The Rockford Files Movie Collection - Volume 1, featuring the first four of eight TV movies produced more than a dozen years after the 1974-1980 series abruptly left the air, is a wonderfully entertaining and nostalgic set. Made by virtually the same crew as the TV show - from the executive producers and writers to the grips and construction guys - these later 90-minute movies are, for the most part, quite wonderful. Unlike most reunion shows, the later Rockford Files TV movies play more like a continuation rather than a re-visitation, as if the series had never left the air, while acknowledging the passage of time in funny, often quite touching ways. The first, The Rockford Files: I Still Love L.A. (1994) may be the best reunion movie of its kind - ever.
The three other shows are subtitled A Blessing in Disguise (1995), If the Frame Fits (1996), and Godfather Knows Best. Presumably, the last four movies, which aired 1996-1999, will be released some time later as Volume 2.
The Rockford Files TV series ended abruptly, and under strange circumstances, as documented in Ed Robertson's superb book on the series, Thirty Years of 'The Rockford Files'. Star James Garner, whose title character played a long-suffering private investigator based in a beachfront (but fairly dilapidated) mobile home in Malibu, had worn out his body during Rockford's first five years. He was on-camera 90% of the time, and his character was chased and beaten in almost every show. Garner, also a heavy smoker at the time, broke ribs and knuckles, dislocated a disc in his back and, worst of all, completely trashed his knee caps, which required multiple operations and gave him a pronounced limp and limited mobility. (He hobbles gingerly throughout the TV-movies. He's not acting.) After 12 sixth season shows his body could stand no more and doctors ordered an extended rest. Garner had fully intended on returning to wrap up the remaining shows, but his already strained relationship with the studio put the kibosh on that.
As production of Rockford's sixth season got underway, Garner learned that thanks to some outrageously creative bookkeeping, Universal Studios, which owned the largest percentage of Rockford Files, claimed that while the show was a huge hit in syndication and had grossed $52 million to date, it somehow lost $61 million, this despite the fact Garner and his crews were famously efficient, always keeping the show on-time and on-budget. During the show's run, Garner was persuaded to take a big cut in his salary in exchange for a bigger piece of the show. By 1988, the show had earned $119.3 million yet, according to Universal, lost $1.6 million. To say he wasn't exactly happy learning there were no profits to be shared would be an understatement.
This led to a landmark series of lawsuits: first, Universal filed a $1.5 million breach of contract suit against Garner for allegedly bailing out of the series, while Garner counter-sued for $22.5 million for failing "to properly account ... the true and correct accountings of the revenues, costs and other charges in connection with the series." An eleventh-hour settlement was finally reached in 1989 - ten years after the issue first came to Garner's attention, and after he had endured two heart operations related to the stress of the lawsuits. The amount of the settlement was never disclosed, but Garner's brave stand clearly reduced the number and degrees of such blatant creative accounting among the Hollywood majors.
By 1994, Garner was finally ready to revisit Rockford and its other continuing characters - but, adamantly, not on Universal's stages. He was, by this time, in his mid-60s, and freely admitted in interviews that his character's days as an active private investigator were numbered. Fortunately, the veteran writers recognized that, by now, audiences were less interested in Rockford's cases than they were in Rockford himself, and his extended family.
The first and best of the TV movies, I Still Love L.A., by Juanita Bartlett, does this to perfection. The script ingeniously incorporates recent history into both its murder-mystery plot while intelligently mining it as a source for Rockford's never-ending frustrations. In April 1992, Rockford is in the process of selling his beachfront trailer but the buyers are scared off when Los Angeles is rocked by the Los Angeles riots. In one of the series' all-time great moments, concerned for his friend's safety Rockford leaves a sincere message on Angel Martin's (Stuart Margolin) telephone answering machine. Moments later he spots Angel on TV - a local news helicopter camera captures him among the looters.
Later on, the devastating 1993 fires in Malibu and the January 1994 earthquake, all shrewdly incorporated into the narrative, further complicate Rockford's life. The mystery story meanwhile cleverly adapts more contemporaneous events, with Rockford's ex-wife, Kit (Joanna Cassidy), an attorney defending a brother and sister accused of murdering their wealthy mother. They eventually use a defense similar to that attempted by Lyle and Erik Menendez, to Rockford's displeasure and disbelief.
