1970s

The Rockford Files, S2-E1, “The Aaron Ironwood School of Success.”

Screen shot 2013-06-03 at 11.36.41 PM

A whole lot of Rocky.

After a triumphal debut season, “The Rockford Files” kicks off its sophomore year with an action-packed thriller. There’s nothing fancy here, no romantic female lead for Jim to work with, no very special guest star, no two-parter. Instead, they double-down on the basics: appearances from Dennis, Beth, and a whole lot of Rocky. Angel Martin does not appear in this episode.

“The Aaron Ironwood School of Success” begins with Jim exiting his trailer early one morning intending to pick up Rocky so they can go meet an old family friend at the airport. But before Jim can take three steps towards the Pontiac Firebird he gets forced into the back of a waiting limousine. These hoods look like they mean serious business, but Rockford quickly outwits them, and less than 200 seconds into the new season we have our first car chase.

Jim must have wanted to inaugurate the show’s second season with a surprise, because he makes his first getaway not in the Pontiac, but in a VW bug that has been customized into a pizza delivery vehicle and happens to be making an early morning stop at the beach restaurant across the parking lot.

Jim commandeers Pizza Dan's delivery vehicle.

Jim commandeers Pizza Dan’s delivery vehicle.

My first thought is, “isn’t that funny? You never see VW bugs delivering pizzas in real life, do you? WTF?”

After making a getaway on the sands of Malibu’s beach, Jim, still in the bug and having found a spare pepperoni pizza to munch on, collects Rocky and they head off to the airport to meet their family friend from way back by the name of Aaron Ironwood (played by James Hampton hot off his role as the doomed Caretaker in “The Longest Yard”), who has done well for himself and is arriving in his own private jet.

Jim flees his pursuers in the beach parking lot.

Jim flees his pursuers in the beach parking lot.

The mobster limo gets stuck in the sand.

The mobster limo gets stuck in the sand.

Jim gets away on the sands of Malibu beach.

As Jim gets away along Malibu beach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ironwood is a childhood friend of Jim’s who was looked after by the Rockfords after his own parents were tragically killed. Today (1975), Aaron Ironwood is a motivational preacher hocking a get rich quick scheme called “Dare To Win.”

It soon becomes clear that Aaron Ironwood is the kind of old family friend that gives Angel Martin a run for his money, and Rockford quickly finds himself on the wrong side of some very powerful bad men.

The gist of the “Dare To Win” program, as Ironwood lays out to a rapt audience, is this: “I’m gonna teach you how to make a million dollars…by the end of the year. And what’s it gonna cost?? Only five thousand dollars.” The audience oohs and aahs their collective approval at this last sentence.

* * *

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We hard cut to a honky-tonk bar, where Jim and his old chum are re-bonding over some arm-wrestling, shuffleboard, and “country-style” fistfighting out back. With the ice broken, Aaron asks to know what Jim really thinks about “Dare To Win.” In the kindest terms possible, Jim answers, “there’s not too much about it that doesn’t sound like a medicine show sales pitch.”

Screen shot 2013-06-03 at 11.22.43 PMOver a couple of cold ones, Aaron makes a confession of his own to Jim: Not all is well in the preaching empire. There’s been drinking, there’s been whoring, there’s even been puking, and now somehow the mob’s gotten wrapped up in it. He needs Jimmy’s help, and he’s got an offer Rockford can’t refuse. The paperwork’s already drawn up.

Beth Davenport looks over the contract and gives it her approval, whereupon Rockford signs on the dotted line.  The rest of the episode plays out with a series of double-crosses and some mob justice scenarios that belong in The Sopranos. And in the episode’s other good news, Dennis Becker passed the written part of his lieutenant’s exam and is now fifth in line for promotion.

Beth gives the contract her approval.

Beth gives the contract her approval.

I can’t testify to the status of prosperity preaching in 1975, when this episode aired. Certainly televangelists existed, but I don’t know if they were quite on the cultural radar the way they were a decade later, when (the other) Jim, Tammy Faye, Swaggart, and Oral provided the Decade of Greed (ie the 1980s) with its religious dimension.

One guesses that the 1970s were gravy years for the Aaron Ironwoods of the world, when they could roll their earnings over into personal jets and hookers well out of reach of the long arm of the law and the eye of the media.

Society as a whole would remain oblivious to the racket until Jessica Hahn revealed it all in Playboy ten years later, but the Rockford Files was on the case as early as 1975, three years before the Stones sang about it in “Far Away Eyes.”Screen shot 2013-06-03 at 10.51.31 PM

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Categories: 1970s, Los Angeles, television | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Laverne, Shirley, & a Mid-Life Crisis

laverne-and-shirleyFor the first time since Alexander Haig was Secretary of State, I had the opportunity to watch an episode of “Laverne & Shirley” from the very beginning. I still remembered that distinctive theme song as if it were yesterday, but as I sat through the show’s opening credits for the first time in my adult life, the meaning of these lyrics sank in in a whole new way:

 

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. 
Schlemiel, schlimazel, Hasenpfeffer Incorporated. 
We’re gonna do it! 

