Rockford Files, The

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents




The Rockford Files is generally regarded (along with Harry O) as one of the finest private eye series of the 1970s, and indeed of all time, consistently ranked at or near the top in polls of viewers, critics, and mystery writers. The series offered superbly-plotted mysteries, with the requisite amounts of action, yet it was also something of a revisionist take on the hard-boiled detective genre, grounded more in character than crime, and infused with humor and realistic relationships. Driven by brilliant writing, an ensemble of winning characters, and the charm of its star, James Garner, the series went from prime-time Nielsen hit in the seventies, to a syndication staple with a loyal cult following in the eighties, spawning a series of made-for-TV movie sequels beginning in 1994.

The show was created by producer Roy Huggins and writer Stephen J. Cannell. Huggins originally sketched the premise of a private eye who only took on closed cases (a conceit quickly abandoned in the series), at one point intending to introduce the character in an episode of the cop show Toma. Huggins assigned the script to Cannell--a professed aficionado of the hard-boiled detective tradition--who decided to have fun with the story by flouting the genre's clichés and breaking its rules. After the Toma connection crumbled, James Garner signed on to the project, NBC agreed to finance the pilot, and The Rockford Files was born.

Cannell was largely responsible for the character and the concept that finally emerged in the pilot script and the series. Jim Rockford did indeed break the mold set by television's earlier two-fisted chivalric P.I.s. His headquarters was a mobile home parked at the beach rather than a shabby office off Sunset Boulevard; in lieu of a gorgeous secretary, an answering machine took his messages; he preferred to talk, rather than slug, his way out of a tight spot; and he rarely carried a gun. (When one surprised client asked why, Rockford replied, "Because I don't want to shoot anybody.") No troubled loner, Jim Rockford spent much of his free time fishing or watching TV with his father Joe Rockford (Noah Beery, Jr.), a retired trucker with a vocal antipathy to "Jimmy's" chosen profession. Inspired by an episode of Mannix in which that tough-guy P.I. took on a child's case for some loose change and a lollipop, Cannell decided to make his creation "the Jack Benny of private eyes." Rockford always announced his rates up front: $200 a day, plus expenses (which he itemized with abandon). He was tenacious on the job, but business was business--and he had payments on the trailer.

For all of its ostensible rule-breaking, however, The Rockford Files hewed closely to the hard-boiled tradition in style and theme. The series' depiction of L.A.'s sun-baked streets and seamy underbelly rivals the novels of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. Chandler, in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," could have been writing about Jim Rockford when he describes the hard-boiled detective as a poor man, a common man, a man of honor, who talks with the rude wit of his age. Rockford's propensity for wisecracks, his fractious relationship with the police, and his network of shady underworld connections, lead straight back to Dashiell Hammett by way of Chandler and Rex Stout. As for his aversion to fisticuffs, Rockford was not a coward, but a pragmatist, different only by degree (if at all) from Philip Marlowe; when violence was inevitable, he was as tough as nails. Most tellingly of all, he shared the same code as his L.A. predecessors Marlowe and Lew Archer: an unwavering sense of morality, and an almost obsessive thirst for the truth. Thus, despite his ostensible concern for the bottom line, in practice Rockford ended up doing as much or more charity work as any fictional gumshoe (as in "The Reincarnation of Angie," when the soft-hearted sleuth agrees to take on a distressed damsel's case for his "special sucker rate" of $23.74).

