by Deborah Harter Williams
It was 1974 and the television industry was coming off of a three-month writers’ strike. Stephen J. Cannell was working on police drama, Toma (Tony Musante) when he and Executive Producer Roy Huggins (Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive) realized that they had a problem. Though they were producing as fast as they could to make up time, the fifth episode was going to be in the lab when it was supposed to be on the air.
They went to ABC to see if the network could give them a pre-emption. The answer was no. ABC had used up all their backlog of stocked shows during the strike and had nothing to fill the time. At 29 years old, in his first producing job, Cannell was panicking.
Huggins, however, was cool as a cucumber, and said they would create their own pre-emption, a one-time show to fill the time slot. He opened up the Universal Studios phone directory and picked a name – Tom Rockford (from the grip department). Cannell agreed that it was a good character name and Huggins said the show would be The Rockford Files. They decided that Rockford would be a friend of Toma’s who only handled closed cases. ABC said “okay,” and “Can you have the script by next week?”
With the pressure on, Cannell borrowed a plot line he had devised for Toma and started writing as fast as he could. He decided that he would try to reverse every cliché of the detective genre. Instead of a hero who always does the right thing for the right reason, Rockford will take your car if you bounce a check on him. Rockford doesn’t face down the heavy who pulls a gun, he begs for his life. He worries about getting paid – not the behavior of traditional hard-boiled detectives.
Since most PIs didn’t have families, Cannell gave him a dad (with his own father’s name). He even borrowed from his relationship with his father, who was always a bit embarrassed that his son spurned the family business to write for television. In five days he had a script, but it was 90 pages long instead of 60. He turned it in to Huggins.
The phone rang at three in the morning. Huggins worked odd hours so Cannell wasn’t surprised. What did surprise him was that Huggins said, “I’m not cutting a word.” They turned it into ABC. They hated it. The network said to take out all the stuff where Rockford looked like a coward and talked about quitting. Huggins said “no.” Then he sent the script to James Garner’s manager.
Garner was in negotiations to do a TV version of his movie Support Your Local Sheriff but within 72 hours he agreed to be Rockford, who Huggins recognized as a latter day Maverick. Frank Price, the head of Universal TV (coincidentally married to Roy Huggins’ daughter), called the head of Movies of the Week at NBC.
“I’ve got TV movie for you starring James Garner.”
“Swell,” was the reply, “send the script over.”
“No, didn’t you hear me. I have a TV Movie for you starring James Garner, do you want it or not.”
They finally did read the script, and as Price had suspected, they hated it. But Garner loved it and said don’t change a word.
When the show was completed, they tested it at ASI, which did all the audience response research, with people turning dials to indicate the parts they liked. It scored the highest of anything they had ever tested – 97 out of a hundred. ASI personnel were so surprised that they thought there might be something wrong with their equipment. They decided to test it again the next day. That time the score was even higher.
It was lightning in a bottle. All the pieces came together and became icons. The opening title sequence with the phone answering machine, the theme music (Mike Post), the car (a Pontiac Firebird Esprit), the no-good friend Jim can’t turn his back on (Angel Martin/Stuart Margolin), and the cop friend (Dennis Becker/Joe Santos) who complains all the time, but ultimately doesn’t let Jim down. The fact that James Garner turned out to be one of the best stunt driver’s around was also iconic. His famous 180-degree maneuver is now familiarly known as a “J” turn, or a “Rockford.”
The show ran from 1974 to 1980 on NBC. It is still in syndication around the world today. There were eight Rockford Files reunion movies aired between 1994 and 1999 on CBS and its legacy lives on. Rockford writer David Chase went on to do Northern Exposure and The Sopranos. Two-time Rockford guest star, playing PI Lance White, went on to become PI Thomas Magnum/Tom Selleck.
In 2010 a pilot was made for a reboot starring Dermott Mulroney but was rejected as not being up to snuff. In April of 2012 actor Vince Vaughn (Wedding Crashers, Anchorman) announced that he was planning to produce and star in a movie version of The Rockford Files. James Garner is 84 and last year published his memoir – The Garner Files.