Give us any chance, we’ll take it. 
Give us any rule, we’ll break it. 
We’re gonna make our dreams come true. 
Doin’ it our way. 

Nothin’s gonna turn us back now, 
Straight ahead and on the track now. 
We’re gonna make our dreams come true, 
Doin’ it our way. 

There is nothing we won’t try, 
Never heard the word impossible. 
This time there’s no stopping us. 
We’re gonna do it. 

On your mark, get set, and go now, 
Got a dream and we just know now, 
We’re gonna make our dream come true. 
And we’ll do it our way, yes our way. 
Make all our dreams come true, 
And do it our way, yes our way, 
Make all our dreams come true 
For me and you. 

Look at those words.

Once you get past ‘schlemiel, schlimazel” the theme song sounds like the sort of pep talk that people fighting a losing battle against time to attain the markers of social success give themselves before heading out to work another day on the factory line.

“We’re doing it our way, yes our way, making all our dreams come true. This time there’s no stopping us. We’re gonna do it!”

It’s a Hail Mary pass that says the more we suffer now, the greater shall be our triumph later, but only if we don’t ever stop believing.

If Laverne’s father, the pizzeria owning Frank Defazio, were around today, he’d tell his “29-year old” daughter and her best friend that the definition of stupid is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, and he’d wave his rolling pin to drive home the point.

Isn’t this what the new film, “Frances Ha” is all about? Frances Ha is what happens when Laverne leaves Shirley behind or vice versa, when one partner decides to get on with her life and renege on the vow to keep dreaming the dream together forever no matter what.

Every fifth or sixth episode seemed to revolve around this plot, with Laverne and Shirley inevitably getting back together exactly as before by the end of the half-hour.

If you took Laverne and Shirley aside and said, “listen you two, what do you really want to do with your lives?” They wouldn’t have a realistic answer. Laverne and Shirley were dreamers, not schemers. All they knew was that they wanted to be part of the zeitgeist somehow.laverne shirley

Here’s where I join the party. As a kid in the Me Decade, I couldn’t much relate to working class girls from 1950s Milwaukee. I was in it for Lenny and Squiggy and, strangely, for Carmine. Sure, I enjoyed the comedy teamwork of Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams, but the particular triumphs and tribulations of Upper Midwestern factory girls was beyond my purview.

That was then. Now I’m on the wrong side of 45, working a Laverne & Shirley blue-collar job myself. I used to want to be the next Rod Serling or Reuben Kincaid, or both. But after 20 years of punching the clock, I’m starting to realize that it ain’t happening, that I have a lot more in common with two working class girls from 1950s Milwaukee than I ever imagined. At this point, the only thing left for me to do is go buy a bowling ball and join the team.

Categories: 1950s, 1970s, television | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

R.I.P. Alan O’Day (1940-2013), “Undercover Angel” Singer/Songwriter

alanodayIt is with sadness that I learned of the death of musician, songwriter, and Southern California native, Alan O’Day from brain cancer this weekend.

O’Day covered a lot of ground in the music industry, from playing in garage bands in the 1950s and 60s to writing songs for television in the 1980s and 90s, but he is best known for the string of hit singles he wrote for other artists in the 1970s, and for writing and recording one particular song that made him the One-Hit Wonder of 1977.

O’Day’s songwriting credits include “The Drum,” recorded by Bobby Sherman, “Rock and Roll Heaven,” recorded by the Righteous Brothers, and perhaps his best song, “Angie Baby,” recorded and taken to No. 1 in Dec. 1974 by Helen Reddy.

However, Alan O’Day achieved his greatest level of fame when his quirky (some would say novelty) song, “Undercover Angel,” released with little fanfare in early 1977, unexpectedly shot to the top of the Billboard charts by the summer of that year.

1977 was the year I started my long relationship with music radio, and I placed extraordinary importance in the value of the weekly Top 40 countdown then, keeping careful track of which songs gained ground over the previous week and which ones lost ground. When a song reached the No. 1 position, it was a big deal, guaranteeing that both the song and its performer would be enshrined in the pantheon of immortals, not unlike the various Presidents of the United States, some of whom are regarded more highly than others, but all of whom had reached a level of paramount greatness and immortality by dint of joining the ranks of the select few who had attained the highest office in the land.

