Finding Solace in The Rockford Files

… Values of Post-Watergate anti-hero still resonate

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I like car chases.
 
As a philosophy professor, who spends a good deal of time reading through Plato and exploring obscure Daoist thought, there’s something about sitting in front of the television and watching one slick car chase after another that allows my own mind to throttle back. Car chases, in fact, are a big part of the reason I still enjoy watching reruns of “The Rockford Files” — a series loaded with car chases that ran for six seasons, starting in 1974. Another reason is the inherent goodness of lead character Jim Rockford, which is so hard to find today.

Afterall, I am a philosophy professor, which means that as I watch The Rockford Files, I can’t help but notice how the societal shabbiness and decay it depicts mirrors the period we’re now experiencing - especially our almost willful hurtle towards authoritarianism.
 
We like to think that the good guy will win out, but even in “The Rockford Files” the fast car chases don’t always end with evil on the run. That said, you would never see Jim Rockford embracing the tactics of repression, like those practiced in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, to eke out a win.
 
The show featured lead character Jim Rockford in a broad-lapeled sport jacket. The private detective was often tailing someone in his gold Pontiac Firebird or expertly evading a tail by the bad guys.
 
Rockford had a strong jaw and a stylish look, but was really more anti-hero than hero. He always strove to do the right thing, even when it meant coming up short. The character mirrored a real and honest citizen more than anything else.

Rockford had served time in San Quentin State Prison after being wrongly convicted of armed robbery, and freed by gubernatorial pardon. This was easily evident to the viewer, because it was clear Rockford just didn’t have that kind of meanness in his nature.
 
The show itself was an iconic representation of the late 1970s, harking back not only to a very special time and place in the American imagination, but also to a very special way of looking at human conduct.
 
Rockford was skeptical without being cynical. He was battered by life’s bad guys and arbitrary rules, but never bowed. Today, his character poses the question to viewers: “How many of us truly have found ways to continue to do the right thing in a society so warped by avarice that it holds up empty sex-tape personages like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian as role-models worthy of emulation?
 
These days, Hollywood prefers to play it safe, remaking and trying to capitalize cheaply on old movies and television shows like “Planet of the Apes” and “Hawaii Five-0.” Given those preferences, it's no surprise then that there’s a rumor about a new film version of “The Rockford Files.” But of course, it’s going be a degraded version — with the over-the-top Vince Vaughn slated to play the understated Jim Rockford.

Good luck with that.
 
Perhaps inadvertently, Hollywood has a recent history of taking older iconic police series — like “Hawaii Five-0” — and making them almost mockeries of themselves. Likewise, the remake of Planet of the Apes completely sidestepped the anti-authoritarian undertones of the original film.

In the case of “The Rockford Files,” the most likely elements to be trimmed are those that made it so timeless: loyalty, compassion, generosity, and service. Our society today could really use a show with those themes.
 
The original Jim Rockford lived and worked in an America that was deeply troubled by its own self-image — a lurching, overly involved empire, no longer quite the post-war protector of democratic values and champion of the underdog. Rockford’s America was wracked by economic instability following the 1973 oil embargo and its long involvement in a costly war in Vietnam, and plagued by the morally corrupt behavior of its elected leaders.


Sound familiar?
 
The Watergate scandal was an iconic event of that era, but it also set the stage for much more subtle — and even more damaging — scandals to come, such as Iran Contra affair.
 
Of course, the Vietnam War and political corruption led to protests in Rockford’s America. Instead of Occupiers, the 1970s counter-culture had hippies.
 
The 1970s were marked by disenchanted military veterans, much like the present era, but their voices call for social justice much more quietly today. The Vietnam generation is neither young nor quite so committed to the greater good. Somewhere along the way they transformed into the "Me Generation" and never looked back.

Veterans from more current wars seem to be keeping a lower political profile, too, with the exception of those who have joined groups like Occupy Marines.
 
