With a few rings, you knew you were going to get a classy, thrilling hour of solving mysteries and beating up bad guys, or…getting beat up, he took some licks, too. But watching The Rockford Files was a family affair back in the late 1970s. And with two talented creators, one being Stephen Cannell, fresh off creating the short-lived unconventional cop show, Chase, and the other was Roy Huggins, who had worked previously with James Garner on a handful of episodes of Maverick, then creating the wildly popular 1960’s show The Fugitive. With this talented bunch leading the way, why then, was there a sudden break and frankly an unsatisfying finale? And what other “files” or surprises were hidden away? What health scares and personal feuds went on behind the scenes of such a beloved show?
Today we’re investigating the subtle, secret ways The Rockford Files gave us a series worthy of multiple Primetime Emmys and made it into the top 50 of TV Guide’s Greatest Shows of All Time. Now, let’s re-open the Rockford Files!
Crafting a Character
The Rockford Files is used to being on top—a lot more than its main character. The series has a long stay on Top 100, Top 50, and even Top 10 greatest show lists, and the reasons usually point to critical writing and a strong cast with great chemistry. But the core of what made The Rockford Files so beloved was the refreshing break from genre conventions. No one would compare Jim Rockford to James Bond, except to point out how different they are. One’s a suave lady’s man and the other is hapless, usually broke, and sometimes doesn’t even hurt the bad guy he’s fighting…or simply hurts himself.
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Casting this lovable everyman was no problem. Co-creator Huggins knew Garner from his iconic Maverick, and it was the spirit of that series that inspired Huggins to reshape it into this program. This gave him the perfect set up to keep the same formula. Bret Maverick was a break from the strong, danger-loving cowboy. Maverick was unusually wholesome instead of morally gray, and the guy wasn’t in a rush to get hurt. Sound familiar? Huggins decided to take Maverick, from the 1800s to present day, this time breaking the Private Eye norms. Rockford didn’t carry a gun permit…or a gun. Instead, it lived in a cookie jar covered in coffee beans. Shootouts were too violent for the story they wanted to tell, hence all the car chases, further ingraining this different but exciting series.
At first, this bumbling character was intended to be utilized in the dramatic crime series Toma, that Huggins wrote 13 episodes for, but the networks read the script and said wait, this is way too funny, so they instructed him to remove the humor. The re-written script was used as the pilot for Toma, but the Rockford energy was still too jarringly funny for NBC. Garner was a perfect match for Rockford, it’s kinda his birthright. His full name is James Scott Garner, and this iconic character was named James Scott Rockford.
The Rockford Files intro showed Jim not answering the phone before it was cool, and it created one of the most quoted answering machines ever. There were 122 unique answering machine messages across six seasons! It’s understandable, then, that sometimes the creativity well dried up. So, the writers would ask for ideas from anyone on payroll. They were all meant to have a comedic or absurd feeling, and sometimes referenced past events.
Then came the theme song, high energy, and thrills, just like the show! You could never accuse Rockford Files of cutting corners; they recruited some of the biggest names in the industry.. For several episodes, the writing team had David Chase, who’d go on to be the brain behind The Sopranos. Same goes for music. Mike Post is the composer behind Magnum PI, LA Law, Law and Order, and his colleague Pete Carpenter composed for some of our nostalgic favorites including The Andy Griffith Show, and Gomer Pyle, and oh my stars – Bewitched!
So it’s no surprise that the Rockford tune became a hit! It peaked at number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Any soccer fans, or should I say football fans, out there? The Tranmere Rovers from Britain are big fans of Rockford, and the squad sometimes runs onto the field with the theme song blaring. Gotta have goals. If these bops have you wanting to call up Rockford with a new case, you can – sort of. He has a phone number, of course. It’s (311) 555-2368, but there are a few things wrong here. As far back as the ‘50s, phone companies set 555 aside. That’s why just about every piece of media with a phone number uses 555… the biggest exception being 867-5309. Another blip is that during the series run, nowhere used 311 as an area code. LA was still on 213, and 310 wasn’t even around yet! But dial that number and who you gonna call? Ghostbusters, since they had that phone number, too!
Putting his whole heart – and knees – into it
James Garner was no stranger to action and dangerous fights. He insisted on doing his own stunts, especially fistfights and car chases. That’s great dedication, but it came at a cost.