Ultimately--perhaps inevitably--all of Cannell's generic revisionism served to make his hero more human, and the stories that much more realistic. Jim Rockford could be the Jack Benny of private eyes precisely because he was the first TV private eye--perhaps the first literary one--to be created as a fully credible human being, rather than simply a dogged, alienated purveyor of justice. The Rockford Files was as much about character and relationships as it was about crime and detection. The presence of Rockford's father was more than a revisionist or comic gimmick. Although "Rocky" and Jim's wrangling was the source of much humor, that humor was credible and endearing; their relationship was the emotional core of the show, underlining Jim's essential humanity--and subtly, implicitly, sketching in a history for the detective. By the same token, a tapestry of supporting and recurring characters gave Rockford a life beyond the case at hand: L.A.P.D. Sergeant Dennis Becker (Joe Santos), Jim's buddy on the force, served a stock genre function as a source of favors and threats, but their friendship, which played out apart from the precinct and the crime scene, added another dimension of character; likewise, Jim's attorney and sometimes girlfriend Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett) further fleshed out the details of his personal life, and served as an able foil for Becker and his more ill-tempered superiors (in the process imparting a dash of seventies feminism to the show); and Angel Martin (Stuart Margolin), Rockford's San Quentin cellmate, the smallest of small-time grifters, the weasel's weasel, at once hilarious and pathetic, evoked Rockford's prison past, evinced his familiarity with L.A.'s seamier side, and balanced Rocky's hominess with an odious measure of sleaze. These regular members of the Rockford family, and a host of distinctive recurring characters--cops, clients, crooks, con-men, ex-cons--helped create, over time, a web of relationships that grounded Rockford, investing it with a more intense and continuing appeal than would a strict episodic focus on crime and detection.

As the preceding might suggest, The Rockford Files was underlined with a warmth not usually associated with the private eye genre. Much of the show's distinctiveness was its emphasis on humor, exploiting Garner's comic gifts (and his patented persona of "reluctant hero") and the humor of the protagonist's often prickly relationships with his dad, Becker, Angel, and his clients. In later seasons the series occasionally veered into parody--especially in the episodes featuring dashing, wealthy, virtuous detective Lance White (Tom Selleck), and bumbling, pulp-fiction-addled, would-be private-eye Freddie Beamer (James Whitmore, Jr.)--and even flirted with self-parody, as the show's signature car chases became more and more elaborate and (sometimes) comical (as when Rockford is forced to give chase in a VW bug with an enormous pizza adorning the top). Even so, the series was faithful to its hard-boiled heritage. Yet the series also brought a contemporary sensibility to the hard-boiled tradition's anti-authority impulses, assailing political intrigue, official corruption, and bureaucratic absurdity with a distinctly post-Watergate cynicism.

Rockford's most profound homage to the detective tradition was first-rate writing, and a body of superbly-realized mysteries. Cannell and Juanita Bartlett wrote the bulk of the series' scripts, and most of its best, with writer-producer David Chase (I'll Fly Away, Northern Exposure) also a frequent contributor of top-notch work. Mystery author Donald Westlake, quoted in The Best of Crime and Detective TV, captures the series' central strengths in noting that "the complexity of the plots and the relationships between the characters were novelistic." John D. MacDonald, critiquing video whodunits for TV Guide, proposed that in terms of "believability, dialogue, plausibility of character, plot coherence, The Rockford Files comes as close to meeting the standards of the written mystery as anything I found." During its run the series was nominated for the Writer's Guild Award and the Mystery Writer's of America "Edgar" Award, in addition to winning the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series in 1978.

The Rockford Files ran for five full seasons, coming to a premature end in the middle of the sixth, when Garner left the show due to a variety of physical ailments brought on by the strenuous demands of the production. Yet Rockford never really left the air; not only has the series remained steadily popular in syndication and on cable, three of a projected six made-for-television reunion movies aired on CBS between 1994 and 1996 (the first scoring blockbuster ratings). In addition, a loyal cult following celebrates the series on the Rockford Files Web site, and Internet discussion groups. The show's rather rapid canonization as a touchstone of the private eye genre is evinced by its conscious imitation or outright quotation in subsequent series including Magnum P.I., Detective in the House, and Charlie Grace.

The Rockford Files marked a significant step in the evolution of the television detective, honoring the traditional private eye tale with well-crafted mysteries, and enriching the form with what television does best: fully-developed characters and richly-drawn relationships. In musing on the hard-boiled detective whose tradition he helped shape, Raymond Chandler wrote, "I do not care much about his private life." In Rockford, Cannell and company embraced and exploited their detective's private life. Television encourages, even demands this intimacy. For all the gritty realism of Spade and Marlowe's mean streets, they were, in their solitary asceticism, figures of romantic fantasy. Jim Rockford was no less honorable, no less resolute in his quests; he was, however, by virtue of his trailer, his dad, his gun in the cookie jar, just that much more real.

