As we are taking a look back at some favorite crime shows, The Rockford Files with its memorable answering machine message opening and fun theme song, is one that definitely is worth exploring. The show was on NBC from 1974-1980.
Jim Rockford (James Garner) is not the average TV detective of the seventies. He does not have an elegant apartment; his clothes come off the rack, not a designer’s showroom; and he doesn’t have a sexy assistant, just his dad, a former truck driver who sometimes helps him out. He lives in a small mobile home in a parking lot; the home also serves as his office.
Creators Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell created the show. Huggins had also been the force behind Maverick which also starred Garner from 1957-1962. Robert Blake was also considered for this role, but Huggins cast him in Baretta, another one of his shows.
Rockford has a gun, but no permit for it. However, he prefers to talk his way out of most situations. He tends to work on cold cases, missing persons, and low-budget insurance scams.
The story was that Rockford was incarcerated in San Quentin for five years for a crime he did not commit. Eventually, he was pardoned, but now he is having a tough time making ends meet. He’s a private eye who charges $200 a day (about $1000 today) but he doesn’t get enough work to do more than pay the rent and incidentals.
His father Joe (Noah Beery Jr.) nags Jim to find a more secure job and to settle down and get married. Jim’s friend Joe Santos (Dennis Becker), a sergeant for the LA Police Department, also helps him out from time to time.
Rounding out the cast were Evelyn “Angel” Martin (Stuart Margolin) who had been Jim’s friend in prison. His con artist schemes cause a lot of headaches for Jim. Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett) is Jim’s attorney and sometimes girlfriend. Lt Diehl (Tom Atkins) was on the first half of the show while Lt Doug Chapman (James Luisi) was on the final three seasons. Neither of them like Rockford much.
This show had an impressive list of guest stars, including Lou Gossett Jr., Isaac Hayes, Rita Moreno, Tom Selleck, and Dionne Warwick. Garner’s brother Jack also shows up in quite a few bit parts; you can see him as a policeman and gas station attendant, among other minor roles.
Jim drove a gold Pontiac Firebird. Rockford was known for his “turn-around” to evade police and criminals, a procedure commonly taught to Secret Service agents. As Garner described it in his autobiography, “When you are going straight in reverse about 35 mph, you come off the gas pedal, go hard left, and pull on the emergency brake. That locks the wheels and throws the front end around.” Then you release everything, hit the gas, and off you go in the opposite direction.”
The theme song for the show was written by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter. It went through several versions over the years. It hit the Billboard Top Ten in 1975.
When I think of the show, the iconic answering machine introduction is what comes to mind. After two rings, you heard, “This is Jim Rockford. At the tone, leave your name and message. I’ll get back to you.” Typically, the message was its own little skit which help us get to know a little bit more about Rockford. The writers had to come up with 122 different messages during the run of the show.
The show was popular with viewers throughout the four seasons. However, after being #12 in its first year, it fell to #58 by season five. In 1979, Garner was advised by his doctors to take some time off because he was suffering some knee and back problems, as well as dealing with an ulcer. Until then, he had performed many of his own stunts on the show. When the physical pain did not get dramatically better, Garner decided not to continue with the show, and the network canceled the program midseason.
It was also popular with critics. James Garner was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama in 1976, 1977, 1978, and 1979; he won in 1977. The show was nominated for Outstanding Drama Series from 1978-1980; the show won in 1978. There were an additional nine nominations with Margolin winning two and Rita Moreno winning two.
If you were a fan of the show, you will know a few of these fun facts about Rockford. One of his favorite foods was tacos, and he ate a lot of them on the show. When he needs an alias, he typically was Jim Taggert. Rockford’s full name is James Scott Rockford; the star of the show’s name is James Scott Garner. Rockford was a Korean vet, and one of his military friends was played by the great Hector Elizondo. He cares for a stray cat who lives near his home. And, last but not least, a running gag of the show is that even though Rockford’s job involves crucial details, he can never remember license plate numbers.
This show holds up well today. The show is on DVD and can be found on several cable channels. Check it out, even if you just want some inspiration for creative voice mails.