This is Jim Rockford. At the tone, leave your name and message. I’ll get back to you.
The party plans had been elaborate: my wife had invited all of my friends, including several from out of town who bought airplane tickets for the occasion, to surprise me at a steakhouse in Chicago’s South Loop. The party was to have an eighteenth-century “Clubb” theme, inspired by my love of James Boswell’s Life of Johnson and his journals, and by the elaborate dinners often enjoyed by Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin of the Royal Navy, as depicted in Patrick O’Brian’s series of novels. There would be costumes; there would be wigs; there would be speeches and heroic couplets and all the prime steak and good Scotch we could swallow. But: two or three days before I turned forty, I came down with a fever. The fever became severe and the glands in my neck swelled to the size of golf balls. The doctors concluded that I had a particularly virulent strain of strep throat, or maybe it was mono. I could barely speak or swallow, and the pain in my neck, shoulder, and especially my sinuses was excruciating: it felt as if a sadistic clown were inflating a giant party balloon inside my skull. The party, which was going to be a surprise party, was canceled, and Emily tearfully narrated all the details of it to me so that I could imagine it, almost taste it. Then I retreated upstairs to our bedroom, scarcely to emerge for the next two weeks, while Emily played the unfamiliar roles of nurse and single mom, and my colleagues in the English Department scrambled to cover my missed classes. The antibiotics weren’t helping and neither were fistfuls of ibuprofen. I was too dazed to read. I was forty years old. I had one comfort: my iPad, Netflix, and James Garner in The Rockford Files.
Who is Jim Rockford? The opening credits show him practicing his vocation as private eye: tailing people, asking questions on the street, arguing with cops, covering his face with an enormous bug-eyed pair of binoculars in one still. But we also see him on dates, breaking into a grin as he gets a laugh out of the woman he’s with. We see him in his trailer, cigarette on his lip, hanging up the phone, pulling a jacket on, heading purposefully out the door. We see him nonplussed in the frozen food aisle of a supermarket, recalling, at least for me, Allen Ginsberg: “In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!” Ginsberg is talking about Walt Whitman, but he could just as easily be talking about the six seasons and 123 episodes of Rockford, not to mention the eight TV movies released in the 1990s. I saw you, Jim Rockford, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator…
But Jim’s loneliness is not as essential to his character as it is for other fictional PIs, and this is affirmed most resonantly by the last images in the credits, which show Jim fishing with his dad Rocky. Played by Noah Beery, Jr. during the show’s regular run (another actor played him in the pilot), Rocky is the show’s secret weapon, its emotional anchor, the tip of the iceberg of Rockford’s bottomless likability. Jim has a dad, and they care for and squabble with and go fishing with each other: that simple emotional fact roots Rockford’s heroics in something more human than the chilly abstract chivalry of a Philip Marlowe. It helps too that Rockford, though perennially unattached, doesn’t have a misogynistic bone in his body: here is a man who genuinely loves and appreciates women, whose body in no way shrinks or tightens in the presence of the opposite sex, who has the enviable gift of becoming larger and more like himself when he talks to a woman and makes her laugh. The Rockford Files was often a vehicle for an un-showy 70s feminism, embodied most frequently in Gretchen Corbett’s Beth Davenport. Beth is Rockford’s attorney and sometime love interest, whose mental toughness and sharp comebacks to preening judges and leering small-town cops mark her as Jim’s equal. Her sometimes brittle vulnerability makes her a good match for Rockford, who is averse to physical violence and rarely resorts to carrying the small revolver that he keeps tucked into a cookie jar in his kitchen.