-Mark Alvey


Jim Rockford ...........................................James Garner

Joseph "Rocky" Rockford....................... Noah Beery Jr.

Detective Dennis Becker ..............................Joe Santos

Beth Davenport (1974-1978).................. Gretchen Corbett

Evelyn "Angel" Martin............................. Stuart Margolin

John Cooper (1978-1979)............................. Bo Hopkins

Lieutenant Alex Diehl (1974-1976) .................Tom Atkins

Lieutenant Doug Chapman (1976-1980)..........James Luisi

Lance White (1979-1980) ............................Tom Selleck


Meta Rosenberg, Stephen J. Cannell, Chas. Floyd Johnson, Juanita Bartlett, David Chase


114 Episodes


September 1974-May 1977   Friday 9:00-10:00

June 1977   Friday 8:30-9:30

July 1977-January 1979   Friday 9:00-10:00

February 1979-March 1979   Saturday 10:00-11:00

April 1979-December 1979   Friday 9:00-10:00

March 1980-April 1980   Thursday 10:00-11:00

June 1980-July 1980   Friday 9:00-10:00


Chandler, Raymond. The Simple Art of Murder. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.

Collins, Max and John Javna. The Best of Crime and Detective TV. New York: Harmony, 1988.

Grillo, Jean. "A Man's Man and a Woman's Too." N.Y. Daily News, TV Week (New York), 10 June 1979.

Kane, Hamilton T. "An Interview with Stephen J. Cannell." Mystery, January, 1981.

MacDonald, John D. "The Case of the Missing Spellbinders." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 24 November 1979.

Martindale, David. The Rockford Phile. Las Vegas: Pioneer, 1991.

Randisi, Robert J. "The Best TV Eyes of the 70s." Mystery, January, 1981.

Robertson, Ed. "This is Jim Rockford . . .": The Rockford Files. Beverly Hills: Pomegranate, 1995.

Torgerson, Ellen. "James Garner Believes in Good Coffee--And a Mean Punch." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 2 June 1979.

Vallely, Jean. "The James Garner Files." Esquire (Chicago, Illinois), July 1979.

Wicking, Christopher and Tise Vahimagi. The American Vein. New York: Dutton, 1985.

James Garner on the character of "Jim Rockford" on The Rockford Files
Roy Huggins on co-creating The Rockford Files with Stephen J. Cannell
Meta Rosenberg on what The Rockford Files was about
Mike Post on writing the theme music for The Rockford Files
Who talked about this show

Reza Badiyi

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Reza Badiyi on working on The Rockford Files
Reza Badiyi on James Garner and The Rockford Files

Stephen J. Cannell

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Stephen J. Cannell on working with James Garner as "Jim Rockford" on The Rockford Files, and on his ability to "save" a subpar script
Stephen J. Cannell on creating The Rockford Files with Roy Huggins
Stephen J. Cannell on bringing James Garner on to play "Jim Rockford" on The Rockford Files, and on selling the show to ABC
Stephen J. Cannell on ABC's initial concerns about The Rockford Files
Stephen J. Cannell on "Jim Rockford" as an anti-hero on The Rockford Files
Stephen J. Cannell on The Rockford Files making the transition from movie of the week to series
Stephen J. Cannell on what James Garner brought to the role of "Jim Rockford" on The Rockford Files
Stephen J. Cannell on Tom Selleck as "Lance White" on The Rockford Files
Stephen J. Cannell on the answering machine opening to each episode of The Rockford Files
Stephen J. Cannell on Mike Post's theme song for The Rockford Files
Stephen J. Cannell on "Jim Rockford's" car on The Rockford Files
Stephen J. Cannell on "Jim Rockford's" home, Paradise Cove in Malibu, on The Rockford Files
Stephen J. Cannell on coming up with stories for The Rockford Files
Stephen J. Cannell on the evolution of "Jim Rockford" on The Rockford Files
Stephen J. Cannell on what he learned from The Rockford Files and from working with David Chase and Juanita Bartlett
Stephen J. Cannell on Rita Moreno as "Rita Capkovic", a character created by Juanita Bartlett on The Rockford Files
Stephen J. Cannell on the popularity of "Jim Rockford" on The Rockford Files

