Rockford Rocks!: Homage to a 70’s Detective

The Rockford Files Title
Title card with Noah Beery, Jr. and answering machine

All you need to know about The Rockford Files is right here:

The iconic opening with the answering machine.

The theme song you always heard on AM radio in the 70’s.

The sport coats.

The hair.

That gold Pontiac Firebird Esprit.

The limp.

The greatness that was Rockford’s father, Rocky.

That awesome single wide trailer parked right on the PCH.

In honor of James Garner releasing his memoirs today (The Garner Files), I thought I’d write this little homage to one of the greatest detective shows to come out of the 70’s.

The Rockford Files
James Garner as Jim Rockford
Yes, we’re talkin’ The Rockford Files, written by Roy Huggins, who’d created Garner’s earlier and equally immortal series, Maverick, and Stephen J. Cannell, who wrote just everything in the 70’s (Baretta, Black Sheep Squadron, some Columbo and would also go on to write The Greatest American Hero, Riptide, and the A-Team in the 80’s). In fact, between 1974 and 1980, The Rockford Files was one of the highest rated shows on TV. Probably would be THE highest rated, if not for Columbo. (Sorry, James.) This greatness was not due only to the writing, which as I mentioned was superb, but also to James Garner’s fantastic portrayal of Jim Rockford, the brooding and moody, worn-at-the-cuffs private detective with the huge heart. Yeah, Rockford wanted to be tough, and he was (taking down that huge muscle-bound baddie in the first episode, Backlash of the Hunter, with nothing but a roll of quarters and some street smarts showed his grit and his brains), but he also cared, and in a way very different from other TV cops of that decade.

Yeah, sure, Baretta cared, but he was a real class warrior about it all. Starsky and Hutch? Well, not so much. I mean, Hutch had a good heart, sure, and Starsky DID once rescue his High School sweetheart who’d become a skid room bum, but after that this creek runs sadly dry. There were some cops on the iconic Police Story (a show you’ll be hearing more about from me, believe it) that were portrayed as caring and having something going on inside, but none of them came close to how Rockford was portrayed. He cared about the down-and-out and those that had nowhere else to turn. He was also sort of a Robin Hood, in his way. He didn’t take from the rich to give to the poor, of course, but man… he put away the rich in order to make sure the poor had some damn justice. And that counts, right?

I remember NEVER missing an episode as a kid. How could anyone, right? What with the show rocking as hard as it did? Rockford had that car, his own very cool, dilapidated pad, and a father he obviously loved and that obviously loved him back. I of course, being nine or ten, I didn’t have the first two, but I also unfortunately didn’t have the third one, either. I believe that’s why the father/son relationship (the father, Rocky, btw, was played to perfection by Noah Beery, Jr.) in The Rockford Files resonated with me so deeply as a kid. It’s also this relationship that set The Rockford Files apart from the other cop shows on TV at the time.

Gold Pontiac Firebird Esprit.
The gold Pontiac Firebird Esprit. Yes, that one.

Man, how I wanted to grow up to be Rockford!

As an aside, did you know that Garner did his own stunt driving in the show? It was he that pulled off what was called the “J Turn”, or “Rockford”; that famous turn-around at high speed they teach secret service drivers.

He influenced me so much as a kid, all I could dream about was living on the PCH in a single wide trailer. I told my mother that once, after watching the episode titled The Easy Red Dog, and she practically washed my mouth out with soap (we were VERY middle-class, living what was, at the time, the VERY middle-class bastion of Chatsworth, CA, before it got taken over by the porn industry).

Anyway . . . The episodes are streaming so you can “watch instantly.” Have at at them, my friends! And if you’ve been missing that unmistakable song, you can find it right here.

Robert Lewis grew up under the pier at Venice Beach, CA. There, by firelight, he would entertain the stray dogs with weird and wonderful tales. He’s still telling stories, but now he lives in a place with walls, a roof, and cases of red wine. Crime fiction and blues guitar are his things. He blogs over at NeedleCity, and twits sporadically and nonsensically as @robertklewis.