Because Alan O’Day ruled the charts at the time I started following the charts, his legacy, not to mention his one-hit wonder “Undercover Angel,” have stayed relevant to me until this very day, never fading from memory as they did for the general public. Also, O’Day spent his early childhood years in the L.A. neighborhood of Mount Washington, the same place I lived as a child when “Undercover Angel” was all over the charts.

O’Day’s songs could be described as novelty-esque, stemming from what might be called an eccentric or at least whimsical view of the world. He suffered from bronchial pneumonia for much of his childhood and had to remain indoors and alone a lot. At the same time he developed a keen interest in exotic instruments like the xylophone and ukulele and became “hooked” (in his words) on Spike Jones’ combination of music and humorous noise.

“Angie Baby” is regarded as a “serious” song, a haunting look at mental illness with a hint of stranger danger thrown into the mix, while “Undercover Angel” is pure whimsy. Yet, the two songs really describe the same basic scenario: A grey zone between fantasy and reality where a lonely person in her/his bedroom is visited by a strange apparition of the opposite gender, and life-altering drama ensues. “Angie” is the story told in a minor key, while “Angel” is the story told in a major key.

O’Day had always been a natural studio whiz, and his follow-up single to “Undercover Angel” was “Skinny Girls,” a catchy tune that Spike Jones might have written had he had access to a synthesizer and other 1980 music studio accoutrements. Unlike O’Day’s previous single, “Skinny Girls” never made it beyond the Dr. Demento show.

In the 1980’s, O’Day transitioned to television, where he co-wrote over 100 songs for the “Muppet Babies” program.

Here is a link to a 2012 Helen Reddy performance, in which Reddy calls up her friend Alan O’Day from the audience to help her with some of the lyrics to “Angie Baby.”

I’ll refrain from mentioning that if you believe in rock and roll heaven, they just gained a hell of a gadget man. Instead, if you really want to appreciate the world of Alan O’Day, look up “Skinny Girls” and give it a listen.

Categories: 1970s, Music, Obituaries | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Joyce Brothers (1927-2013)

In another indicator of the subtle but steady changing of the times, the death of Joyce Brothers earlier this week went by largely unnoticed.

To anyone who watched a respectable amount of television in the Seventies, Joyce Brothers was instantly recognizable as a mainstay on the game show and talk show circuits as well as a special guest star for all occasions. Everyone knew who she was, yet no one knew what she did. To borrow a phrase from current times, Joyce Brothers was famous for being famous.

Joyce Brothers in the 1950s.

Joyce Brothers in the 1950s.

Dr. Joyce Brothers was her official show biz title, and her celebrity dated back to her winning appearance on “The $64,000 Question” in the mid-1950s, when the pop success of trivia shows featuring everyday citizens testing their wit against a series of ever more challenging questions in a given subject was enough to captivate a nation of TV watchers for weeks on end (some things never change, just ask Regis Philbin).

Television was in its infancy then. Producers were still trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t. With the advent of quiz shows, certain lines were crossed on at least one occasion to create more compelling storylines. Joyce Brothers’ Wikipedia entry notes that her game show topic, boxing, was suggested to Dr. Brothers by the show’s sponsors, presumably because they thought the idea of a demure housewife taking on the subject of prizefighting would make for good television.However, despite this small bit of contestant engineering, Joyce Brothers’ winning appearance on “The $64,000 Question” was scandal-free.

Not only had Dr. Joyce Brothers been famous since the Eisenhower years, but her physical appearance had scarcely changed in the intervening decades, a fact put to good use by the producers of “Happy Days” when they featured the Joyce Brothers of 1978 playing herself in the 1950s-based sitcom. This is how I remember her.

 joycebrothershappydays

In the 80s and 90s I watched much less TV than I do today. When I returned to television in the 2000s, it never occurred to me to notice Joyce Brothers’ absence. And as another decade came and went, I would have presumed that like most figures from the Eisenhower era, she had died long ago.

I’m only one man. It’s impossible for me to monitor all news outlets all the time, but I would have thought that the passing of Dr. Joyce Brothers would be noted by at least a few of my regular sources. Yet I heard nothing. Instead, it was left for me to scour the Internet obituaries to uncover this information.

I’d imagine that Dr. Brothers led a rich, full life that extended beyond the spotlight, so there’s nothing in particular for the general public to mourn about her death. Instead, the near anonymous 2013 passing of a 20th Century TV icon serves to remind us that the world we grow up in and think of as rock solid and forever young is just another castle made of sand.

sunset

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Sydney the psychiatrist from MASH dies at 95

Sydney the psychiatrist from MASH dies at 95

Not only did I not do the math and realize that Allan Arbus was Diane Arbus’ husband, but I didn’t realize he was 95 years old. That makes him only three years younger than Col. Potter (Harry Morgan b. 1915) when he played Sydney on MASH! He seemed more like Hawkeye’s age.