Reuben Cannon

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Reuben Cannon on casting for Ironside, Emergency!, The Rockford Files, Baretta, and Sanford and Son

David Chase

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David Chase on becoming a writer on The Rockford Files in 1976, and on show creator Stephen J. Cannell and star James Garner
David Chase on the rules Stephen J. Cannell set forth for writing story on The Rockford Files
David Chase on writing an entire Rockford Files script that was all exposition, "Irving the Explainer"
David Chase on writing for The Rockford Files; on what appealed to him about the show
David Chase on what he brought to The Rockford Files as a writer
David Chase on the "rules" Stephen J. Cannell set forth for writing The Rockford Files series

Richard Crenna

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Richard Crenna on directing The Rockford Files, starring James Garner and guest-starring Rita Moreno

Hector Elizondo

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Hector Elizondo on appearing on The Rockford Files starring James Garner 
Hector Elizondo on James Garner guest-starring on Chicago Hope and working through pain on The Rockford Files

James Garner

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James Garner on the character of "Jim Rockford" on The Rockford Files
James Garner on studio politics and The Rockford Files
James Garner on the creation of The Rockford Files
James Garner on Stephen J. Cannell and the writers of The Rockford Files
James Garner on The Rockford Files' supporting characters
James Garner on the process of producing an episode of The Rockford Files
James Garner on the cast and guest stars on The Rockford Files
James Garner on the directors of The Rockford Files
James Garner on a typical episode of The Rockford Files
James Garner on the end of The Rockford Files
James Garner on remembering the people he worked with more than specific episodes of The Rockford Files

Paul Michael Glaser

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Paul Michael Glaser on guest-starring on The Rockford Files

Roy Huggins

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Roy Huggins on co-creating The Rockford Files with Stephen J. Cannell

Charles Floyd Johnson

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Charles Floyd Johnson on his biggest takeaways from producing The Rockford Files
Charles Floyd Johnson on being a production coordinator on The Rockford Files
Charles Floyd Johnson on becoming an associate producer on The Rockford Files and giving up his acting career, and on working with James Garner
Charles Floyd Johnson on writing answering machine messages for The Rockford Files
Charles Floyd Johnson on issues with Standards & Practices on The Rockford Files
Charles Floyd Johnson on The Rockford Files winning the Emmy for best drama in 1978
Charles Floyd Johnson on the legacy of The Rockford Files: humor

Rita Moreno

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Rita Moreno on her Emmy-winning guest appearances as "Rita Capkovic" on The Rockford Files

Bill Mumy

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Bill Mumy on guest-starring on The Rockford Files

Mike Post

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Mike Post on writing the theme music for The Rockford Files
Mike Post on scoring The Rockford Files

Hank Rieger

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Hank Rieger on publicity for The Rockford Files and working with James Garner

Meta Rosenberg

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Meta Rosenberg on what The Rockford Files was about
Meta Rosenberg on developing and executive producing The Rockford Files and her relationship with James Garner
Meta Rosenberg on casting The Rockford Files
Meta Rosenberg on public and critical reaction to The Rockford Files and hiring David Chase
Meta Rosenberg on hiring Stephen J. Cannell and Roy Huggins for The Rockford Files
Meta Rosenberg on her duties as executive producer on The Rockford Files and the production process
Meta Rosenberg on season 2 of The Rockford Files going up against Hawaii Five-O
Meta Rosenberg on hiring directors for The Rockford Files
Meta Rosenberg on the supporting cast of The Rockford Files
Meta Rosenberg on the producers of The Rockford Files
Meta Rosenberg on the guest stars of The Rockford Files
Meta Rosenberg on winning an Emmy for The Rockford Files
Meta Rosenberg on the success of The Rockford Files
Meta Rosenberg on the end of The Rockford Files

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