His knees were pummeled over and over, and Garner suffered from ulcers. That’s not even mentioning the back pain. It could be crippling, and he kept taking a beating as the series went on. Of course, doctors told Garner to take it easy, and by season six, he had to bow out from the sheer agony his body was in. Call in the stunt double.
One running gag was that Rockford couldn’t remember license plate numbers correctly, which is kind of a big deal when tracking down a perp. But Garner could never forget his character’s plate because it was so tied to his own life. His agent had the idea of 853-OKG. The first three numbers are actually a date: August 1953, when Garner first began acting. OKG stands for his home state of Oklahoma, and his last name.
That sits on the back of Rockford’s famous “copper mist” Pontiac Firebird Esprit. New year meant new car model, always in that same hue, and they HAD to be able to perform the patented J-turn, Rockford’s favorite evasive maneuver. Even though it was usually to get him out of a sticky situation, driven—pun intended—by fear, this same move is even taught to Secret Service agents!
Financial fame and folly
Just as powerful as its main cast was, Rockford Files’ slew of supporting characters and guest stars was impressive too. In the past, Universal paid Garner $25,000 per episode. It also hosted MANY big names in the industry, like Bill Mumy of Lost in Space fame, Abe Vigoda from Barney Miller, the Bionic Woman herself Lindsay Wagner, and even Tom Selleck; later on, Magnum characters would reference an episode of Rockford Files, the same one its star appeared in!
All these big names shone brightly under the balmy clear skies of scenic Malibu, Los Angeles, an actual police station, and sometimes a studio. The fact of the matter is Rockford Files spared no expense recruiting the best and filming on-location with authenticity whenever possible. Jim’s trailer was filmed right along the Pacific Coast Highway—in fact, head on over to 29 Cove Road if you want to go on a Rockford Pilgrimage.
A lot of the stunts were practical too, like when Jim’s car was actually damaged, and that meant always needing repairs or even replacements. Garner once said producers paid $700 to have a wooden crate built, just to break it in a scene on a shipyard…already full of wooden crates! All this dedication had a hefty price tag. Some inside sources say the show lost money into the millions! So, when the series lost its leading man, NBC decided to pull the plug as well, halfway through the season. Yikes.
By the time Garner was done with The Rockford Files—the first round, anyway—he was nominated for an Emmy five straight years, winning in 1977. But that didn’t mean everything was rosy when the cameras stopped.
Like any great series, Rockford Files went into syndication, giving it even more exposure, and of course, more profit potential. Universal had hope for Rockford and thought promoting it would spark enough interest that it could start up again. Problem was, for a while now Garner didn’t think he was getting paid enough. This was a problem for a while. His response: sue Universal for $2.2 million, or 37.5% of the net profits. The ensuing battle lasted years. Finally, Universal did settle with the actor outside of court. No one knows the exact terms, but Thankfully, it was enough to broker some peace so that we could see Garner in that gorgeous Pontiac Firebird again.
Return of Rockford
When the dust settled from those contract disputes, actor and studio agreed to create eight TV movies, this time on CBS. For the most part, it was the cast reunion we always hoped for, except sadly Beery died in ‘94. So, the first in the series has a nice dedication to his memory saying, quote: “We love you and miss you, Pidge,” referencing his nickname.
The films were released from 1994 to ’99 and took place 15 years after the show’s unexpected, mid-season ending. They stayed true to the charm of the original but didn’t quite have the same energy. That was pretty deliberate though, too, since the whole passage of time was felt. For one thing, SPOILER, Rocky dies, giving us a sobering reminder of the importance of life. They also leaned into Garner’s own aging and physical limitations. Injuries caused him to step down the first time, and aging is practically a plot point in the movies; it doesn’t just go away, after all.
Everyone loves callbacks, and that worked great for the movies; old contacts could reappear and ask for help, and of course, Rockford obliged, but we could see and even hear the toll it took on him sometimes. It also was the show’s chance to tie up loose ends. Viewers finally got some closure. But did it work? Was this the ending you wanted for the team? Please get in the comments and tell us your thoughts below!
The Rockford Files was the quintessential crime series. A tradition that can keep on through the generations, the character was so finely crafted. And It’s also a testament to the series that it weathered drama that would have decimated other programs, and when it came back, it knew we wanted some closure and it delivered. So, what was your favorite moment from the series? Is this the best Private Eye show of all time? Get in the comments and let me know your top three! We read them all!