It was 40 years ago tonight that The Rockford Files, starring James Garner, debuted on NBC-TV with an episode titled “The Kirkoff Case.” I was still just a kid back then, but I have a strong memory of sitting down in front of my family’s too-small black-and-white TV set to watch that new weekly private-eye series for the first time. The show had a bankable star in Garner, who’d initially made his name on the 1957-1960 Western Maverick, but had gone on to feature in such big-screen hits as The Americanization of Emily, Grand Prix, Marlowe, Support Your Local Sheriff!, and Skin Game. Rockford was also re-teaming Garner with writer and producer Roy Huggins, who had created Maverick (before developing 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive, and many other programs). Small-screen critics in 1974 sounded notably optimistic about The Rockford Files’ future.
I recall one column in particular, written during the summer of 1974 by Francis Murphy, the longtime TV reviewer for my hometown newspaper, the Portland Oregonian. It began: “James Garner believes that his new series, The Rockford Files, will contain overtones of the dry sense of humor that made Maverick such a hit. Garner calls it the ‘Holy cow, I’m going to get killed’ attitude.” During an interview conducted in Beverly Hills, California, the actor had described for Murphy the essence of his character, Jim Rockford:
I’m a [Los Angeles] private detective. I’ve spent five years in [San Quentin] prison on a bum rap. I like people and have empathy for those in trouble. I put on a business-like exterior but I’m a soft touch.TV Guide subsequently devoted a full page to The Rockford Files in its September 7, 1974, Fall Preview edition (see the image on the left, which you can right-click to enlarge). Its typically cheeky write-up added a few more details to the series’ concept:
I deal with closed files, or rather inactive cases which no longer interest the police. I help people who have been unjustly accused or whose reputation has been smeared. I have a gun, but with my record I can’t get a permit to use it, so I keep it in a coffee can.
Rockford is especially interested in cases the police have not been able to solve. This does not make him terribly popular at police headquarters, but he trudges onward, smiling that amiable Garner smile, tailing suspects, being tailed by other suspects, trying to talk people out of beating him up, and hoping that this week, for a change, the seductive woman who has invited him to her apartment won’t pull a gun on him.The 90-minute Rockford pilot film, which guest-starred lovely Lindsay Wagner (and can be watched right here), was first broadcast on Wednesday, March 27, 1974. It drew high ratings and established the framework of the series to follow. James Scott Rockford was a Korean War veteran (just like Garner), who lived in a trailer on the beach at Santa Monica (initially at 2354 Pacific Coast Highway, but later at 29 Cove Road). The trailer was also his business office, which--as he explained in the pilot--could be moved whenever he took cases out of town (though I don’t believe it was ever carted around for those purposes). Rockford charged $200 a day for his services, plus expenses, though he was frequently either cheated out of his pay or waved it to help clients in need. He drove a gold-colored Pontiac Firebird Esprit, which he often piloted at excessive speeds while chasing or outrunning crooks. His father, Joseph “Rocky” Rockford (portrayed in the pilot by Robert Donley, but in the later series by Noah Beery Jr.) was a retired truck driver, who spent more than a little time and wasted breath trying to talk “Jimmy” into ditching P.I. work in favor of wheeling big rigs about the country. Rocky often (if sometimes reluctantly) came to the aid of his only son on difficult cases, but so did other of Rockford’s friends, especially beleaguered Sergeant Dennis Becker (Joe Santos) of the LAPD; Elizabeth “Beth” Davenport (Gretchen Corbett), Rockford’s well-off lawyer and on-and-off girlfriend; and Evelyn “Angel” Martin (Stuart Margolin), an ex-con/con man buddy of Rockford, who couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble--or stop from mixing Rockford up in that same trouble.
NBC’s original notion had been to schedule the hour-long Rockford series on Sunday nights at 10 p.m., following The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie and in bare-knuckle contention against CBS-TV’s Mannix, which featured Mike Connors as yet another L.A. gumshoe. Prior to its debut, however, The Rockford Files was shuffled over to the 9-10 p.m. slot on Friday nights, after the sitcoms Sanford and Son and Chico and the Man, and preceding Angie Dickinson’s new crime drama, Police Woman. Nobody knew then how smart a move that would be, or that The Rockford Files would last six seasons, win a shelf-load of Emmy Awards, and become one of the most successful and beloved private-eye series ever shown on American television. Garner, who had previously played Raymond Chandler’s P.I., Philip Marlowe, in Marlowe, created in Jim Rockford a character who would become a model for other TV (and book) private eyes to come.
No, none of that could have been predicted on Friday, September 13, 1974, when The Rockford Files initially flickered onto TV screens across the United States, with a stylish opening sequence including theme music composed by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter. Viewers who had followed the show’s pre-debut publicity knew only that James Garner (whose 1971-1972 NBC series, Nichols, had failed to catch on) was returning to television in a Bret Maverick-style role that seemed perfect for him. At 9 p.m. that night, we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. We weren’t disappointed.
WATCH MORE: If you’d like to watch “The Kirkoff Case,” that first regular Rockford Files episode, click here.