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Series / The Rockford Files

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"This is Jim Rockford. At the tone, leave your name and message. I'll get back to you. [Beep]"

Popular crime/action series, co-created by Roy Huggins (Maverick, The Fugitive) and Stephen J. Cannell, that aired on NBC from 1974 to 1980. James Garner played Jim Rockford, an innocent ex-con working as a private detective in the Los Angeles area. Rockford lived in a trailer parked on the Malibu beach, and drove a gold Pontiac Firebird.

In the earlier episodes, Rockford would only take cases that the police were not actively investigating: cases that they had closed in some way that was unsatisfactory to the client, cold cases, or something that the police were not giving any priority to—cases that the police lieutenant antagonist disparagingly referred to as "the Rockford files."

Rockford preferred to outwit his opponents, rather than resorting to violence (though he was very good at it when violence was required.) While Rockford had been cleared of the armed robbery that he had been wrongfully accused of, he had also been a Con Man who had never been caught, and on multiple occasions he used his con artist skills to entrap the guilty party.

In many ways, the Rockford character was a 20th-century updating of Garner's Bret Maverick character.

This show provides examples of:

  • Always Someone Better: Lance White (Tom Selleck), Rockford's friendly rival private investigator who appears in the episodes "White on White and Nearly Perfect" (season 5) and "Nice Guys Finish Dead" (season 6).
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: "Caledonia—It's Worth a Fortune!" ends with Sheriff Prouty arresting Rockford, his client and her friend for "Illegal entry, trespassing, back-talking an officer of the law and...illegal parking!"
  • Audit Threat: People in official positions often threaten to have Jim Rockford's private investigator's license reviewed to get him to cooperate.
  • Badass Driver: Rockford made a "J-turn" note  so often in the series (usually to make a quick get-away) that it became better-known as the "Rockford turn."
  • Base on Wheels: Rockford's dilapidated mobile home — which served as both his office and residence — usually remained parked on a Malibu beach, but on a few occasions, when he needed to skip town in a hurry, he hitched his trailer up (with the help of his retired trucker dad) and took home with him.
  • Being Watched
  • Berserk Button: He's a pretty relaxed guy overall, but don't threaten someone he cares about, particularly his father or Beth Davenport. A beating will commence.
  • Billed Above the Title: 'James Garner in...The Rockford Files'.
  • Born Lucky: Lance White, played in two episodes by Tom Selleck.
  • Bounty Hunter
  • Bury Your Gays: Two episodes ("Requiem for a Funny Box" and "The Empty Frame") feature gay couples. Although they are presented sympathetically, three of the four gay characters end up murdered.
  • Casting Gag: "The Competitive Edge" features John Fiedler as a mental patient who thinks he is James Bond. The gag? Harold Sakata as fellow patient "John Doe".
  • Clear My Name: Featured in many episodes such as “Pastoria Prime Pick.”
  • Clear Their Name: A frequent occurrence, often at the request of Beth Davenport.
  • Clumsy Copyright Censorship: The company name in "Profit and Loss" was originally named Financial Dynamics, but after filming, due to discovery of a company in Real Life by that name, all mentions of it were redubbed to Fiscal Dynamics.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Rockford prefers to avoid fighting, but when he fights, he fights dirty.
    Rockford: You know what's wrong with karate, Jerry? It's based on the ridiculous assumption that the other guy will fight fair.
  • Con Man: Rockford himself, occasionally; Angel Martin, always.
  • Cool Car: Subverted with Rockford's Firebird Esprit. Yeah, a Firebird should be cool, but his is an ugly brown color (the actual color is called Copper Mist, fairly popular back then), is the base model, and is constantly out-cooled by other cars on the show. (Rockford wouldn't have been able to afford a new car every year, but the studio had a deal with Pontiac requiring them to always use the latest model. However, for the last two seasons James Garner didn’t like the way the '79 Esprit looked, so they continued to use the 1978 model.)
  • Courtroom Episode: In the episode "So Help Me, God", Rockford is held in contempt of court after tangling with D.A. William Daniels.
  • Couch Gag: The ever-changing messages on Rockford's answering machine in the Title Sequence, which often pertained to Jim's financial problems and other assorted woes.
  • Crossover: The title character from the short-lived Richie Brockelman, Private Eye appeared in several Rockford episodes.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Rockford.
  • Defective Detective: Rockford was an ex-con, with all the associated bad karma it brought.
  • Detective Drama
  • Distaff Counterpart: The title character in the episode "In Pursuit of Carol Thorne" is an ex-con sleuth with an eye out for big scores, much like Rockford himself.
  • Dramedy
  • Drop-In Character: Seemingly everybody broke into Rockford's trailer.
