TV's greatest private eye series comes to an end with The Rockford Files - Season Six - The Final Season (1979-80), released to DVD a full year after Season Five's debut last January. Nostalgic fans of the James Garner show likely have forgotten that Rockford's last year was cut short and are unaware this set consists of just 12 episodes. This reviewer was hoping Universal Studios Home Entertainment would compensate for this by including at least the first and perhaps several of the later Rockford Files TV movies, eight of which were made between 1994 and 1999. Rights issues and contractual obligations likely prevented their release at this time, but hopefully Universal (or whomever holds home video rights) will eventually get these out.
In any case, Universal is being somewhat deceptive. Where most TV sets "include all 24 episodes" (or whatever), the packaging here says only it "includes all Season Six episodes" - in other words, 12. At $39.98 (SRP) it's the same price as earlier seasons with twice as many episodes. (That would seem unwise in this economy.) The package design is also notably sloppy. A shot of Jim Rockford and Rocky on the sleeve is actually from the 1974 pilot, with Robert Donley, not Noah Beery Jr., playing Jim's father. The back cover text notes guest stars "Michael Des Barres (Nip/Tuck) [and] Larry Manetti (Magnum P.I.)" but fails to mention Emmy-nominated Lauren Bacall and Mariette Hartley, a much bigger draw for Rockford fans, or for that matter popular semi-regulars like Kathryn Harrold and Rita Moreno.
Still, Rockford's last season, abbreviated though it may be, is one of the best, serving as a both a kind of curtain call for the show's many eccentric characters while to some degree returning to its roots in both Maverick and '30s/'40s detective fiction. I hated to see it end.
Why was Season Six so short? Ed Robertson's insightful and detailed Thirty Years of The Rockford Files explains why. Just before Christmas 1979, Garner was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer, his suffering compounded by numerous other physical problems - over the years he busted his kneecaps (requiring multiple operations), ribs and knuckles, and dislocated discs and had torn ligaments and tendons. In other words, his body was shot yet Rockford's grueling schedule required him to be in nearly every scene, and during many of those he was either chasing somebody or getting beat up. He had planned on ending The Rockford Files after its fifth season, but last-place NBC desperately needed an anchor for their Friday night schedule and persuaded Garner to return for one more year.
Less cordial was co-producer Universal. Just as production began on the new season, they informed Garner the series was $9 million in the red, despite its popularity in both first-run and in lucrative syndication sales, and despite the fact Garner had meticulously kept the show on-time and on-budget throughout its run, and even took a salary cut in 1976 in exchange for a larger percentage of the profits. Now, in an outrageous bit of creative accounting, Universal was claiming there were no profits at all.
From his hospital bed in La Jolla, Garner shut down production of The Rockford Files and the last episode aired in January 1980. NBC never officially cancelled the show, and had Universal not filed a $1.5 million breach-of-contract lawsuit against Garner, it's entirely possible the remaining 10 episodes would eventually have been filmed. (Four never-produced stories that were in development at this time are summarized in Robertson's book.) Garner eventually filed his own $22.5 million suit against Universal, but as late as 1988, when The Rockford Files "had generated over $119.3 million in profits," according to Robertson, "the studio still claimed that the show was $1.6 million in the red." A confidential settlement was finally reached between both parties in March 1989.
Fortunately, none of this acrimony is apparent in any of Rockford's last 12 shows. Indeed, the last episodes rekindle some aspects that had been absent from the show for awhile. For instance, Rockford's relationship with Rocky, Jim's dad, was a supremely important component of the series, but in recent seasons it seemed like Rocky's house had become the go-to place to stash the heroine, and that Noah Beery's participation on the show had been reduced to offering the guest star coffee and doughnuts. But the warm friendship and father-son bond so apparent in episodes like the Season Two two-parter "Gearjammers" returns in the Season Six show "The Hawaiian Headache," in which Rocky gets uncharacteristically surly toward his son after Rockford gets sucked into a case and, in a moment of tension, tells his father to "Shut up." That episode is a neat little showcase for longtime character player "Pidge" Beery, who died just before the first Rockford Files TV-movie aired in November 1994.
