recurring love interest for the first four seasons, as well as serving as a conduit for many cases Rockford would have run screaming from had she not been there to cajole him. Beth was introduced in the program’s second episode, “The Dark and Bloody Ground” (Sept. 20, 1974).

Sergeant (later Lieutenant) Dennis Becker was the requisite police contact, but he was not exactly the traditional friendly nemesis usually found on PI shows. Becker periodically got into unfortunate situations of his own from which Rockford had to extricate him. The most notable of these was “The Becker Connection” (Feb. 11, 1977), wherein Becker was set up as the fall guy for the theft of confiscated heroin from a police evidence room.

Then, of course, there was Angel.

The show’s writers used Rockford’s prison background to introduce several ex-cons he had known in prison as catalysts for stories. Isaac Hayes, for example, appeared three times as tough-talking Gandolph Fitch, who never could get Rockford’s name right. The undisputed pick of that particular litter was Jim’s ex-cellmate, Angel Martin. Angel was not half as clever as he thought he was and never met a crazy scheme he didn’t embrace. The character eventually became a semi-regular cast member, appearing in more than 30 episodes after his debut in “Counter Gambit” (Jan. 24, 1975). Many of the best shows centered around an unwitting and often befuddled Rockford caught up in one of Angel’s get rich schemes and having to extricate himself before getting shot.

Another notable recurring guest was prostitute Rita Capkovic, who came to Rockford for help three times. Actress Rita Moreno won an Emmy for the character’s first appearance, “The Paper Palace” (Jan. 20, 1978). Also, a goodly number of fellow private eyes, each one of them stranger than the last, kept crossing Rockford’s path. As Maverick had done for the classic western, The Rockford Files regularly turned and twisted the conventions of the PI story back upon themselves to point up some of the absurdities behind the genre’s assumptions. These guest investigators were ideal for just that purpose.

The most prominent of this bunch was Richie Brockelman, played by Dennis Dugan. Brockelman was an eager novice investigator and the character actually took over the Rockford time slot for his own five-episode series in the spring of 1978. That show wasn’t strictly a Rockford spin-off, however, since Richie was first introduced in a 1976 two-hour movie. His first appearance on The Rockford Files, “The House on Willis Avenue” (Feb. 1978), was primarily intended to build an audience for the Richie Brockelman, Private Eye series. Obviously, that didn’t work out, but Brockelman returned for a second appearance, “Never Send a Boy King To Do a Man’s Job” (March 3, 1979).

Among the other PIs who visited the show was Lance White, rich, elegant, and flawless, a walking cliche who drove Rockford crazy. White debuted in “White on White and Nearly Perfect” (Oct. 20, 1978) and made a comeback in “Nice Guys Finish Dead” (Nov. 16, 1979). This latter show, set at a private eyes’ awards dinner, is one of the funniest Rockfords ever. The relatively unknown actor who did such a fine comic turn as White proved to have a future in the TV PI business– his name was Tom Selleck.

The Rockford Files had a few notable faults. A primary complaint was that the plots, which often centered around intricate conspiracies, were just too convoluted and confused to be easily resolved within the confines of an hour-long TV program. Critics, as charmed by Rockford as the general audience, generally explained that one away on the grounds that it’s better to overreach than to set your standards too low. Another complaint was the car chases, all too many of them, show after show after show. But James Garner liked cars and he liked to drive and he liked car chases, so car chases he got.

Fans forgave these few challenges as part of Garner’s nature. As we said, James Garner was as much a part of Jim Rockford as Rockford was of Garner.


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