  • Foreshadowing: In "The Trouble With Warren", Rockford has to chaperone Beth's cousin Warren, who keeps getting him arrested. So he told Beth: "You know, my next attorney is gonna be foundling, someone with no known living relatives." Then subverted in "The Return of the Black Shadow" when he is going on a date with Coop's sister.
  • Friend on the Force: Dennis Becker
  • Future Foil: In 1974-1980, Rockford being a struggling P.I. living in a beachside trailer and driving a new Firebird is cool. However, in the TV movies, seeing him about 20 years later still living in the trailer and driving a 15-20-year old Firebird (that was not even the legendary Trans Am as seen in Smokey and the Bandit but rather a lower tier Esprit model) can be a bit sad as if he had made no progress in his life during all those years. To be fair, the trailer is MUCH bigger and better appointed, and the location is pretty unbeatable.
  • Guile Hero: Rockford is one of the purest examples.
  • Hello, Attorney!: Beth Davenport
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Rita Capkovic.
  • I Want You to Meet an Old Friend of Mine: The series reunites James Garner and Rita Moreno after having appared together before in the film Marlowe, where Garner had also played a private detective (the iconic title character Philip Marlowe) and Moreno's character also had a sordid job (albeit as an exotic dancer rathen than a call girl).
  • Improbable Age: Dr. Megan Daugherty (played by 28-year-old Kathryn Harrold) was introduced in a 1978 episode as a psychiatrist with a well-established, thriving practice. Normally, a psychiatrist would require about 12 years of post-secondary education, meaning they would graduate around the age of 29 before even being able to start their practice. Then, in the reunion movies, it was repeatedly mentioned (and shown in flashback) that Megan was 15 during the Easter weekend of 1971, at which point she was a high school student who had not yet lost her sight. This would have made her 22 in 1978 — and meant that between '71 and '78 she managed to finish at least two years of high school, then somehow cram 12 years of university into about four, and then establish a busy practice for a couple of years, all while making the adjustment to having unexpectedly gone blind. This utterly ludicrous timeline isn't even a case of multiple writers muddying up continuity; all of Megan's appearances were written by David Chase.
    • Megan makes Rockford's lawyer Beth Davenport look like a comparative slacker, although Beth is still somewhat improbably young for her position. Though Beth's age wasn't explicitly stated, when she first appeared, Beth's portrayer Gretchen Corbett was a youthful-looking 27 years old. 27 is the average age of a freshly-minted law school graduate — but Beth was already a firmly established lawyer with a fancy office at a big, well-respected firm (though not a full partner).
    • In the season four episode "Forced Retirement", Beth said she had been with the firm for SIX years.
  • In-Series Nickname: Rockford is routinely addressed as "Jimbo" (by Dennis), "Jimmy" (by Rocky and Angel), "Sonny" (by Rocky), and "Jim" (by Beth). And, of course, everyone calls Joseph Rockford "Rocky".
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged
  • Instrumental Theme Tune: One of the funkiest ever, composed by Mike Post. An extended version was released as a single and hit #10 on the Billboard chart in 1975.
  • Irregular Series: Ran from 1974 to 1980 before returning as a series of TV movies in the 90s.
  • It Was Here, I Swear!: A Stalker Shrine to Beth makes a mysterious disappearance. Immediately subverted: she says "I saw them," Lt. Becker says "I'm sure you did," usually a lead-in to a patronizing "you're just stressed" until he points to tiny holes in the walls, saying "They were put up with pins."
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Rockford himself is one in the early episodes. He seems to only be in it for the money, and will require much persuading to work on a dangerous but just case, but once he's on to something, he will make sure that justice is served. In later seasons there is significantly less jerk and more heart of gold.
  • MacGuffin: Played with in "A Material Difference". The elusive "Formula D" American and Soviet agents have been fighting over throughout the episode? The D stands for "denim". It's an extra sturdy new type of fabric. Angel is not amused that he risked his life for pants.
  • Malicious Misnaming: Gandy always referred to Rockford as "Rockfish". May not be malicious but it did bug Rockford a lot.
  • Massive Multiplayer Scam: In the two-part episode "Never Send a Boy King to do a Man's Job", there's an entire fake company, a large number of Egyptian-themed movie props, a faked auction of archeological finds, real race cars, the legendary curse of King Tut, and five faked deaths involved.
  • Noodle Incident: In "The Aaron Ironwood School of Success", Rockford limps badly all the way through the episode. The real cause was Garner's severe injuries from doing his own stunts.
    Rocky. You're limping. What happened?
    Jim. Oh, I was fishing and fell off the pier.

    Beth. Why are you limping?
    Jim. I fell off my skateboard.