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Rockford Redux: Link to B.B. Olshin’s Heartfelt 2012 Piece on the Rockford Files

Wow! A week after my own post on the Rockford Files, I came across this wonderful piece by someone named B.B. Olshin. It’s eerily similar to mine in some places, and much better articulated and thought out in other parts. I’m humbled to have made so many like-minded (in some cases almost word for word) observations as this 2012 article written by a philosophy professor, no less. I swear I didn’t know about it beforehand; I just discovered reddit today!

Click on the link below.

Finding Solace in The Rockford Files.

Categories: 1970s, counterculture, Los Angeles, television | Leave a comment

In Praise of Rockford

Though it may be hard to believe, Apr. 7, 2013 marked the 85th birthday of one of TV’s most timeless icons, James Garner. Thanks to the magic of syndicated reruns, Garner is instantly recognizable to generations of TV viewers as Jim Rockford, private investigator and beach parking lot trailer inhabitant.trailertitle

If you’re like me, the phrase, “two hundred dollars a day, plus expenses” served as a childhood credo, the magic over/under number that seemed like some sort of gateway into adulthood. Whatever your chosen profession, if the quote on your business card–or answering machine message–was $200 a day plus expenses, you’d be writing your own ticket and living in a beachfront condo.  In 1974, two hundred dollars a day was a princely sum, more than the average major league baseball player earned in fact. But it was the “plus expenses” part that hinted at the great unknown.

rockopenerOf course with Jim Rockford, the carpet didn’t match the drapes. There was no beachfront condo, there was a beachfront trailer badly in need of a coat of primer. Rockford’s answering machine and outgoing phone message may have been 1974’s version of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” but the incoming messages were from bill collectors with overdue dry-cleaning notices.

The Yellow Pages ad.

The Yellow Pages ad.

Rockford had a full ¼ page ad in the Yellow Pages, but he also had an unfinished game of solitaire on his desk.

Rockford’s people weren’t Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, they were Beth & Rocky &, Dennis & Angel. (By the way, Rockford taught me another another truism: Anybody named Angel is born to be trouble, male or female.)

rockfordnice

Jim Rockford was an everyman, a tall, handsome everyman whose profile was worthy of Mount Rushmore, but an everyman nonetheless, just a guy in a trailer trying to keep the power from getting shut off.

There were plenty of other TV dicks with hour-long primetime slots in those days, but Rockford was the most photogenic of them all. Malden, Ebsen, Cannon, Baretta–not a particularly good-looking bunch of lead detectives by any stretch. But Rockford’s handsomeness was countered by his outsider status. Jim Rockford did time, and although we’re told that it was for a crime he didn’t commit, we also see that in the eyes of the law, Rockford will always be an ex-con, an eternal outsider in the American judicial establishment.

Another random encounter with a glamorous woman of mystery.

Another random encounter with a glamorous woman of mystery.

Rockford was too busy being a fugitive from injustice to ever become a legitimate sex symbol. In the Seventies, you needed a moustache for that. Unlike Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck, there were no James Garner wall posters adorning bachelorette bedrooms. Rockford’s Pontiac Firebird was probably the biggest sex symbol on the show.

Rocky

Rocky

Is Dennis actually about to smile?

Is Dennis actually about to smile?

***

Whether in movies or television, never underestimate the strength of a soundtrack. We do as much watching with our ears as with our eyes. While the Rockford Files’ visuals are compelling enough, the show also offers great ear candy. This ear candy is the secret ingredient that makes “The Rockford Files” so much more watchable than other similar shows. It is rerun comfort food, and the soundtrack is the subliminal reason why it tastes so good.

The theme song is famous in its own right. Other than Garner himself (and possibly Stuart Margolin as Angel), this tune is the single most memorable thing about the show. It was the first TV theme song to achieve Top-40 radio success in the 70s, peaking at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and going on to win a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement of 1975. This is the song that put Mike Post and Pete Carpenter on the map.

City of Angels?

City of Angels?

Other TV theme songs quickly followed on the heels of The Rockford Files in becoming Top 40 radio hits–Happy Days, Welcome Back Kotter, and later The Dukes of Hazzard and Greatest American Hero–but these were all ballads with lyrics. The Rockford Files theme was pure instrumentation: Soundtrack music accompanied by a montage of photo stills illustrating the life and times of James Rockford.

It’s easy to forget that this was an era before MTV and VH-1. Show intros like Rockford’s fulfilled the same role that music videos would in the 80s. In the Seventies, show intros were our MTV.

