Posts Tagged With: rockford files

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

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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

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.)

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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.

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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.

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

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