Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Rockford Files (1974)

          The beloved ’70s detective series The Rockford Files got off to a, well, rocky start, when the show’s first installment, titled “Backlash of the Hunter,” was broadcast as a telefilm several months before weekly episodes began airing. As developed and written by series producers Stephen J. Cannell (later to become the king of the escapist action show) and Roy Huggins (who previously created the series The Fugitive and Maverick), the Rockford Files pilot contains most of the elements that gave the series its laid-back charm. Ex-con Jim Rockford lives in a trailer on the beach in Malibu, soliciting clients through an ad in the phone book. Something of an upbeat cynic, Jim expects the worst from people but hopes for the best. Perfectly capable of holding his own in fights, Jim nonetheless relies on avoidance, deceit, and trickery, since he’d rather do things the easy way. His network includes a crass LAPD detective; a squirrelly career criminal whom Jim met in the slammer; and Jim’s own dad, Joseph “Rocky” Rockford, a beach bum who handles odd jobs while Jim’s in the field. Most important of all, the pilot has James Garner in the leading role. Formerly the star of Higgins’ series Maverick, Garner is perfectly cast as a seen-it-all smartass who endures humiliating setbacks as often as he scores unlikely victories.
          Alas, the pilot movie tells a convoluted, inconsequential, and uninteresting story that’s delivered by way of one-dimensional characters and laborious plotting. The pilot also lacks the avuncular presence of series costar Noah Beery Jr., who played Rocky in the weekly episodes. (The pilot’s Rocky is Robert Donley, a capable actor who cannot match Beery’s avuncular flair.) As for the actual storyline, it’s a whodunit about a hobo killed at an LA beach, and Jim’s client is the hobo’s daughter, Sara (Lindsay Wagner, who later toplined The Bionic Woman). Clues eventually connect the murder to an old crime in Las Vegas, but the actual case is secondary to what the pilot reveals about Jim’s methodology. He cheats during fights. He lies to authorities and informants and suspects. He cuts deals on his day rate because clients are few and far between. “Backlash of the Hunter” is frustratingly uneven, though Garner’s charm and the skill of the supporting cast—which also includes Michael Lerner, Stuart Margolin, Bill Mumy, Joe Santos, Nita Talbot, and the indestructible B-movie icon William Smith—compensate for the iffy narrative. Once The Rockford Files found its groove, the series ran for six seasons, leaving the air in 1980, and then resurfaced between 1994 and 1999 for eight TV movies, all featuring Garner.

The Rockford Files: FUNKY


Unknown said...

It is a sketchy plot, the details of which I can't recall, and yet I still appreciate some lines. Case in point: Rita (Wagner) objects to Rockford breaking and entering, saying it's illegal. Rockford replies "Rita, on my best day, I'm borderline."

G-8 said...

I always liked the way Rockford sets things up for his fight with the William Smith character.

Kevin Mac said...

As a teenager I was not at all into detective shows. Mannix, etc. just weren't interesting to me. They just won too much, with nary a mussed hair on their head. But Rockford, man. When you are sort of a loser as a young man, Jim was the best mentor you could have. Not to better yourself, but to lose with humor and an understanding that you will win. Eventually. Rockford is the ultimate "every dog has his day" prototype. Your friends are sketchy, you live in a trailer (oh god, what would it cost to live in the crappiest trailer permanently in Paradise Cove these days?), steaks cost more than you can afford, and your TV is a crummy 13 incher. But you live life as best you can, stiff upper lip if you can. And hell, he got laid a lot for a guy with no dough. "Borderline" indeed!

The 90's shows could have been better, but had their moments. Rockford taking a chair to the face on a talk show brawl was pure Jim.

Unknown said...

I absolutely love The Rockford Files! I have all six seasons on DVD and watch them on the Amazon Prime app too. The pilot is a tad convoluted and hard to follow at times but is still loads better than 90% of today's TV shows. The 70s were filled various PI and cop shows, like The Streets of San Francisco (another favorite), Mannix, Barnaby Jones, and later Magnum PI. The charm of Rockford was how James Garner played the role. His laid-back, every man character worked beautifully. The cast was filled numerous well-recognized actors/actresses and the regulars such as "Dennis Becker", "Angel", "Rocky" and "Beth" were excellent additions. The writing was among the best on TV, and while it seems dated now (plaid suits, bell bottoms, phone booths) you never really dwell on it much. The Rockford Files holds a special place in my memory as well as millions of other baby boomers.