Go ahead and watch a Rockford Files rerun. You’ll realize that the musical mood established with the opening theme carries through for the entire episode. Country/bluegrass jams are used throughout as sound beds for car chases, describing a character’s emotional arc, to evoke a sudden mood change, punctuate a hard cut, twist the plot, or simply to brighten up the scenery.

The Rockford Files reminds us how good L.A. could look with a country twang, even in the disco era. By the 70s, L.A. had become a prisoner of its own gridlock, smog, and overdevelopment, but Rockford liberated the landscape simply by using music that evoked the freedom and wide-open spaces of the Old West. Revisit an episode with open ears and see if you don’t find that it is the best use of harmonica ever.

 * * *

car

Of course, no visual pairs better with a country-bluegrass sound bed than a good car chase scene, and car chases are a staple of every Rockford Files episode. The Arthur Penn-directed “Bonnie & Clyde” (1967), was a groundbreaking film in many ways, one of which was the marriage of car chases with banjo and fiddle music, which had an invigorating effect on audiences. Following Bonnie & Clyde, the period from 1968-74 was the golden age of car chase movies, when the classics of the genre came out, starting with “Bullitt” (1968), followed by “The Vanishing Point,” “The French Connection,” and “Gone in 60 Seconds.” This six-year span also included “The Seven-Ups,” “Two Lane Blacktop,” “Duel,” and “The Italian Job.”

But as far as I know, no one was doing it on television until Rockford came on the scene. Country-fried car chases were a new phenomenon on TV in 1974, like answering machines were. Of course, “Starsky & Hutch” and “Dukes of Hazzard” would follow, but Rockford was doing it first. And what’s notable about those other car-chase shows is that it took two-men to do what Rockford did on his own.

There were not too many muscle cars on the tube in 1974 either. Most of the TV dicks of the time–Cannon, Barnaby Jones, Karl Malden–drove land yachts. The above-mentioned Starsky & Hutch did indeed drive a Seventies-looking sports car, and, what a surprise, their show debuted at the end of The Rockford Files’ first, and highly Nielsen-rated, season.

The pilot episode. Bill Mumy, all grown up.

The pilot episode. Bill Mumy, all grown up.

Turning on that Rockford charm.

Turning on that Rockford charm w/Lindsay Wagner.

 

 

Beth and Jim. Are they or aren't they?

Beth and Jim. Are they or aren’t they?

***

While revisiting “Bonnie & Clyde” for car-chase information, I stumbled onto an epiphany: In addition to being a groundbreaking film, Bonnie & Clyde represented everything that was wrong with the 1968 generation. The film rewrote history to portray a couple of violent thrill-killers as a misunderstood Romeo & Juliet hopelessly pitted against an omnimalevolent Establishment. It glorified Bonnie & Clyde as martyrs and reveled cartoonishly in the blood they spilled. It inspired hundreds of thousands of gullible youths to take the message literally and to act out in ridiculous self-serving ways, in essence to loot the noble ideals that had been so painstakingly built up during the earlier part of the 60s and pawn them on an orgy of sex, drugs, violence, and rock and roll, no doubt setting back the legitimate aspirations of that decade by at least half a generation.

At Angel's pad. Speaking of the 60s, Is that Bob Dylan's "Self Portrait" in the background?

At Angel’s pad. Speaking of the 60s, Is that Bob Dylan’s “Self Portrait” in the background?

And what about that generation that followed the Sixties? I had another epiphany:  Jim Rockford is the Bonnie & Clyde of the post-Woodstock generation. Rockford Files was the go-to afternoon re-run for latchkey kids of the 70s and 80s. It’s a big part of what makes us the people we are today. We don’t self-identify with an extroverted glamour couple shooting up banks and pissing off old folks just for kicks. Our patron saint is a guy who lives in a trailer by the beach and appreciates the little things in life: the smell of the sea, the sound of the gulls, and an onion ring basket shared with a good friend over a picnic table. This was the same strain of disillusioned anti-materialism that ushered in the 90s in response to the steroidal greed of the 1980s. That’s why Ben Folds writes lyrics about getting stoned and watching Rockford Files reruns instead of Barnaby Jones or Magnum, PI.

Unlike Bonnie & Clyde, who decided to combat the boredom of their lives by robbing banks and killing for kicks, Rockford was set up; he was wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit. Nearly every episode sees him going up against a hostile police force that continues to hold his false conviction against him in perpetuity. If anyone had a right to be angry at society in general and authority in particular, it’s Jim Rockford. But do you see Rockford acting out like Bonnie & Clyde? Not even close.

