No other actor could play a private detective registering the range of annoyance, frustration, determination, surprise and wit as well as James Garner. With his passing, we lost not only an acting legend, but an icon of the detective genre in the Jim Rockford character.
Garner made his mark with “Maverick,” but that was before my time. I got acquainted with Garner watching reruns of the “Rockford Files” and seeing places in Malibu where I’d grown up. He lived in a beat-up trailer at Paradise Cove.
Stephen J. Cannell, who was a brilliant writer, created “The Rockford Files,” but Garner personified the P.I. who was perpetually down on his luck, had money problems, woman problems, a dicey relationship with the police, and his father constantly judging him – yet he could be charming and humorous.
An ex-con who’d been pardoned, Rockford found himself on the wrong end of almost every situation he got himself into. He was lied to, beaten up, and occasionally framed. Often his scam-artist pal Angel (played perfectly by Stuart Margolin) dragged Rockford into hot water.
As opposed to Joe Friday, Rockford had little under control and even though he tried avoiding conflict and danger, he’d wander into it anyway. About every episode had a car chase. Rockford always quoted his rate at two hundred a day, plus expenses, but he seldom got paid.
The series is one of the better representations of Malibu, Los Angeles, and Southern California in the 1970s, fashion included.
Rockford was, in a way, an evolution of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Lew Archer into a newly dimensioned character with an understated wit and humor that writers used to good effect with Garner. Flawed and dumped into bad situations, yet does the right thing in the end. The grumpy yet clever Rockford took more than his share of lumps and didn’t try to be the hero, but the audience loved him.
Garner was an incredibly versatile actor. Two of the movies I particularly remember him in are “The Great Escape” and “Victor Victoria.”
Garner broke a contract with Warner Bros and sued Universal for profits from “The Rockford Files.” He wasn’t afraid to fight the system, and by all accounts, he was great to work with, generous with the crews, and a down-to-earth guy.
The 1970s-1980s was a time when P.I. shows were abundant – “Charlie’s Angels,” “Vega$,” “Simon and Simon,” “Magnum P.I.,” “Moonlighting,” and “Murder She Wrote.”
But nobody could top James Garner at conveying the ups and downs of life as a private detective with such humanity and grace.