In his unique way, Rockford seemed to navigate between the counter-culture hippies and the morally bankrupt establishment. He was a man who had to make a living, and he always demanded “$200 a day plus expenses” from his prospective clients, but he never turned anyone away who couldn’t afford that fee.  In short, Rockford was a working-class hero who labored on behalf of the 99% and many of his clients were average people beset by the mob or by other powerful, monied interests. 

That was before the banking sector succeeded in legalizing the mob's loan-sharking activities in 1983 by undermining state usury laws that previously had capped annual lending rates at 11% in most of the United States. Now credit cards issuers routinely charge 29% and payday lenders top 900% in annual interest without a blink of shame or self awareness.

For a 1970s television show, the writing and acting in Rockford were excellent. The plots were much more than car chases, they were fully articulated mysteries about frauds, cons, scams, robberies, and murders. Characters were fully fleshed-out: Jim Rockford himself was known for his wry sense of humor, which he directed at his needy best friend “Angel" and his crusty father - delightfully played by Noah Beery, Jr.
 
Rockford was played by James Garner and the character seemed to blend perfectly with the actor’s own affable personality. The result was a character who was comfortable in his own skin, straight-forward, confident, personable and approachable. Interestingly, both the actor and his character served in the Korean War and yet neither talked much about their military experiences.
 
What was so special about the show?

Well, it dealt with personal conduct and character in a way that’s pretty alien to modern audiences, who have been spoon-fed authoritarian Reality TV shows in recent years — like “Cops,” “World’s Wildest Police Videos,” “Steven Seagal Lawman,” and “Police Women of Broward County.” We've also been inculcated with “might-makes-right” shows like “The Apprentice” and “Survivor.”
 
The police reality shows are filled with perfect public servants who bear little similarity to the officers who have directed more than 6,000 arrests at the nonviolent protesters of the Occupy Wall Street movement. You never see them macing 84-year-old Dorli Rainey (above right), breaking the arm of 16-year-old Messiah Hamid, or fracturing the skull of 25-year-old Marine veteran Scott Olsen.

You also don't see too many of them dealing with moral quandries. You won't see many of the characters on the might-makes-right shows taking principled stands either.

The Apprentice features ambitious business people trying to curry favor with silver spoon Donald Trump, even though companies bearing his brand have filed for bankruptcy protection three times. Meanwhile, Survivor depicts characters who must betray one another to achieve victory. They provide a perfect moral lesson in what not to admire in an age of misnomers in which intercontinental missle systems are given names like the "Peacekeeper," conservative market manipulators get away with calling themselves "free marketeers,"  and right-wing religious chauvinism is couched in terms like "right-to-life."

It’s a safe bet old Jim Rockford would have viewed them all with distaste. He was a soft touch, but tough on the kind of liars and phonies that infest America today.
 
Rockford disliked hurting people and never really relied on muscle to get things done. Instead he tried to avoid violence whenever possible.

Ultimately, the iconic character was defined by his own empathy and compassion for the underdog — and by his hope that things would turn out well even when he suspected otherwise. In short, he was vulnerable without being wimpy – the kind of person who would be more likely to just return a lost briefcase to its owner than summon the bomb squad.
 
We could really use a few Jim Rockfords in these trying times.
 
In contemporary dramas, everybody’s either a computer geek pecking away at a keyboard or a stone-faced tough guy. Few characters appear with the complexity of real human beings. Even the interesting anti-hero “House,” in the series of the same name, seems simply to wallow in cynicism.
 
By contrast, Rockford never wields a weapon at all. He prefers to keep his gun in a cookie jar, ostensibly because the coffee keeps it from rusting.
 
Rockford often tries to avoid fights, even though he’s got a solid right hook. If he punches somebody, it’s usually just to try to get away. It's not uncommon to see him grab his hand in pain afterward in a nod to the idea that physical conflict is always unpleasant.

That attitude is strangely at odds with the mixed martial arts combatants who have supplanted boxers with the high-testasterone set. This new breed of gladiators smile like they're headed to a picnic as they seek to destroy one another into their octagon ring, much as pitbulls trained to fight to the death wag their tails as they tear eachother apart.
 