Inadvertently, James Rockford is the folk hero of post-Watergate era America. Respect for the establishment is at an all-time low, but people are also burned out on the Bonnie & Clyde-style excesses of the Sixties. Each week, Rockford treads the fine line between powerfully corrupt authority figures (ie The Man) and shallowly groveling opportunists (eg Angel Martin), and he does so without ever having to fire a shot (almost). He was the ideal outlaw figure for the times.

Perhaps it was the leaded gasoline fumes that made us all more lethargic, but to the best of my recollection, the mood in America just after Watergate was decidedly hung over, and no one pulls off a ‘where the hell’s the damned aspirin’ look like Jim Rockford does.

The trailer’s leaking, the Pontiac just blew a retread, Angel’s shaking him down for another sawbuck, and the insurance company isn’t going to pay out after all. That was exactly how the Seventies felt; but Rockford persevered with style, ending every episode with a wry twist that let us know that no matter how much it felt like things were spiraling out of control, at the end of the day we always break about even.

Where the hell's the aspirin?

Where the hell’s the aspirin?

***

What is sometimes overlooked is that “The Rockford Files” was actually James Garner’s second great act in television. Garner is one of the select TV actors who starred in his own series not once but twice, and in two very different timeframes. In the era when television was black and white, Westerns reigned supreme, and Eisenhower was still President, Garner was Bret Maverick. In the era of dystopian, post-Watergate detective shows, he came back as Jim Rockford.

During that interregnum between 1959 and 1974, America had changed about as radically a society could in 15 years, Not too many actors could bridge that gap and stay relevant, but Garner did just that. It was a totally different America in 1974, but Garner was still Garner and Maverick was now Rockford. The people who ran television liked Garner so much they paid him the ultimate network tribute, allowing him to use his real first name for the character of Rockford.

Garner was still a smooth-skinned post-adolescent when he played Bret Maverick.  As Rockford, his majestic profile had matured into its fully chiseled peak. When the time came, Garner walked away from both shows on his own terms, leaving money on the table each time, enhancing his outlaw status.

Rockford portrayed an ageless quality on-screen, so it might surprise people to know that James Garner was 46 years old when the show embarked on its five-year run.  And unlike other leading men, Garner did almost all his own stunt-work and live car chases, as well as appearing in almost every scene of every episode. He put his middle-aged body through the ringer to play that part, and the toll it took may have been the primary reason he decided to pull the plug on the program during its sixth season.rock1

***

“I knew those two weren’t Feds. Feds still wear narrow ties.” Rockford fingering a couple of imposters in an early episode of the first season.

Yes we are boldly in 1974 with this program. There is no ironic Seventies appreciation here, only the real thing. When “The Rockford Files” came out, it was cutting edge, not nostalgic. That’s why it gives us such great insight into what was actually considered cool in the mid-70s: wide ties, earth-tone Pontiacs, and witty answering machine banter.

Kids, that's a payphone; notice the rotary dial. Payphones were a major part of Rockford's business model.

Kids, that’s a payphone; notice the rotary dial. Payphones were a major part of Rockford’s business model.

One other thing about 1974. It’s closer in time to the 1930s than the 2010s. With fresh 2013 eyes, what you notice is just how much a Rockford Files script mirrors one from the classic LA Hardboiled detective genre of the 1930s and 40s (think “Double Indemnity” 1944). It’s all there: The snappy banter; the archetypal characters–hoods, goons, dicks, Seamuses, high-class dames and femme fatales; and air that bristles with sexual electricity but always maintains a puritanical approach to what is actually portrayed on-screen (which happens to be much less than a Close-Up toothpaste commercial of the same era).

Detectives have been part of L.A.’s fictional landscape since L.A. began producing fiction. In novels, movies, or T.V. serials, the City of Angels has always had detectives as protagonists. But there was only one that ever lived in a trailer in a beach parking lot. As I touched upon in a different blog post, Jim Rockford represented the fusion of one Southern California archetype, the hardboiled detective, with another SoCal archetype, the off-the-grid beachcomber. It’s uncertain when we will see another like him come this way again, but Rockford’s place at the top rung of syndicated reruns is eternal.

trailer

Categories: 1970s, counterculture, Los Angeles, television | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

HAPPY NEW YEAR ABE VIGODA!!

vigoda

Until December of 2011, whenever somebody mentioned that Abe Vigoda was still alive, I would say, “Hey, that’s great, but what about Harry Morgan?”

 

 

 

Vigoda has been playing guys with one foot in the grave since the ’70s, but Harry Morgan has been looking old on TV since 1966 and he’s still alive, too. Where’s his brass ring?

Harry Morgan in Dragnet

Harry Morgan in Dragnet

Well, Harry Morgan passed away in Dec. 2011, and I still say he went out as the all-time champion in the old-looking guys who are still alive category.

