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by Ed Robertson
Then a funny thing happened in the third season (1976-77). Buoyed by the addition of writer/producer David Chase ("The Sopranos"), the stories got better, the audience numbers steadied - and the show started winning awards.
Chase's versatility breathed new life into "Rockford" with stories tackling everything from social ills to Chase's own peculiar obsession with the mob. In the process, Jim Rockford became reinvented as a sort of Everyman in a world of absurdities, the lone voice in the wilderness willing to stand up and wonder just what in hell's going on. The best example of this is the brilliant "So Help Me God" (written by Juanita Bartlett), an indictment of the grand jury system pitting Rockford against a weaselly federal prosecutor not unlike Ken Starr. Lauded by law groups across the country, the episode is also said to be one of James Garner's personal favorites, with good reason - it won him the Emmy Award for Best Dramatic Actor in 1977.
The bar for "Rockford" having been raised, the series would see some of its finest episodes over the next three seasons: Bartlett's "The Paper Palace," introducing Rita Moreno as Rita Capkovic, the ex-prostitute who's so lonely, she wheels an empty shopping cart up and down the supermarket just to be around people (Moreno won an Emmy for her performance); Cannell's "White on White and Nearly Perfect," the first of two episodes featuring Tom Selleck as the hilariously intrepid Lance White; and Chase's "Quickie Nirvana," the show that won "Rockford" the Best Dramatic Series Emmy in 1978.
Garner chose to bring back "Rockford" in '94 on CBS, rather than NBC, after he was promised the network's best possible time slot: Sunday nights after "Murder, She Wrote." Since CBS' demographics were older at the time, Garner figured Angela Lansbury's audience was more than likely to stick around for the "Files." The strategy paid off immediately. The first new "Rockford," "I Still Love L.A.," finished in the Top Five, and was the highest-rated TV-movie of the '94-95 season.
Strangely enough, "Rockford"'s history on CBS has been a microcosm of its experience on NBC. The next two movies, "A Blessing in Disguise" (1995) and "If the Frame Fits . . ." (1996) suffer from the same problems of the original show's second season: they play Rockford for a sap, and allocate far too much screen time to the annoying Angel Martin (a character best taken in small doses).
One thing's different, though. NBC stayed with "Rockford" through thick and thin. Not so CBS: once the ratings slipped, so did the network's enthusiasm for the franchise. Subsequent movies found themselves scheduled in suicidal time slots, while the network exerted absolutely no effort to promote them.
Or even schedule them (Garner filmed "If It Bleeds, It Leads" almost two years before it was finally broadcast).
That's too bad, because the last few "Rockfords" had been getting much better. Just as the addition of Chase energized the original "Files," new talent such as director Tony Wharmby and writer Reuben Leder had given the show a second wind.
Though CBS never officially pulled the plug on the series, Garner, now in his seventies, saw the writing on the wall and decided to hang 'em up. "If It Bleeds, It Leads," featuring Rita Moreno (once again as Rita Capkovic) and Hal Linden, would be Rockford's last case.
(The last Rockford TV film FIRST aired on April 20th, 1999. Ratings were very good. It was rerun on CBS August 1, 2001.)
Ed Robertson is the author of three books, including "This is Jim Rockford...," a behind-the-scenes history of The Rockford Files available through Pomegranate Press (www.pompress.com).
You can e-mail Ed at email@example.com or through his web site, www.edrobertson.com.
Photo from "The Rockford Files: If It Bleeds, It Leads" courtesy www.cbs.com.
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