James Garner's marvelous detective series The Rockford Files (1974-1980) met a sudden and ignominious end twelve episodes into its sixth season. The series had been moderately successful during its network run on NBC, but a huge hit in syndication, grossing some $52 million by mid-1979. Nonetheless, the studio producing the series, Universal, in a notorious and flagrant example of "creative bookkeeping," insisted the show was actually $9 million dollars in the red, and that Garner, who worked hard to kept the series on schedule and on budget, watched helplessly as his profit participation evaporated.
Unlike stars of other long-running detective cop/detective shows of the period such as Jack Lord on Hawaii Five-O and Buddy Ebsen on Barnaby Jones, on The Rockford Files Garner was featured in almost every scene and in practically every episode his character gets beaten up or is involved in some climactic chase in which he rarely was doubled. By 1979 he had broken kneecaps, several ribs, knuckles, a spinal bone, and had an ulcer to boot. Finally his body could stand it no longer. He checked into a hospital and The Rockford Files went into hiatus.
It never came back. The following month, Universal filed a $1.5 million breach-of-contract suit against the actor, publically claiming Garner was feigning all his easily verifiable injuries. They pissed off the wrong man. He counter-sued Universal, which as late as the mid-1980s, when the series showed revenue of $119 million, kept insisting the show was still losing money. The case was finally settled in 1989 for an undisclosed sum, but the entire process only made Universal look like a den of thieves and, clearly, Garner won in the end.
Meanwhile, NBC never officially cancelled The Rockford Files, hoping Garner and Universal could resolve their differences and finish out the season when Garner's health allowed. When it became clear that wouldn't happened, after appearing in a couple of films Garner instead agreed to star in a new series, Bret Maverick, for Warner Bros. Television.
The series, of course, was a revival of Maverick (1957-62), the comic Western series. Garner, as rascally cardsharp Bret Maverick, was planned as the original show's lone star, but the grueling production schedule (thirty-nine 51-minute episodes per season) necessitated alternating leads with Jack Kelly. Garner left the series after the third season and was replaced by Roger Moore as cousin Beau Maverick and, almost forgotten now, Robert Colbert was added as yet another Maverick brother, Brent.
Though Garner split with Warner Bros. and Maverick as acrimoniously as he later would with Universal on Rockford, by 1981 that was ancient history. Further, Garner had already appeared in The New Maverick, a 1978 pilot for a blink-and-you'll-miss-it first attempt at a revival that was to have starred Charles Frank as Bret's second-cousin Ben Maverick.
But as the expensive 1994 feature film starring Mel Gibson later proved, there was no replacing the original. Bret Maverick, the revival series with Garner, is pleasant, laid-back, and funny yet only lasted a single season. One theory behind its cancellation was the new show's premise, which had perpetual drifter Maverick uncharacteristically settling down in a small Arizona town. That was probably a concession to Garner, as a series shot primarily on Warner Bros.' Western backlot streets and thus less physically taxing than a show like Rockford Files, a series shot all over Los Angeles County, had been. It's also possible that the fairly popular series was deemed an expensive luxury; by 1981 TV standards it appears quite lavishly produced, Warner Bros. clearly expecting a huge hit.
The premise for Bret Maverick is set into motion via its TV-movie/pilot film, Bret Maverick: The Lazy Ace, which premiered one week before the series commenced. In syndication the movie is typically broken up into a two separate episodes but, thankfully, is presented in its original form here.
Bret Maverick (Garner) arrives in Sweetwater, Arizona Territory for an epic high-stakes poker game (one of the other gamblers is Doc Holliday, played by a well-cast John McLiam). (Reader Sergei Hasenecz points out that Sweetwater is also the setting for Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West.) Bret's winnings include the Red Ox Saloon, though he's dismayed to learn that its crippling mortgage hardly make it the cash cow he thought it was. Nevertheless, he decides to settle down in Sweetwater, selling half-interest to Tom Guthrie (country singer Ed Bruce), the town's former sheriff.
Maverick buys a ranch nearby run by crotchety foreman Cy Whitaker (Richard Hamilton) but the town's new sheriff (John Shearin), less heroic and more business-minded, and bank president Elijah Crow (Ramon Bieri) remain suspicious of Maverick's long-term motives in Sweetwater. Meanwhile, feisty local newspaper editor-photographer Mary Lou Springer (Darleen Carr, always in anachronistically butt-hugging if eye-pleasing slacks) and others try to exploit Maverick's notoriety as a famous gambler. Her character seems to have been inspired by those played by Joan Hackett and Suzanne Pleshette in Garner's two-film Support Your Local Sheriff!/Support Your Local Gunfighter.
Bret Maverick is as much a continuation of The Rockford Files as the original Maverick. From Rockford Garner brought with him producers Chas. Floyd Johnson and Meta Rosenberg, cinematographer Andrew Jackson, and directors Ivan Dixon, William Wiard, Leo Penn, and Stuart Margolin, the latter also enjoying a similarly semi-regular role as crooked alleged Indian Philo Sandeen, one not far removed from his Angel Martin character on Rockford. Additionally, Luis Delgado, who had the small continuing role as Officer Billings on Rockford, and Garner's older brother Jack, who often played one-line bits on the earlier show, became regulars on Bret Maverick as "Shifty" Delgado and Jack the Bartender. For Rockford fans, it's awfully nice to seem them in expanded roles here.
The series could have used even more of this Rockford Files influence, for it's easy to imagine Rockford regulars Noah Beery Jr. as Cy, Gretchen Corbett as Mary Lou and, a bit more of a stretch, Joe Santos as Tom Guthrie. Hamilton, Carr, and Bruce are all fine, but lightning didn't strike twice. Further, both Western movies and TV shows were an all but dead viable genre by 1981. Even Clint Eastwood has done only two since.
Nevertheless, Bret Maverick is a fine, funny series that should have lasted much longer than it did. Irreplaceable James Garner, the undisputed King of the Dog-Robbers, Scroungers, Grifters, and Cardsharps, is delightful as always. Because of its Old West setting in some respects it hasn't dated the way Rockford Files has, which helps explain why NBC actually broadcast the series on no less than three separate occasions in prime time: during its original 1981-82 run, in the midst of the 1988 writers' strike, and again in 1994 to cash in the Mel Gibson Maverick feature.
A mid-season replacement, only 18 episodes were made and no final episode was produced. However, expecting to return the last show of the season offers both a kind of appropriate sendoff, as well as hint at what directions and format juggling might have been taken had it continued. Among other things the last episode is built around a single joke with a terrific payoff in its final moments.
Video & Audio
Bret Maverick was shot 1.37:1 full-frame in 35mm, and the transfers on these pressed DVDs (not DVD-Rs) look great; they're in far better shape with much better color than Universal's Rockford Files DVDs. On five single-sided discs with most offering four episodes apiece, episode titles are listed on the discs themselves. The Dolby Digital mono audio, English-only with no accompanying English or other subtitles, is also fine. No Extra Features.
Though short-lived, Bret Maverick is an awfully fun series, a perfect companion set to both the original Maverick and as an almost-continuation of The Rockford Files. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.