When 2012 began, we still had Ernest Borgnine, Andy Griffith, and Jack Klugman giving Vigoda a run for his money.

We said goodbye to Borgnine and Griffith in the first part of the year. But for my money, Jack Klugman was always the dark horse in the race. From his Twilight Zone appearances to the Odd Couple, he made a living playing guys who seemed destined to die in their fifties.

Who could have dared imagine that Oscar would outlive Felix Unger by nearly a decade? Yet, as 2012 wound down to a close, Jack Klugman was still here, while Tony Randall had passed away in 2004. It seemed the cigar-voiced Klugman might just be indestructible.

But as we learned on Christmas Eve 2012, this was not the case. Klugman went to his reward at the age of 90.

Abe Vigoda is the only one left.Abe_Vigoda

In 2013, when we celebrate Vigoda’s “still living” status, it’s a little more poignant than it was 13 months ago.

Categories: 1960s, 1970s, television | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Where Were You in ’72? (Reflections on the passing of time and of George McGovern)

Hi. My name is Dave. I’ve been thinking a lot about 1972 lately, and of what a long time 40 years is, even if it feels just like yesterday.

It was a big year for me. I started first grade, and not at just any school, but at “The Alternative School.” You can get a pretty good idea of what the school was about from the name and the fact that it started in 1972.

I was in class when I heard about Nixon beating McGovern. Our teacher’s name was Steve. It was the afternoon and we were in our makeshift classroom. The Cuisenaire rods were put away in the closet; math time was over. We were transitioning to the afternoon, sitting on little squares of carpet with the lights dimmed, attempting to have some sort of quiet time, but it was no use. “I think they had the election for the President yesterday!” a kid said.

“No way. Just for one day? That seems like a rip-off. Let’s ask Steve.”

Steve confirmed that it was true, that the elections had been the day before and the results were already decided. “Nixon beat McGovern in a landslide,” were his exact words. A landslide.

You take stuff literally when you’re six. I had just learned about the horrors of quicksand, and I was pretty sure people were killed in landslides. My take on the whole thing was that the popular vote was neither here nor there, but that Nixon became President by default because McGovern got taken out by falling rocks.

Aah, memories…Hard to believe 1972 was 40 years ago. In 1972, 40 years ago was 1932. Hoover was President. The New Deal was still in the future. The world changed unfathomably in those four decades. Sociologically at least, 1972 would have been unrecognizable to a citizen of 1932.

From our current vantage point, 1972 was a different world as well, but not nearly as different as 1932 was to 1972. The Alternative School opened for business in the fall of that year, meaning the school would have begun to be conceptualized and realized in 1970-71 or so. In other words, the Alternative School emerged during America’s most turbulent decade since the Civil War, founded by a small group of committed parents and educators.

It turns out that the tumult and upheaval of that period had largely run its course by 1972, but there was no way of knowing this at the time. The Weathermen and Yippies were still very much active as the 1970s began. The 1968 Democratic National Convention would have been the most recent presidential political marker. Kent State and Jackson State represented the contemporary state of relations between government and higher education.

To us they were Nixon, to them we were Manson. Having long hair in public could still land you in a fistfight.

This was the zeitgeist into which the Alternative School was born. Not all the goals of the school’s ideologues and their generational cohorts were attained.  Few of us first graders stuck with the program all the way through high school. Most of my former classmates who now have kids of their own have chosen to raise them in a far more structured environment. The Alternative School itself ceased to exist by the early 1980s.

But looking back now, 40 years later, in an era when the Rolling Stones play Super Bowl halftime shows, a multiracial former Occidental College student sits in the While House, and the term “alternative” itself has acquired mainstream cachet, it’s easier to appreciate how far we’ve actually come since “The Landslide” of 1972.

Categories: 1970s, counterculture, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Six Million Dollar Man and the Gestalt of the Gerald Ford Years

I haven’t seen so much as a clip of the Six Million Dollar Man since the program actually aired in the 1970s. For all intents and purposes, Steve Austin has been living exclusively inside my head for the last 35 years. But the memory is a sharp one. I was a TV child and the Six Million Dollar Man was officially my favorite program during the 7 to 9 age bracket, when whatever your earholes and eyeballs glom onto gets etched into the wet cement of your brain pan and hardens into the long-term memory that stays with you forever.

“Steve Austin, astronaut, a man barely alive…Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology…We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man…Steve Austin will be that man.”

These words, set to the beat of Viking war drums, form part of the show’s intro, which still plays randomly from time to time in the surround-sound of my cranial jukebox. For 35 years I’ve been carrying this secret around with me, and I need to get it out in the open.

