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Closing Out The Rockford
by Ed Robertson
When it came to private eyes - at least, the ones on movies and TV - Jim Rockford (James Garner) stood out like a slow curve in a world of fast balls.
Oh, he might have looked a little like Jack Lord, and dressed the same as Mike Connors, but he sure didn't act like any other gumshoe we'd ever seen. When Rockford threw a punch, he was more likely to inflict damage on himself.
He rarely carried a gun (he didn't have a permit), and never fired it whenever he did ("I just point it," he explained in one episode). Our man Jimbo hated trouble, wasn't above quitting a case if it got too rough, and had no problem telling you why ("Damned right, I'm scared!") But he did like money - he charged $200 a day, plus expenses, so he'd hang in there no matter what if he could smell a fat check down the road. "I won't kill for money, and I won't marry for it," he once said. "Other than that, I'm open to just about anything."
"The Rockford Files" (NBC, 1974-1980) was the original Must See TV, back in the days when NBC was the perennially distant third network. Winner of five Emmys, including Best Actor (Garner), and Best Dramatic Series (1978), "Rockford" came back with a splash in '94 as a series of two-hour movies on CBS. The latest, "If It Bleeds, It Leads," premieres Tuesday, April 20.
Of course, in some ways, Rockford wasn't original at all: he was Bret Maverick reincarnated, the folksy, quasi-con man who'd change his mind in a minute if it would get him out of trouble, who's much smarter than he lets on, and who couldn't care less about being a hero.
All of which was deliberate. "Rockford Files" first sprouted from the fertile mind of Roy Huggins (the creative force behind "The Fugitive" and "77 Sunset Strip"), who'd helped make Garner a star years before on "Maverick." Huggins understood Garner's uncanny knack for playing wry, understated humor like few others: that Garner's greatest successes on television are tied directly to Huggins is no coincidence.
"Rockford" was also as colorful behind the scenes as the characters, car chases, and wacky phone messages that played on-screen every week. Garner's dispute with Universal over the show's profit participation took over ten years to settle. CBS' peculiar scheduling of the new TV-movies has frustrated everyone from fans of the show to Garner himself.
In fact, the stories off-camera sometimes obscure the fact that the stories on the air were as consistently entertaining as any series ever done on television.
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