Monday, April 07, 2008

That’s a Lot of Candles to Blow Out

We have a couple of birthdays to celebrate today, both from the TV crime-drama category.

The first and most significant, of course, is the 80th birthday of Rockford Files star James Garner, an actor who may never have given a bad performance. I’ve not only been watching the DVDs of Rockford lately, but have managed to acquire an almost complete collection of Bret Maverick, the NBC series (and revival of the 1950s TV western Maverick) that he went on to do after leaving Rockford. What a treat.

Since I wrote about Garner at length last year, on the occasion of his 79th birthday, I shan’t try to outdo myself this time. I’ll simply wish him the best on this most momentous of occasions.

Today also happens to be the 75th birthday of Birmingham, Alabama-born actor Wayne Rogers, who left the hit show M*A*S*H after only three seasons to star as 1930s Los Angeles private eye Jake Axminter in NBC’s City of Angels. A Roy Huggins-Stephen J. Cannell series, Angels debuted with a bang-up three-part opener in February 1976, but by May it was off the air, with just 13 episodes in the can. Although it was clearly designed to take advantage of the popularity of Jack Nicholson’s Chinatown, which had hit movie screens in 1974, City of Angels had much to commend it, including Rogers’ performances as a down-at-heel gumshoe always on the edge of either exploding or committing homicide; Elaine Joyce’s role as his cute but near-ditzy secretary, Marsha Finch, who runs a switchboard for hookers; and stories that really brought forth the social and political conditions of that bygone era, whether it be Depression-caused tramping or the rise of Nazism. Rogers later lamented having left M*A*S*H to do this series, but in an interview I conducted several years ago with prolific novelist Max Allan Collins (creator of another early 20th-century P.I., Nate Heller), he stated that “City of Angels is the best private eye series ever, and is probably the biggest single influence on Nate Heller. The show did several historically based stories, that prefigure what I did, and Wayne Rogers was a great wiseguy private eye, very much a nontraditional, selfish, sometimes cowardly, sometimes reckless hero in the Roy Huggins Maverick/Rockford Files vein.”

Since City of Angels, Rogers has appeared in a number of films and TV series, including five guest shots on Murder, She Wrote, playing (as Wikipedia notes) Charlie Garrett, “a disreputable private investigator who usually gets into trouble and needs Jessica [Fletcher]’s help.” (What would the resourceful Jake Axminster have said about that?) He also reprised Larry Hagman’s original role as Major Tony Nelson in the 1985 teleflick I Dream of Jeannie: 15 Years Later--but we’ll just forget about that dud, OK?

More recently, Rogers has become a successful entrepreneur as well as a very visible stock trader and financial commentator, appearing with some regularity on Fox News’ Cashin’ In. In 2005, he was honored with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. He also promotes himself as a public speaker. But if it’s jake with you, I’ll remember him best as Axminster.

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