Turns out there are full episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man available for viewing on the Internet now. So, after a four-decade separation, I finally squared the circle and queued up one of my favorite episodes, “The Secret of Bigfoot (Part I).”

 

“Bigfoot” begins with the dramatic whirr of a chopper’s blades. Within moments it all comes rushing back to me, not just the Gerald Ford-era banter of Steve Austin and Oscar Goldman as they fly over the “San Madrian” Fault, but the whole gestalt of 1975-76 itself, of what a strange time it was to be alive and living in L.A.

Like the subconscious of the Manchurian Candidate being activated whenever the queen of diamonds is played, the moment I hear that chopper taking Steve and Oscar to their rendezvous with Bigfoot, my brain’s sleeper cells are switched on and I’m right back there in the third quarter of fiscal 1975, this time with the omniscient perspective of a boy from the futuristic year of 2012 AD.

“The Secret of Bigfoot” aired at the very end of the Vietnam era. By this time, choppers are not only synonymous with Southeast Asian jungle combat scenes, but also the harried evacuation of the US Embassy in Saigon that so embodied the unceremonious (some would say humiliating) retreat of a superpower back to where it came from.

And of course, right about then the same thunk-thunk-thunk of the chopper’s blades accompanied the visage of a disgraced President being whisked away from the White House lawn into a hasty exile.

Fall of Saigon, evacuation of US Embassy

Nixon bids his adieu.

By this time, the whirr of the chopper was also synonymous with our own post-apocalyptic urban condition: cops in hot pursuit of violent criminals, g-men engaged in surveillance and crowd control, news crews updating the citizenry on the myriad traffic jams and high-speed chases affecting the roadways.

The Seventies is when the ominous rumble of the chopper became ubiquitous, when the Vietnam War finally came home.

And to think, in the 1950s helicopters burst onto the scene with such utopian fanfare–a helicopter in every garage so dad could beat traffic on his commute. By the 70s, everything about the Fifties seemed impossibly naïve, but that’s a whole other subject.

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In “The Secret of Bigfoot,” Steve Austin and Oscar Goldman are on their way to help a team of researchers set up a state of the art earthquake monitoring system in the remote mountains on the other side of the “San Madrian Fault.”

Earthquakes loomed large in the 70s for some reason. Maybe it was because LA had kicked off the decade by recording the deadliest quake of its history on the morning of Feb. 9, 1971.

In 1965 it was the Watts Riots; in ’67 it was the acid-eating runaways on the Sunset Strip; in ’69 it was Manson; in ’71 the earthquake. And the even years were no picnic either. It all seemed to be part of LA’s descent into savagery and chaos, and by extension the end times of America’s so-called golden age.

A year before “Jaws” made us afraid to go in the water, a movie called “Earthquake” was the summer blockbuster that made everybody afraid that California was about to fall into the sea. The film was said to be based on the real-life 1971 L.A. temblor; it chronicles the struggle for survival of six ordinary people after a major quake destroys most of Los Angeles. Why not believe it? An earthquake was as likely an event as any to usher in the post-apocalyptic future that seemed inevitably headed L.A.’s way.

“The Secret of Bigfoot” episode of Six Million Dollar Man aired a little over a year after “Earthquake” the movie swept the nation, planting the fear of the fault-line into our hearts. So when Steve Austin and Oscar Goldman fly out to help with the seismic monitoring stations, we know the future of all Americans is at stake here.

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And of course, as the title postulates, this helicopter ride across the “San Madrian” is all leading up to Steve and Oscar’s imminent encounter with Bigfoot himself.

Bigfoot was another counterculture hero of the Seventies: a loner who wore his hair long and went underground, living off the land and staying one step ahead of the law. During those difficult Gerald Ford years of Mourning in America, Bigfoot was the anti-Nixon.

Steve and Oscar in the helicopter, surveying the San Madrian Faultline, unaware that they will soon encounter Bigfoot.

The Six Million Dollar Man was more than just the stylized choreography of a bionic action hero, more than just homo-erotic stump porn. The Six Million Dollar Man offered helicopters, earthquakes, and Bigfoot–the gestalt of American culture writ small for children to digest. That’s why we loved that show so much, it didn’t condescend; it spoke to us as people, not pupils.

The show was dark, with little time for cuteness or humor. It delved deeply into the paranormal, playing out against a stark backdrop of good versus evil. It was the closest thing we had to the X-Files in the 70s. Before Mulder and Scully there was Steve and Oscar, whose on-screen chemistry fell somewhere between that of Mulder & Scully and the two cops from Adam-12. The love between the two men was real; I can see that now.

I didn’t get more than a few minutes into the episode. I didn’t have to.  Everything I needed to see happened right there in the first sequence.

Categories: 1970s, counterculture, television | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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