James Garner’s portrayal of Jim Rockford in ‘The Rockford Files’ left an indelible mark on young TV fans, says Michael Moynihan
YOU can keep Game of Thrones. The Wire? A diversion, no more. The same for Breaking Bad. For this observer, those TV series come a distant second to The Rockford Files, whose star, James Garner, passed away over the weekend at the age of 86.
Garner, easy-going, handsome, irresistible, was The Rockford Files’ USP, long before that term entered common usage. He had had success earlier in his career as an easy-going, handsome, irresistible gambler in TV’s Maverick, and late in his career he was involved in a maudlin atrocity, The Notebook, which deserves a spell in the dock at a human rights courtroom in The Hague.
But for a generation of Irish kids in their forties, he will always be Jim Rockford. He came after Mannix, with Mike Connors’ desperate, hurt expression, and he preceded Magnum PI, with Tom Selleck smirking as he tootled around Hawaii in a bright red sports car. Rockford’s theme tune was also miles better.
Jim Rockford was more enjoyable company than Mannix, though they shared a taste in loud sports coats; he wasn’t as slim as Magnum and didn’t favour those unforgiving denim cut-offs. Rockford wielded a little padding around the middle, unsurprisingly, as he invariably had a cup of coffee or a sandwich or a can of beer or a plate of food in front of him as he dawdled his way through a case, charming information out of witnesses, getting Becker, his policeman pal, to track down licence plates, trying to bail his Dad, Rocky, out of trouble.
Don’t bother trying to recall the plots. You don’t remember the plots when Sherlock Holmes is involved, or Philip Marlowe. But you know Holmes’ living arrangements, or Marlowe’s drinking habits.
The same with Rockford, who, despite charging “$200 a day plus expenses”, was forever getting phone messages that pointed up his hand-to-mouth existence, or talking his way past heavies rather than using his fists or brandishing a gun (“It’s in the cookie jar,” he remarked in one episode).
For the Irish kids watching him in the seventies, the phone and answering machine were integral to the Rockford mystique. Each episode opened with the camera tracking across a desk — messy, of course — to the answering machine.
For some of us a phone in the house was some years in the future: the notion that you could actually have one to hand rather than having to use a coinbox, not to mention a machine which magically captured messages while you were out, was like a message from the 21st century.
The notion of American plenty was compounded, somehow, by how expansive Rockford was with the phone. Screenwriter William Goldman once pointed out the significance of ‘bits of business’ — little expressions or knacks that an actor pulls on-screen which stay with the viewer forever. I believe Rockford was the first person I ever saw cradle a telephone in between his ear and his shoulder as he jotted down a number, and as Goldman suggested, 40 years on it stays with me.
The series also gave you an oblique look at a different way of being an adult: the opening sequence showed Rockford in a supermarket, mulling over his ready-meal options near the freezer section, which underlined his status as a sole trader. Rockford lived in a trailer and clearly came and went as he liked. There were women every now and again but his solo style was oddly beguiling.
There’s a good deal of revisionism about some of these old TV series, a re-reading of them which sees grittiness and realism leavening the mystery that’s resolved before the credits roll.
Frankly, even for a kid there wasn’t much sense of danger about Rockford — no notion that he was really about to be harmed in all of those beatings, which always seemed to happen near the passenger-side door of his car.
Yet there’s a direct ancestral line between The Rockford Files and a well-regarded series of recent vintage. A writer introduced a couple of Mafia types talking up the mob in New Jersey for Rockford to deal with in one episode; the writer was David Chase, who created The Sopranos.
It was Garner’s achievement to inhabit the character so fully that we conflate the two. The fact that the actor had fought — and was wounded — in the Korean War, somehow jars with our idea of Rockford, as does the fact that Garner successfully sued the TV company for millions of dollars in payments he was entitled to.
No matter. He lives on in the memory and in that message on the machine: “This is Jim Rockford. At the tone leave your name and message, I’ll get back to you.”
Rest easy, Jim.
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