By contrast, Rockford has no shame in fleeing the bad guys when that’s the best course of action. He actually ended one chase by pulling into a police station parking lot and greeting the perplexed goons tailing him with a cheerful “hi fellas!” as he walked inside (above left)

Even the way Rockford dresses reflects a kind of verisimilitude of character. He’s got his sport jackets, dreadful polyester pants, and flashy shirts. In fact, Rockford dresses like a private detective who’s only got a few outfits because — as he is — he’s living in a trailer and not making much money.
 
James Garner is a handsome actor, and Rockford comes across as a man who is clearly attractive to women. But he’s also portrayed as someone who’s neither uniformly successful at romance, nor at his job. Once again, that’s because his character is real.

All of the fixtures in his life, both people and possessions, have seen better days. 

Rockford has a healthy relationship with his father, and is loyal and forgiving to his imperfect friends, even when they’re unreliable or manipulative. Jim is always willing to befriend anyone who is like him — a regular guy. He pays his bills as the cash comes in, bridges the gaps by pawning valuables, and lives in a slightly worn trailer by the beach in a dilapidated parking lot called “Paradise Cove.”
 
Rockford often seems more concerned with trying to be a good person and enjoying life, than winning the rat race, currying favor with robber barons, or maximizing profits. For example, he’s never shown impressing the ladies with money.

By contrast, it's a safe bet The Donald could never get so much as a pat on his combover without the wealth and businesses he inherited from daddy. Likewise, it's hard to envision anyone giving some play to pocket despot Michael Bloomberg who is not on his payroll.
 
Rockford is the kind of character we just don’t see on television nowadays. He leads a believable life and is satisfied with what he’s got, rather than perpetually trying to “fake it until he makes it” or embracing the “greed is good” code that defines far too many Americans today.
 
In sum, Rockford is not constantly in search of more, more, more. Instead, he seems to embody the Occupy mantra that “there’s enough to go around.” You won't see him with the kind of woman on his arm who chooses to define herself with a $2,000 purse, while people are slipping into poverty all around her.
 
Rockford's imperfect past is an open book and the police sometimes give him a hard time for it. However, he has a friend on the force in Dennis Becker, who returns his loyalty - albeit reluctantly.
 
Most of the television shows that pass for entertainment today lack characters of Rockford’s depth. It’s easy for a viewer to believe Rockford is a real person, and one worth knowing, rather than just a handsome actor playing a two-dimensional character.
 
Let’s put it this way: you wouldn’t hesitate to leave your kids with Jim Rockford. They might come back dirty and carrying freshly-caught fish, but they’d be smiling. By contrast, how many working parents would dare entrust their kids to the likes of Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian (below right), Paris Hilton, Whitney Houston, the Octomom, Jon Gosselin, or any of the various hoochie housewives of whatever city is presently being exploited by the Hollywood profit machine?
 
In modern television, one almost never gets the feeling of really knowing a character. Even those held up as heroes on shows like CSI are mostly sanitized versions of the real thing scrubbed squeaky safe from a commercial perspective by legions of overpaid spin doctors, public relations experts, and political propagandists.
 
It’s more than a little remarkable that such a fine piece of television was made in the 1970’s, but it also says something about that age. It’s clear Rockford's writers and producers sensed they were working in an age of decline.
 
The smog, seedy characters, and ugly office buildings depicted in their L.A. gave viewers a clear sense of forboding. The divide between the bag ladies and show business tycoons always made you feel as if an age of even greater narcissism and greed was just around the corner.

If anything, the streets of LA are even more filled with homeless people today. You just never seem to see the detrius of society on TV. Apparently, they're invisible to the nepotistic Hollywood short-callers who drive past them everyday in hermetically sealed luxury cars.

Satirist Sacha Baron Cohen captured the willful divide between the 99% and the 1% in Hollywood perfectly in a scene in his 2009 mockumentary "Bruno" in which he interviewed actress Paula Abdul and singer Latoya Jackson as they sat on "Mexican chair people." Neither Abdul nor Jackson were acting at the time. They thought the interviews were real and they still sat on the supposed day laborers (left).

