Many writers have influenced how I write. Vonnegut taught me about perspective, Hesse taught me character development. M�rquez taught me the importance of painting the reader into the moment. Dialogue is trickier, because my sense of it came from someone I don’t know all that well. What I can say is that it came from “The Rockford Files”.
Recently, my life partner thought it might be fun to rent some episodes on CD, which are available now. I winced. Could anything from the early 70s really hold up? Wouldn’t this be a blur of bad fashion and strange lingo?
Thankfully, I was wrong. “The Rockford Files” is television for the ages, something that transcends the troubled times melting into a quiet desperation hidden under a big party that was America in 1974. James Garner plays a character who does the right thing even in wrong circumstances, and is tough, loyal, and resourceful. The dialogue is snappy, pointed, and witty without being distracting. I could tell immediately that this had a big influence on my young self.
Who wrote this dialogue? Who made these characters come alive? The scripts were written by many people, so it was hard to say who my teacher was. After some consideration and reading on the ‘net, I decided that the Senior Story Consultant and later Executive Producer Juanita Bartlett had to be the one responsible.
Who is Juanita Bartlett? Search after search proved fruitless. There is no bio and no picture of her anywhere on the internet. Her IMDb credits start with the 1971 Garner vehicle “Nichols”, and end rather abruptly in 1991 with “In the Heat of the Night”, save several “Rockford” movies stretching to 1999. She arrived on the scene, wrote some great stuff, and left. That was that.
It’s not unusual for writers to go uncredited, so I can imagine there is more out there. What surprises me is that there is not a single mention of any other writing career, such as being a reporter or novelist, which comes up in the searches. She is a ghost, a player who comes and goes very quickly. Did she merely value her time away from Hollywood, living somewhat reclusively to stay protect her private life? Was “Juanita Bartlett” merely a pseudonym?
I have two main theories.
The first is that she was a relatively obscure friend of James Garner who he insisted work on his shows. After all, her first break was his first comeback attempt after “Maverick”. James Garner, the man, is remarkably like James Rockford, the character, in his deep sense of loyalty and corresponding need to surround himself with people he trusts.
The second is more complicated, and does not preclude the first. The fandango database confuses Juanita Bartlett with Martine Bartlett, an actress who is probably best known today as the mother of Sybil, the schizophrenic, in the 1976 TV movie. Her career was definitely taking a nosedive by 1971, when she was 46 years old. Is it possible that she went into writing under a different name, possibly her real one? An older woman writing these scripts would explain the tender but trying relationship Rockford had with his father, Rocky, and it also gives us a connection to the Dashiell Hammett era of potboiler detective stories and the style of dialogue they employed. More interestingly, Martine’s father was a lawyer, which explains the number of episodes that turned on an obscure point of law. Sadly, it falls apart on one point: if Martine and Juanita are the same, she was one busy woman around 1974. It seems unlikely.
There are a few more tidbits to consider. Juanita Bartlett appears in an ESPN documentary on Bart Starr, probably because Bryan Bartlett Starr was a cousin. Two obits are listed under Juanita Bartlett: one on 3 March 2007 as a 91 year old in Oklahoma City with no mention of any writing work, and a sketchier 2006 one in Roanoke, Virginia.
Who was this person who had a major influence on my life and my writing? It’s hard to say. I want to respect her privacy, if that’s why she is hard to find, but if it was the nature of teevee production that thrust her into obscurity she deserves better.
What I can say is that in order to find her, I’ll have to use all the skills portrayed by Jim Rockford. This blog entry is my way of hitting the street. Have you seen this woman? Tell her if you do that I want to thank her, and if there’s more to the story I’d like to hear it. Thanks.