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You Can’t Remake ‘The Rockford Files’
by John Nolte
This is Jim Rockford. At the tone, leave your name and message, I’ll get back to you.
Here’s the message: You can’t remake “The Rockford Files.” You can call a television show “The Rockford Files.” Hell, you can call your parakeet “The Rockford Files,” but that doesn’t mean it’s “The Rockford Files.”
That show was James Garner, and if you’ve recently watched any of the episodes you know that the thirty-years that have passed since the program went off the air in 1980 have only served to cement its timelessness and status as a true classic. Sure, the sports coats might be a little loud and the sideburns too long, but Mike Post’s iconic theme, that awesome gold Pontiac Firebird and some of the best writing ever seen on television have kept the series as entertaining, compelling and fresh as anything produced today.
Nothing against Dermot Mulroney and Beau Bridges, both are fine actors but they aren’t James Garner and Noah Beery Jr. No one is. And no offense to anyone involved in the creation of the remake, but they aren’t Stephen J. Cannell, Roy Huggins, Chas. Floyd Johnson, David Chase, and Juanita Bartlett — the geniuses involved in creating and sustaining the best example of a television show built around an established star as I’ve ever seen.
The original “Rockford Files,” which ran on NBC from 1974 to 1980, was not just another hour-long detective/crime/mystery show. It was lightning in a bottle, the perfect mix of smart producers and talented writers who understood the unique quality of their star, James Garner, a man who could take an off-beat line of dialogue and make magic from it like no other.
Jim Rockford was also a character Garner had been perfecting for over a decade in films like “The Great Escape, “The Americanization of Emily,” and under-appreciated classics such as “Skin Game” and “Support Your Local Sheriff” — not to mention the television show “Maverick,” which was essentially Rockford on the frontier.
And what a delightfully interesting and endlessly fascinating character he was. On the surface, Jim Rockford was cheap (”I have expenses.”), always looking out for number one, ready to quit whenever threatened, rarely carried a gun (”Because I don’t want to shoot anyone!”), demanded his civil rights at the drop of a hat, and had no ambition beyond covering his monthly nut and going fishing with his dad, Rocky (Beery).
If the former con man and jailbird (for a crime he was innocent of) was ever the hero in any of the 122 mostly self-contained episodes, he was a reluctant one due to a complicated code of honor that somehow managed to remain consistent even as it kept surprising. Unlike his 1970s contemporaries such as Mannix, McCloud, Cannon, and Barnaby Jones, Rockford frequently failed to come out on top (his clients had a way of stiffing him), hated hitting people (it hurt the hand) and most of all, despised The Man: anyone in authority from police captains who forever threatened his license to lazy government bureaucrats who gave off attitude.
Rockford was cynical, glib, petty, a dirty fighter, had a temper, a smart mouth, a non-TV star waistline (tacos and Oreo cookies were a weakness), and chose to retain his fierce independence even though it meant barely scraping together a living in a rusty house trailer that uglied up a beachside Malibu parking lot. Rockford could also be intimidated (temporarily) and though he was always the smartest person in the room, it was surprisingly easy to catch him off guard.
But beneath those flaws and quirks was James Garner, a one-of-a-kind talent who gave this character what he gave all his characters, an unmistakable undercurrent of warmth and competence that kept us on his side. Boiled down to essentials, Jim Rockford was – unless he was running a game on some deserving scoundrel – an honest man who couldn’t help but offer the world a running verbal commentary on life as he saw it. Nothing was sacred, either. Government bureaucracy, pious hypocrites, and Hollywood celebrity would all come away with blisters after any confrontation with the working class PI .
We loved Rockford because he hated stupidity, insecurity, laziness and phonies as much as we did. And we loved him because even though he had led a life that had time and again made clear that there was no profit in doing the right thing, by the time the credits rolled – though he bitched and moaned the whole way there — Jim Rockford always did the right thing. He was also loyal to his friends, sometimes to a fault, and would risk his livelihood and even his life to get them out of a jam.
Much credit is also owed to the show’s creators for assembling an outstanding supporting cast of characters who were as key to the show’s chemistry and success as its star. Even though they bickered as much as anything else, the affection between Rockford and his father was one the best elements of every episode. As Rockford’s best friend, Joe Santos was memorably prickly and funny as put upon L.A. Sgt. Dennis Becker, and as the PI’s on-again off-again girlfriend/lawyer, Gretchen Corbett’s Beth Davenport was as tenacious and intelligent as she was beautiful.
And then there was The Mighty Stuart Margolin who won two well-deserved Emmys for his brilliantly funny portrayal of the hapless and disloyal Angel Martin, whose sole reason for being born must have been to exasperate his former cellmate, Rockford. Usually on the run from a hitman after devising some hare-brained get-rich-quick scheme even Ralph Kramden would’ve rejected, it inevitably fell to Rockford to save Angel’s skin.
Guest appearances were frequently just as memorable. My two favorites were Dennis Dugan as boy-faced Richie Brockelman, a PI/con man wannabe who idolized Rockford; and Tom Selleck’s unforgettable portrayal of Lance White, a handsome, wealthy PI who lived the fabulous life of a television detective in a world where clues were found just in time, wild hunches always paid off, and Rockford could only look on shaking his head at the absurdity of it all.
Over six seasons a caustic, complicated, paunchy, middle-aged Los Angeles PI managed to give almost as good as he got as he eked out a living filled with betrayals, disappointments, reversals, beatings and many a trip to jail. Through it all, though, James Rockford persevered, never once giving up an inch of his dignity or sharply observant sense of humor. This premise brought to life by geniuses and a creative alchemy even they had difficult recreating in a series of “Rockford” television films in the 90s, gave us one of the best one-hour dramas ever created.
So to those involved in this coming remake, I wish you nothing but success and a long run and the vast wealth that comes with syndication. May your show meet with critical acclaim and a shower of Emmys.
Whatever that show is.
Because no matter what you call it, it won’t be “The Rockford Files.”
Tags: "The Rockford Files", Beau Bridges, cbs, Dermot Mulroney, James Garner, Noah Beery Jr.
Posted Mar 19th 2010 at 12:40 pm in Television | Comments (142)