The Rockford Files was a very successful private eye series that aired on NBC from 1974 to 1980. James Garner played the lead character, Jim Rockford.
What made The Rockford Files unusual for an American private eye series was that Jim Rockford was not a suave glamorous private eye. Rockford is an ex-con and he lives in a trailer. He wears cheap off-the-rack clothes. As American TV private eyes go Rockford is very close to the bottom of the food chain.
This approach had already been used with great success in the British series Public Eye which ran from 1965 to 1975. Frank Marker, the unlikely hero of Public Eye, is also an ex-con and he is also a very down-market and rather seedy private eye. Like Jim Rockford he has an uneasy relationship with the police, being always conscious that a man who has been in prison has to be extraordinarily cautious in dealing with cops. Being an American series The Rockford Files is naturally much more action-orientated although it is notable that Rockford rarely carries a gun.
Jim Rockford prefers to deal with cold cases. Open cases lead to problems with the police. In fact Jim manages to get himself involved in difficulties with the cops no matter what sort of cases he takes on. He’s not the most tactful individual and he has a stubborn streak that leads him to accept cases he’d be better off avoiding.
James Garner is perfectly cast in this series. He captures the rather seedy spirit of Jim Rockford perfectly. Rockford would like to be a glamorous PI but he doesn’t have the money and he doesn’t have the class. No matter how hard he tries he looks cheap. That’s not to say he’s not an admirable character is his own way. His stubbornness makes him an effective detective and while he’d hate to be thought of as a soft touch the fact remains that he finds it difficult to turn down a case when the client has a convincing sob story. And once a case captures his interest nothing will persuade him to let it go.
While Rockford very rarely carries a gun (he claims to be terrified of them) there’s no shortage of action. So far, judging by the season 1 episodes I’ve watched, the action sequences are more imaginatively staged than you generally expect in a TV series. The pilot episode features a duel between a man on the ground with a handgun and a guy in an aircraft with a machine-gun. Another early episode features a rather witty car chase on a golf course. Tall Woman in Red Wagon has action scenes in a cemetery. In yet another episode there’s a very clever car chase in a car park.
It seems like some real effort was put into giving this series a distinctive flavour, with the slightly offbeat action sequences being part of this strategy. The fact that Rockford doesn’t carry a gun proves to be an advantage, forcing the writers and the directors to come up with action scenes that don’t involve gunplay.
By 1974 you could be forgiven for thinking that the television private eye genre had been mined for every possible ounce of ore but The Rockford Files manages to feel reasonably fresh.
This series is readily available on DVD in most markets.