Cassidy's role, and Rockford's interim marriage and divorce since the original series ended, fueled speculation the role was written with Rockford's one-time attorney/love interest, Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett), in mind, but Bartlett denied this.
In any case, the show is a real gem, start to finish, and was a big ratings success. The later Rockford TV movies weren't so lucky, partly because the second one, Blessings in Disguise, wasn't nearly as good but mainly because CBS, which aired all the TV-movies, didn't get behind the later shows, often scheduling them opposite killer competition.
A Blessing in Disguise, written by Stephen J. Cannell, isn't bad, and indeed quite enjoyable if viewed like an extended episode of the original series, but the basic story strains credibility and its take on Southern California narcissism was by 1995 old hat. Another problem is that Margolin's third-rate grifter character, while hilarious in small doses, tends to overwhelm as a central character, which is the case in this story which finds Angel Martin now a successful televangelist, whose "church" and its crazy members are seemingly threatening self-involved actress Laura Dean (Renee O'Connor) and her new family picture, Little Ezekiel.
Significantly better is If the Frame Fits, a reunion show in the true sense of the word. Besides Margolin and character actor Joe Santos (a delight as Rockford's police contact, the always-beleaguered Dennis Becker), the show brought back two of Rockford's longtime nemeses, (now Commander) Diehl (Tom Atkins), and the character who more or less replaced him on the series, (now Captain) Doug Chapman (James Luisi, as charmingly disagreeable as ever). Best of all, the show marks the long-awaited return of Beth Davenport (Corbett), who only left the series as a semi-regular because stingy Universal, who had the actress under contract, actually priced her out of their own show! Bartlett again quite cleverly (sort of) alludes to the character's absence from the series' later seasons, with Beth bitter she's heard so little from Jim in recent years.
But the show's most touching moment belongs, surprisingly enough, to guest star Dyan Cannon, whose character, IRS agent Jess Wilding, had enjoyed a warm friendship with Jim's father, Rocky, in the years prior to that character's death. The actor who played him, Noah "Pidge" Berry, Jr., was too ill to appear in I Still Love L.A. and died three weeks before it aired. (It was, however, "Dedicated to the memory of Noah Beery, Jr. We love you and miss you, Pidge.") This movie acknowledged both the actor and his character's passing most eloquently. Rocky was always a gregarious, generous man, who'd take in total strangers and in no time, in his eyes, they were one of the family. During the show, Jess explains her friendship with Rocky in similar terms, and how he became something of a surrogate father to her. Bartlett's writing so perfectly captures Rocky's essence that fans of the show will nod in sweet recognition.
The fourth movie, Godfather Knows Best was written by The Sopranos' David Chase, who got his start penning many of Rockford's mafia-rooted storylines. It has the kind of eccentric mobster portraits that marked his work on both this and The Sopranos, but like all four shows the crime-mystery angle really takes a back seat to its more personal story, the strained relationship between Dennis Becker and his adult son, Scotty (Damian Chapa). Rockford finds Scotty homeless and panhandling on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade (very authentic) and tries to give him a leg up, but the son is basically a hopeless loser. Rockford's best intentions only anger Dennis, who doesn't want to face facts. (In another neat little reunion, actress Pat Finley returns as Dennis's wife.) Though the Scotty character was compromised a bit, softened at Garner's insistence, it's still the source of some terrific drama, and Garner and Santos are just great together.
Video & Audio
Presented in their original full frame format, with two movies on each of the two single-sided, dual-layered discs, The Rockford Files Movie Collection - Volume 1 is a big step up quality-wise from the often ragged quality of the film elements in Universal's season sets of the series. Though nearly 15 years old now, the shows look almost brand-new. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo tracks are also pleasant, especially in the way they back out Mike Post and Pete Carpenter's signature scoring. English subtitles are included, but there are no other audio/subtitle options, and no Extra Features
For fans of the series, this is a must-have set, and not unreasonably priced for what amounts to four movies. And kudos to Universal for their completeness; though I expressed hope for the later TV movies in my review of The Rockford Files' final season, I thought the chances of that actually happening were slim-to-none. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, part of AnimEigo's forthcoming Tora-san DVD boxed set, is available for pre-order, while his latest book, Japanese Cinema, is in bookstores now.