    Aaron. You're limping.
    Jim. Aw, I was dancing the other night, I got a little carried away, I started to dip and I slipped.
    Aaron. Dipped?
    Jim. Dipped.
  • Only Sane Man: In "The Oracle Wore A Cashmere Suit," everyone but Jimnote  is won over by a famed psychic working with the police on the week's case; Jim thinks the man's a fraud. The man is a fraud, but Jim can't prove anything.
  • The Paragon: Lance White (played by Tom Selleck), a briefly recurring character whose Ideal Hero characteristics (he helps people for fun) net him the regard of men and women alike while also rubbing The Cynic James Rockford the wrong way.
  • Pilot Movie: "Backlash of the Hunter"
  • Poorly-Disguised Pilot: The episode "Just Another Polish Wedding" was intended to launch a spinoff show starring Louis Gossett Jr. as private eye Marcus "Gabby" Hayes and Isaac Hayes as ex-con Gandolph "Gandy" Fitch. Gabby & Gandy was never picked up, however.
    • The show's penultimate episode, "Just a Coupla Guys", was also intended as one of these. Widely held to be the worst Rockford Files episode by a considerable distance, Jim Rockford's role in the story is fairly peripheral, as it instead revolves around two bumbling doofuses trying to ingratiate their way into the New Jersey mob. The proposed spin-off would have chronicled their on-going attempts to strike it rich by impressing the local mafia don ... but somehow, NBC didn't see series potential in a chronicle of New Jersey mafia life as written by Rockford Files scribe David Chase. (To be fair, no-one could have — at least not if all they had to go by was this laughless, suspenseless, glacially-paced episode. It wasn't until 20 years later that Chase came up with The Sopranos.)
  • Private Investigator: Well, duh.
  • Recurring Character: Angel Martin, Beth Davenport, Lt. Chapman, Officer Billings
  • Reunion Show: The TV movies "I Still Love L.A." (1994); "A Blessing in Disguise" (1995); "If the Frame Fits...", "Friends and Foul Play", "Punishment and Crime", "Godfather Knows Best" (all 1996); "Shoot-Out at the Golden Pagoda" (1997); "If It Bleeds...It Leads" (1999).
  • Revealing Cover-Up: In the pilot episode, the villains' attempts to trail and later attack Rockford are what convinces Rockford to stay on with the case.
  • Right-Wing Militia Fanatic: Rockford encounters them in "The Battle of Canoga Park". The lady leading the group is also a real Government Conspiracy John Birch Society type, heard when she calls the talk radio:
    Lee Ronstadt: "Now you wanna know what I think about the water shortage, right?"
    Ray, radio host: "Right."
    Lee: "There isn't any."
    Ray: "What do you mean there isn't any?"
    Lee: "Look, Ray, I heard all about your so-called drought. The fact is, we got plenty of water."
    Ray: "Is that so? Where?"
    Lee: "Okay, I'll tell you where it is. We're selling it to the Arabs."
    Ray: "The who?"
    Lee: "The Arabs! They got nothing but sand and money."
    Ray: "Look Lee, get to the point."
    Lee: "Listen, if you were sitting in the middle of a desert, what would you be looking to import?"
    Ray: "Lee, you are pretty off-base today."
    Lee: "And who suffers? We do! I can remember a time here in California when we grew tomatoes the size of cantaloupes and cantaloupes the size of..."
    Ray: "That's a pretty flaky theory, who'd sell our water?"
    Lee: "Well, it's them bleeding hearts back in Washington, that's who! Trying to keep the whole world happy and to hell with the American people! Well, I got my sprinklers going, and I'm gonna keep them going, and to hell with the Arabs!"
  • Series Continuity Error: A significant one in "Just Another Polish Wedding." Rocky remembers Jim's rival PI Marcus Aurelius Hayes (Louis Gossett Jr.) as "Jimmy's parole officer." But since Rockford had his sentence vacated after evidence of his innocence surfaced, he should never have had or needed a parole officer.
  • Shout-Out: In a couple of episodes, Rockford travels to the fictional Bay City, California (not to be confused with the real Bay City, Michigan), a location that originated in the novels of Raymond Chandler.
  • Spell My Name with an S: In the credits for the episode "Find Me If You Can", Joan Van Ark is credited as Joan Van Arc.
  • Spiritual Successor: To Maverick.
  • Stalker Shrine: One is made for Beth. See the trope page for more details.
  • Statute of Limitations: Plays an important role in one episode. A friend of Rockford's stole half a million dollars and the statute of limitations is nearly up. However, many criminals know about it and try to steal the soon-to-be clean money.
  • Syndication Title: Jim Rockford, Private Investigator
  • Take That!: Lance White is a parody of the impossibly lucky, flawless protagonists of other detective shows. Each of his two episodes also has a scene that parodies the Extreme Close-Up framing that many cop shows used at the time.
  • Tap on the Head: Rockford, the King of Concussion, got this about Once an Episode.
  • Those Two Guys: Garner and Stuart Margolin (Angel Martin). They had such good chemistry Garner made sure Margolin had a regular role in both of his later shows Bret Maverick and Man of the People.
    • $200 a day plus expenses doesn't seem so outrageous in 201X dollars.
  • Title Drop: "Quickie Nirvana"
  • Vehicular Sabotage: This is a very common occurrence on The Rockford Files, where someone seems to cut Jim's brake lines every third episode.
  • War Hero: Jim Rockford served during The Korean War and was awarded the Silver Star. The combat experience shows, as he's very calm under pressure and isn't intimidated by guns. He respects them — he's not an idiot — but he's not intimidated by them.
  • You Wouldn't Hit A Guy With Glasses: Implied in "The Kirkoff Case": Rockford puts on glasses and pretends to be an insurance agent; when the disguise fails and he starts getting roughed up, he protests, "Didn't you notice I was wearing glasses?"