Sonny (James Garner) and Rocky (Noah Beery Jr.)
: In the history of fiction -- in stories and books and plays and on screens large or small -- has anyone ever done a father-son relationship more powerful and cherishable, not to mention funny, than that of Joseph A. and James Scott Rockford? (At least I'm remembering that Rocky's middle initial was "A." I haven't been able to verify my recollection.)
"At a time when the networks were awash with hard-eyed, traditional Western heroes, Bret Maverick provided a breath of fresh air. With his sardonic tone and his eagerness to talk his way out of a squabble rather than pull out his six-shooter, the con-artist Westerner seemed to scoff at the genre's values."
This is going to be a little easier than I feared, in part because the AP's Frazier Moore has gotten down some of the most important points quite beautifully in his obit
. Here's how he begins:
Few actors could register disbelief, exasperation or annoyance with more comic subtlety.
James Garner had a way of widening his eyes while the corner of his mouth sagged ever so slightly. Maybe he would swallow once to further make his point.
This portrait of fleeting disquiet could be understood, and identified with, by every member of the audience. Never mind Garner was tall, brawny and, well, movie-star handsome. The persona he perfected was never less than manly, good with his dukes and charming to the ladies, but his heroics were kept human-scale thanks to his gift for the comic turn. He remained one of the people.
I hadn't really thought about this point about Garner's looks -- that he made such an irresistible Everyman-ish, little-guy figure even with those tall, brawny "movie-star handsome" looks. "He was so gorgeous," my mother said once of him, and I have to tell you, it wasn't a kind of remark I heard from her a lot.
Yeah, come to think of it, he was pretty darned gorgeous. And I don't imagine his looks worked against him when it came to finding work in Hollywood. Not that he was likely ever to be cast just
for his looks. Producers and directors who hired him knew that he could not only act but do most anything an actor can be asked to do. And in an enormously productive career, he did
just about everything, and did just about everything well. I gather he was especially fond of The Americanization of Emily
, the Paddy Chayefsky-Arthur Hiller film in which he costarred with Julie Andrews -- as well he should have been. It's a splendid movie and a splendid performance on his part. But, but --
Intending no disrespect to Jim Garner, there are other actors who could have done that role. When he was cast best, it was in roles that no one else could have done, roles that could burrow into your consciousness and become part of your way of looking at the world.
Obviously I'm thinking above all of his two legendary TV characters, Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford. To return to Frazier Moore:
The 86-year-old Garner, who was found dead of natural causes at his Los Angeles home on Saturday, was adept at drama and action. But he was best known for his low-key, wisecracking style, especially on his hit TV series, Maverick and The Rockford Files.
His quick-witted avoidance of conflict offered a refreshing new take on the American hero, contrasting with the blunt toughness of John Wayne and the laconic trigger-happiness of Clint Eastwood.
It was in 1957 when the ABC network, desperate to compete on ratings-rich Sunday night, scheduled Maverick against CBS's powerhouse The Ed Sullivan Show and NBC's The Steve Allen Show. To everyone's surprise — except Garner's — Maverick soon outpolled them both.
At a time when the networks were awash with hard-eyed, traditional Western heroes, Bret Maverick provided a breath of fresh air. With his sardonic tone and his eagerness to talk his way out of a squabble rather than pull out his six-shooter, the con-artist Westerner seemed to scoff at the genre's values.
Yes, exactly! (Frazier points out that the real-life Jim Garner "displayed real-life bravery," winning two Purple Hearts for combat wounds suffered during his service in the Korean War.)
Later Roy Huggins, the creator of Maverick
(and of such big-time TV series as 77 Sunset Strip
and The Fugitive
), had the inspiration -- or just good sense -- to bring those unique qualities back to the tube. Bringing in as collaborator the still-young future TV legend Stephen J. Cannell, he created The Rockford Files
Here's Frazier again (and this is absolutely terrific):
There's no better display of Garner's everyman majesty than the NBC series The Rockford Files (1974-80). He played an L.A. private eye and wrongly jailed ex-con who seemed to rarely get paid, or even get thanks, for the cases he took, while helplessly getting drawn into trouble to help someone who was neither a client nor maybe even a friend. He lived in a trailer with an answering machine that, in the show's opening titles, always took a message that had nothing to do with a paying job, but more often was a complaining call from a cranky creditor.