It's hard to envision James Garner needing anyone to tell him such elitist behavior is sinful.

 “The Rockford Files” doesn’t just appeal to viewers because of nostalgia, although seeing a private detective looking up someone in a phone book is refreshing in our tedious Facebook-and-iPhone age. The show is appealing because of its main character’s distinct sense of character and virtue, which is so missing today in Hollywood and the nation.
 
Indeed, many people nowadays would not understand the character of Jim Rockford.

“Magnum P.I." portrayed a similar kind of flawed hero in the 1980s series of the same name, which seemed to carry the Rockford baton during the trickle-down presidency of Ronald Reagan. Unlike Trump, who always appears to get the model and make the right business call, despite his real-life struggles, the handsome Thomas Magnum often failed at romance and sometimes bungled his job as a private detective. But like Rockford, it wasn’t for lack of trying to do the right thing.

Neither character ever sold out. It's likely they would have simply sought out better company after being told "you're fired" by the likes of The Donald.
 
Like Rockford, Magnum (below right) also lacked cynicism and was loyal to his friends. He cared about his past and was deeply tied to it - particularly to his military service in Vietnam.
 
The original “Hawaii Five-0” television series relied heavily on virtue and the willingness of its lead character to buck convention. The current remake totally fails in these respects because it relies on withdrawn, cynical male characters. The new plots progress strictly via masculinity and bravado, and the supposed allure of the female character played by Grace Park.
 
None of these older shows — not even Rockford — had the production values and resources that characterize the best of today’s police sitcoms, such as “The Wire” or “Homicide.” Rockford still managed to be engaging and intelligent. Instead of relying on sex and flash, the older shows relied on human interaction. Their characters were flawed, but big hearted and relentlessly good natured.

The best of today’s police sitcoms are all about dialogue, with manly repartee between cops and earnest discussions featuring unrealistically attractive female detectives stooped over dead bodies while wearing blouses that have been custom-tailored to accentuate their curves. By contrast, episodes of “The Rockford Files” moved at a sedate pace that emphasized supportive human interactions by flawed characters — despite the speedy car chases.

Episodes of “Magnum P.I.” and the original “Hawaii Five-0” proceeded at a similar human speed, rather than the frenetic pace that seems to characterize short attention span theater in today’s multitasking world. This slower speed allowed viewers to reflect and enjoy, and become sympathetic with Rockford’s smiling embrace of the unsavory world around him.

It also allowed Rockford to spend time with his father and his friends, instead of living his life at work as many of us do today. He was a failure in the productivity department by today's five-hour energy drink standards - doing the work of one private investigator rather than three or four. However,  he was an overwhelming success as a human being.
 
One of the more curious aspects of “The Rockford Files” is that its producers never made their character cynical, although they were clearly aware of the headwinds buffeting American society and the negative direction it was being blown by them.
 
An episode called “The House on Willis Avenue,” seemed to envision our own current struggle with authoritarian technology as Rockford and a friend investigated a conspiracy concerning a national computer center. The center existed to keep personal information about all U.S. citizens on file.
 
The episode ended prophetically with the words on the screenshot below. 

The U.S. Privacy Protection Commission was formed in 1974 to placate those seeking a permanent privacy oversight agency in Washington, D.C. It ceased operations in 1977.

What the writers of the 1978 episode never realized was that the future wasn’t going to be about a small group trying to track down the private data of individuals against their wishes. Instead, it’s about a declining empire in which fearful citizens willingly relinquish their civil rights and embrace authoritarianism in a fruitless effort to feel safe.
 
No one could have seen that one coming in the world's foremost democracy. Not even Jim Rockford.
 
 Benjamin B. Olshin, Ph.D. has worked as a designer, professor of philosophy, and business consultant. He has written and presented on a wide range of subjects, including ancient history, Eastern and Western philosophy, the sociology of technology, and design and culture, and has studied, carried out research, and worked in East Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America, Canada, and the U.S.  His most recent books are available on Amazon.com. He can be contacted at: olshin@verizon.net.
 

 

 


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