  1. Clare 2e

    I grew up with Rockford, Angel, those answering machine messages, that car! Didn’t know he’d driven himself–how cool is that?! Put on the Mancini theme and I’m transported back to those polyester pants, blue sportcoat, and checked shirts! The Rockford Files are why I never grew up thinking the P.I. life was glamorous.

  2. Harvey Burgess

    Great iconic moments like these bring back great memories. That’s what great (screen)writing can do! I hope in 40-odd years my PI Houston Cash is remembered just as fondly!

  3. RKLewis

    clare2e: YES. Rockford was ANYTHING but glamorous. I was actually very amazed at how well the show has held up, even kept in the amber glass of the 70’s. GREAT writing. GREAT acting. And they just seem to be having fun, ya’ know?

    Harvey Burgess: I totally agree. I wrote screenplays for over ten years, and I studied what makes some stories resonate after so long. Rockford is definitely one of those. Here’s to hoping Houston Cash is there, too. 🙂 (and man, those reviews are GREAT for “Kiss Her Goodbye”! I’m going to get a copy!)

  4. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    The PBS series Pioneers of Television did an episode on crime dramas that includes lots on The Rockford Files. If you haven’t seen it, find it…you will LOVE it. (Looks like it’s being rerun on some PBS stations in the next couple of weeks.) I confess I didn’t watch Rockford growing up, but James Garner is one of a kind. I really ought to sit down and watch the show, huh?

  5. S.K.Keogh

    LOVED that show! The humor was particularly awesome.

  6. RKLewis

    Leslie: Yes, you should! You won’t be disappointed, I swear!

    SK: RIGHT!?!?! the humor was one of the things that made it different from other shows of the time.

  7. Terrie Farley Moran

    Robert, thanks so much for this post. What memories! My children were in grade school during the Rockford years and we watched as a family every week. (Family tv, where has that gone? sigh.) My young son loved to wear sport coats and run a la Rockford with the jacket tails swaying behind him. “Do I run like Rockford? Do I, Mom?”

  8. Cheryl D

    Thanks for the memories. I loved the show. It didn’t hurt that James Garner was pretty hot back then!

  9. Rklewis

    Cheryl, lololol… love his sideburns, for sure.:-)

    Terrie, yeah…. I never missed an episode. We once went to Universal Studios, to take the tour, and they drove us by the Rockford trailer. I took MANY pictures, lol.

  10. Saundra Peck

    As a woman born in 1965, James Garner was a crush…sure he was older, but even a young girl like me knew a tough good guy who would always save her from the bad guys!!! $1oo a day plus expenses…and he almost never got paid!!! And if he did, it almost always went to someone else. Good times.

  11. Calista

    I’ll admit, I was just young enough to miss this airing, but it sounds like the perfect combination for an amazing show and character. Will definitely try to track it down!

  12. Colin Campbell

    [b]Iconic[/b]. Growing up what more could you want? I used to practice reverse handbrake turns in my patrol car on night duty in the 70s. Don’t tell the chief.

  13. Colin Campbell

    Oh, and SK1336. That was my collar number (without the SK bit.) Hope the chief isn’t reading this.

  14. RKLewis

    Colin! That’s so awesome, man! lolol… VERY cool, and no… I won’t tell the chief. 🙂

  15. sparkplug54

    [url=]clare2e[/url]… You’ve got the wrong great theme composer. Rockford was composed by Mike Post, who did many others, such as Simon & Simon. Mancini did the Love Boat and Charlie Angel’s. His stuff was more string based, while Post’s was more rockish

  16. Clare 2e

    You’re so right, sparkplug54– I’m getting them confused! Post was the epic, unforgettable Hill Street Blues theme. Thanks for keeping me on (8)track. I admit, the odd person in me who loves Welk arrangments must want to paint the world Mancini. Post does rock!

  17. david hartzog

    Great post. I grew up on James Garner movies in the 60s-Duel at Diablo, Mister Buddwing, Grand Prix, Americanization of Emily, Hour of the Gun, Marlowe-and watched Rockford at college. I miss him already.

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