There's also a bit of a return to the Hammett/Chandler-esque influence that permeated the show in its early years, but which gradually faded once Rockford's myriad eccentric hangers-on were established, especially Stuart Margolin's hilariously unscrupulous Evelyn "Angel" Martin. (Margolin won an Emmy for his work this season, while Garner, Beery, and the series itself were all nominated, but lost.)
Juanita Bartlett's "Lions, Tigers, Monkeys, and Dogs"* is a teleplay straight out of Philip Marlowe (whom Garner played in a 1969 film) with Jim hired by a bona fide princess (Dana Wynter) to protect a childhood friend, Kendall Warren (Lauren Bacall). Bacall's history with first husband Humphrey Bogart and her work on such films as The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo, etc. is inescapable. The previous episode, Stephen J. Cannell's "Paradise Cove," is similarly Chandler-esque, about the search for stolen gold bullion (buried, as it turns out, directly under Rockford's old trailer!).
The Rockford's eccentric universe, one populated by CIA agents with delusions of grandeur, inept private eyes, unhelpful cops, scheming grifters, beautiful but kooky dames, etc. is exemplified in all of Season Six's returning characters. Inept P.I.'s from Rockford's past (James Whitmore, Jr., Tom Selleck, Simon Oakland) are back in "Nice Guys Finish Dead"; blind psychologist Megan Dougherty (Kathryn Harrold) returns for "Love is the Word"; Ken Swofford plays a variation of earlier characters in "The Hawaiian Headache"; and Rita Moreno is back as ex-hooker Rita Capkovic.
Other guest stars include Leif Erickson, Ed Nelson, Julie Parrish, Leo Gordon, Marcia Strassman, Barbara Mandrell, Van Williams, Pat Finley (returning as the wife of Joe Santos' character), Constance Towers, Mary Jackson, and Jerry Hardin. James Luisi and Luis Delgado reprise their familiar roles, while Garner's brother Jack, who had been playing bit parts throughout the series, at last gets a regular character to play - Police Captain McEnroe, a role he'd reprise on the later TV movies. Episodes are directed by the likes of busy William Wiard, prolific Joseph Pevney, and multi-faceted Ivan Dixon.
Besides Beery, Santos, and Margolin, all delightful, it's really James Garner himself holding it all together. Now 80, Garner's had some health problems in recent years, including a minor stroke last May, but reports are he's been soldiering on reasonably well. Be now he must be aware of the huge impact The Rockford Files and the screen persona that evolved out of his Bret Maverick character has had on popular culture. Many of his best films have him playing variations of these characters (in The Great Escape, Marlowe, and Support Your Local Sheriff! to name three), and while Garner's more than proven he's capable of other kinds of roles (Grand Prix, Hour of the Gun, and Victor/Victoria come to mind, and more recently on the series 8 Simple Rules), the character that originated on Maverick and crystallized on The Rockford Files is unique and, in the end, irreplaceable.
Video & Audio
The Rockford Files - Season Six - The Final Season presents the show full frame on three single-sided, dual-layered discs, four episodes per. The Robertson book lists "Lions, Tigers, Monkeys and Dogs" as a two-hour episode, not a two-parter, but that may be incorrect. In any case the shows appear complete and not time-compressed, though like the rest of the series, episodes are more than a little dog-eared with much negative speckling, myriad dirt and other imperfections abound. Some episodes are reasonably sharp while others lean toward the soft side. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono is okay. English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing is available. This time out there are no Extra Features
The Rockford Files remains the best show of its kind, and the last batch of episodes maintain the same high batting average as the rest of the series. I hope Universal is willing and able to move onto the TV movies, as they have (albeit at a snail's pace) with the later Columbo movies. They wittily adapt an older Jim Rockford into the 1990s with taste and intelligence, so keep your fingers crossed. In the meantime, savor this short list of Highly Recommended episodes.
* The amusing title refers to the four groups L.A.'s elite restaurants categorize its customers (Rockford is a "dog"). The series had many funny titles over the years, e.g., "Rosendahl and Gilda Stern Are Dead," "Two into 5.56 Won't Go," "The Battle of Canoga Park," and "Irving the Explainer."
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest books, Japanese Cinema and The Toho Studios Story, are now available for pre-order.