The Rockford Files is an American television drama series which aired on the NBC network between September 13, 1974 and January 10, 1980. It has remained in regular syndication to the present day. The show stars James Garner as Los Angeles-based private investigator Jim Rockford and features Noah Beery, Jr. as his father, a retired truck driver.
The show was created by Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell. Huggins had created the television show Maverick (1957–1962), which had also starred Garner, and he wanted to try to recapture that magic in a “modern day” detective setting. He teamed with Cannell, who had written for Jack Webb productions such as Adam-12 and Chase (1973–74, NBC), to create Rockford.
The show was credited as “A Public Arts / Roy Huggins Production” along with Universal Studios and in association with Cherokee Productions. Cherokee was the name of Garner’s own company, which he ran with partners Meta Rosenberg and Juanita Bartlett, who doubled as story editor during most of Rockford’s run.
The series’ theme by composers Mike Post and Pete Carpenter was released as a single and went to #10 on the Billboard Hot 100, remaining on the chart for 16 weeks. and won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement for 1975.
In 2002, The Rockford Files was ranked #39 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.
The Rockford Files continues to air in re-runs today. A pilot for a remake of the series was written and produced for NBC by David Shore in 2010, with Dermot Mulroney playing the title character, but was not picked up by the network due to complaints that it was not written well and the lead was miscast. NBC then gave it to Peter Berg to rewrite and produce. As of January 2011, the project is still in development at NBC.
Producers Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell devised the main character to be a rather significant departure from typical television detectives of the time, essentially Maverick as a modern detective. Rockford had served time in California’s San Quentin Prison in the 1960s due to a wrongful conviction. After five years, he received a pardon. His infrequent jobs as a private investigator barely allow him to maintain his dilapidated mobile home (which doubles as his office) in a parking lot on the beaches of Malibu, California.
Each episode of the show begins with a cold open of a telephone answering machine recording, usually something humorous, often made by a client giving excuses for not paying Rockford’s rate of “$200 a day, plus expenses”.
In early episodes of the show’s first season, Rockford’s trailer is located in a parking lot alongside the highway (address 2354 Pacific Coast Hwy) and near the ocean; for the rest of the series, the trailer is at Paradise Cove (address 29 Cove Road), adjacent to a pier and a restaurant (The Sand Castle now known as the Paradise Cove Beach Cafe).
In the series of TV movies from 1994–1999, Rockford is still living in a trailer, but it has been extensively enlarged and remodeled.
In contrast to most TV private eyes of the time, Rockford wears low-budget ‘off the rack’ clothing and does his best to hopefully avoid fights. He rarely carries his Colt Detective Special revolver, for which he does not have a permit, preferring to talk his way out of trouble. He works on cold cases, missing persons investigations, and low-budget insurance scams, and he repeatedly states in the series that he does not handle “open cases” to avoid trouble with the police.
Familiar to viewers of the show was Jim Rockford’s gold Pontiac Firebird Esprit automobile, which Rockford always took through its paces. One oft-recurring element of the show was the famous “Jim Rockford turn-around” (also known as a J-turn or “Rockford”, and commonly employed as an evasive driving technique taught to Secret Service agents driving for the President of the United States). When trying to evade someone tailing him or when otherwise cornered, Rockford would shift into reverse, speed up backwards in a straight line and sharply turn his wheels. This maneuver would spin his car around 180 degrees and he would then quickly shift back into forward gear, speeding off to escape while maintaining a straight course the whole time. James Garner claimed in a Season One DVD interview that he performed this stunt himself for the duration of the series. The car’s license number, 853OKG is currently assigned to a look-alike Firebird driven in and around the city of Riverside, CA.
The show’s title sequence began with someone leaving a message on Rockford’s answering machine, which were still novel in 1974. A different message was heard in each episode. These frequently had to do with creditors to whom Rockford owed money, or deadbeat clients who owed money to him. They were usually unrelated to the rest of the plot. As the series went on, this gimmick became a burden for the show’s writers, who had to come up with a different joke every week. Suggestions from staffers and crew were often used.