Through it all, Jim Rockford, however down on his luck, persevered hopefully. He wore the veneer of a cynic, but led with his heart. Putting all that on screen was Garner's magic.
What TV does so well, a point we keep coming back to, is character
. And the greatness of The Rockford Files
had everything to do with character, and while, crucially, the show's brilliant characterizations were by no means limited to its central character, it was all done in terms of relationships with Jim.
lists as stars, in addition to Jim Garner: Noah Beery Jr., Jose Santos, Gretchen Corbett, and Stuart Margolin, and they're all splendid examples of what the show could do with relationships built around Jim Rockford: the simply mind-blowingly beautiful as well as hilarious relationship with his father; his friendship with Detective Sgt. (later Lieut.) Dennis Becker (and how big a deal was it when Dennis finally made lieutenant?), the no-longer-romantic (at least on Jim's part) but totally trusting relationship with his long-suffering unpaid lawyer, Beth Davenport; and the side-splitting tug-of-war with his incandescently sleazy ex-prison pal Evelyn (Angel) Martin.
We could go on and on with just the series regulars and irregulars (the Wikipedia Rockford Files article
has a nice list of "intermittently recurring players"), but then there are the dozens and dozens of actors, well-known and not so well-known, who created such searingly memorable characters through all six of those seasons. I wouldn't even know where to start, but how about Tom Selleck's two episodes as the golden boy of L.A. PIs, Lance White, the effortlessly self-promoting -- though rigidly honest -- investigatorial nitwit who plays the role of genius PI so triumphantly, while managing to make Jim look (and feel) like nobody? Or Rita Moreno's three episodes as hopefully but woefully striving ex-hooker Rita Capkovic?
There are probably 30 actors whose Rockford Files
work we ought to talk about in detail. Just about everybody who worked on the show seems to have done work that would stand among the richest and most distinctive he/she would ever do. It seems pretty clear that far from wanting to hog the limelight, Jim Garner wanted to work with the best people he could -- and always helped make them look their best.
Not to mention the producers and writers -- including, in addition to Roy Huggins and Steven J. Cannell, such future TV heavyweights as David Chase and Chas Floyd Johnson.
Still, all of it orbited around that man at the center of the show, and all that magic he somehow managed to put on screen.
A NOTE ABOUT THE ROCKFORD TV MOVIES
IT'S A BUSINESS, FOLKS
James Garner talks HERE about having his knee destroyed in Season 2 of The Rockford Files, then having the show canceled two-thirds of the way through Season 6 when he informed his superiors that, with his body in collapse, his doctor had told him he couldn't work. It eventually became well-known how much of his body Jim had sacrificed to the grueling rigors of his role, to keep himself and everybody on the show employed. There was a good deal of acrimony between him and the studio (Universal) and network (NBC), which reminds us how much network TV-series production resembles -- or maybe is -- factories churning out assembly-line product. But sometimes that "product" achieves immortality.
I note that I haven't mentioned the eight Rockford Files TV movies eventually made for CBS (1994-99). I've only started rewatching them (as I've written here, I took the drastic step, and paid the considerable price, to import the second of the two DVD volumes, never released here, from Germany), and so far I'm thinking I may wind up liking them more than I did when they were new -- and not really reincarnations of the original series. But then, Jim Rockford wasn't the same Jim Rockford either. It's one thing for a fellow 20 years younger to be living in a trailer (admittedly on the beach at Malibu). For a fellow of the TV-movie Jim's age, it's something else to still be living in what, however expanded and remodeled, is still a trailer. I guess I'm of an age now where an autumnal Jim may be of more interest. That said, the TV movies still seem to me to have OK writing and acting, which wasn't the standard set by the original series. That standard was, to borrow Frazier Moore's apt word: magic.
Labels: TV Watch