The 1970s were a tough decade on everyone. Everything was changing rapidly as a new generation came of age in the wake of social and political turmoil. Television had given us characters like Archie Bunker so that we could laugh at how ridiculous it was to hold onto the gone away glory days, but laughing wasn’t enough. To a young kid soon to make his way into this new world pop culture needed to offer something more profound yet subversively simple.
“The Rockford Files” started in 1974 as one of many detective shows that were popular diversions away from the chaos. It quickly became a vehicle for the talent, the personality, and in a sly way the values of its star, Jame Garner. Garner’s death today at age 86 brings back a flood of memories from Friday night TV time with Dad, but there was more than that to him. James Garner taught my generation what it meant to be a man.
What was so special about “The Rockford Files” starts with a long list of what it wasn’t. It wasn’t flashy, it wasn’t sophisticated, and it wasn’t really like any other detective show around. The hard reality of a PI living out of his trailer and the simple gag run at the start of the show based on the silly messages on his answering machine told you that this was something different right away. But the show, which Garner had a lot of control over, was ultimately different for what came through that realism.
His friends weren’t all as white as him- they looked like LA of the day. His Dad was an Okie, a man who had experienced the sting of discrimination personally. One of the main characters, Beth, was a tough lawyer who would confide in Rockford how tough it was to live in a sexist world. They talked that way when alone because they had been dating – and once they agreed to be “just friends” they did that. The show steered away from romantic tension because, simply, Garner wanted no part of that.
In a blisteringly real episode, “Requiem for a Funny Box”, the son of a mafia Don is gay, and when the Don is confronted with this has his own son killed. It was the first time many people of my generation were confronted with people who simply happened to be gay and what they had to go through. The harshness of it, without any preaching, was tough.
Through it all, Garner’s Rockford always did the right thing no matter how painful it was or how likely he was to get stiffed out of his meager $200 a day (plus expenses). He hated violence, keeping his .38 revolver in the cookie jar and only fishing it out when he absolutely had to. That reluctant warrior who was nevertheless the most reliable person in the lives of nearly everyone around him stood apart on TV both then and now.
What made this the model of being a man for our generation? For all the obligations and for all the times he had to bail his buddy Angel out, Rockford didn’t whine. Things were changing around him and he had to deal with people he didn’t like all the time, but he refused to be rattled by it all. The crazy didn’t make him nuts. He was solid and dependable, getting done what had to be done. He took people at face value and knew a good person when he met them.
Also, Garner did his own stunts. The reverse 180 turn (aka, “pulling a Rockford”) was invented by him. You don’t get more macho than that.
Garner’s passing is a sad day, without any doubt, but it came at the end of a long and apparently happy life. What we mourn today is the passing of a guy who was gracious when fortune smiled on him and tough when it didn’t. He stayed married to the same woman, 58 years at the end. Guys like this don’t come along every day.
James Garner was my generation’s image of what it means to be a man, and he shared that image with us at a time when we needed it the most. He gave us more than a TV show, he went right back to the basics and left no time to be angry or angsty. We need a lot more like him today, too, but his time has sadly passed. He will be missed.