Thursday 16 April 2020

The Rockford Files season 3 (1976-77)

The first season of The Rockford Files went to air in 1974 and was a huge hit. Subsequent seasons were never quite able to recapture that ratings magic. It settled down into being a solid enough ratings performer and of course ended up being recognised as one of the great American private eye series.

The third season screened in 1976 and 1977. The cast remains unchanged from season two. One of the things that distinguishes The Rockford Files from other PI series is that the regular supporting players are a bit more than sidekicks. Rockford’s relationships with his father Rocky (Noah Beery Jr), with his buddy Sergeant Dennis Becker (Joe Santos), with his old prison cell-mate Angel (Stuart Margolin) and his long-suffering lawyer Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett) have some degree of complexity. They’re not just there because they’re needed for plot reasons. They are, by the standards of network TV series,  more like real people.

The Rockford Files was in a sense the anti-Mannix. It tries to be the complete opposite of Mannix. Mannix is a very successful private investigator. Jim Rockford is mostly just keeping his head above the water. Mannix’s office is expensive and classy. Rockford works out of his trailer. Mannix has a secretary. Rockford can’t even imagine what it would be like to be able to afford a secretary. Mannix is a very confident guy whose life has pretty much worked out the way he wanted it to. He likes being a successful PI. Rockford has been in prison and he’s a PI because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. Rockford veers between cockiness and a kind of cynical world-weariness. Mannix is stylish with an ambience of wealth and success. The Rockford Files is stylish with an ambience of seediness.

It’s not surprising that critics loved The Rockford Files, but Mannix was a bigger success with viewers.

In fact they’re both good shows. Mannix was almost the perfect conventional private eye series. The Rockford Files was deliberately and aggressively unconventional.

The Rockford Files has aged pretty well. The cynicism of the 70s matches the cynicism of today. It’s that edge of cynicism that distinguishes this series from earlier American private eye series such as Mannix and Cannon. Rockford is a decent guy but he doesn’t see himself as a hero or a crusader for justice. He does not believe that the criminal justice system always works or that it is fair. He has nothing against the police but he has no illusions about them. Some cops (like Becker) are honest and basically decent but they’re overworked and demoralised. And some cops are crooks and some are lazy and some are decidedly not nice guys. Rockford does not trust the Feds one little bit and he has very limited faith in the government.

Rockford likes to see justice done, if it can be done without too much personal risk or inconvenience, but he’s realistic enough to know that sometimes if you want justice you have to take your own steps to obtain it, steps which might not be entirely legal or ethical. For Rockford ethics are what you can get away with without having your private investigator’s licence taken away and that doesn’t bother him too much because he considers that his intentions are good.

He is instinctively on the side of the little guy but he tries to avoid offending the big guys unless he has to because they’re dangerous.

Ten years earlier such attitudes in a television private eye series would have been regarded as being excessively cynical but Rockford’s outlook does have a fair bit in common with the outlook of the hardboiled school of crime fiction and with film noir, although The Rockford Files lacks the nihilism and pessimism of true film noir.

The Episode Guide

The Fourth Man starts with an airline reservations clerk named Lori making a quite innocent remark to a passenger named Mr Farrell, about his being a regular flyer and having been on the Detroit flight a week ago. Someone then makes two separate attempts to kill Lori, and the second time she’s pretty sure her would-be slayer was Mr Farrell. Lori being a friend of Jim Rockford’s he naturally gets involved.

There’s more action than usual but this was the season opener so it was probably a good move to establish Rockford’s action hero credentials. It was a nicely twisted little plot. A good start to season three.

The Oracle Wore a Cashmere Suit gets Jim mixed up with phoney psychic Roman Clementi. The victims of phoney psychics are usually lonely vulnerable people but in this case the victims are the LAPD. And they’ve been taken in completely. Including especially Lieutenant Chapman. The problem for Jim is that the case the psychic is working on with much fanfare and self-publicity is one of Jim’s old cases. And Jim starts to figure he’s being used but he can’t quite see how it’s being done. Somehow this psychic really does seem to know stuff he shouldn’t know. And it seems like he’s got everybody convinced. Except Jim, who is about as hardcore sceptic as you can get. And Beth Davenport, his lawyer, shares his scepticism because lawyers don’t believe in anything.

The highlight here is the battle of wits between Rockford and Clementi (played with panache by Robert Webber). Great fun.

The Family Hour has an unbelievably convoluted plot. I’m not even going to try to tell you anything about it. The story starts when Jim finds a 12-year-old girl on his doorstep. Trying to figure out who she is is the first challenge. Of course he could just take her down to Juvenile Hall but he and Rocky are too soft-hearted to do that and so they get mixed up in all kinds of dramas featuring assorted hoods and narcotics deals and general craziness. There’s a real danger of soggy sentimentality in a story like this but that danger is neatly avoided. It’s an episode that gives Rockford a chance to put one of his amazingly complicated schemes into operation. All very enjoyable.

Feeding Frenzy shows that giving money back can be a lot harder than stealing it. Charly Baylock is a bit of a loser. A few years back he got drunk and stole half a million from his employer. Now he wants to return it but someone else knows about the money and they kidnap his daughter and demand the half million. There’s also a cop who is very interested in the case and he’s giving Jim a really hard time. The moral of the story seems to be that if you steal money you’re a fool and if you then decide to do the right thing you’re an even bigger fool. A good episode.

In Drought at Indianhead River Rockford’s loser ex-con friend Angel is suddenly a real estate tycoon, but the word is that he’s about to become a deceased real estate tycoon. And Rockford is caught in the middle, the way he always gets caught in the middle of Angel’s dramas. What he can’t figure out this time is why a bunch of crooks would want to make Angel a partner in some land deal and then kill him. When he does figure it out he has to find a way out of the mess. The classic formula for The Rockford Files is for Rockford to get himself out of trouble by pulling some ingenious con whereby he can ensnare the bad guys without getting himself into trouble with the law. And Drought at Indianhead River is a particularly fine example of this formula. It also has some rather deliciously amusing scenes with Angel in the sanatarium. A terrific episode.

Rocky (Jim’s dad) gets into the oil business in Coulter City Wildcat. This particular brunch of the oil business is a little unconventional and it’s not exactly honest, and not exactly legal. Of course Rocky doesn’t know. It’s another of the fiendishly complicated scams that are such a feature of this series, and as usual Rockford comes up with a neat little scam of his own to love the case. It’s a fun episode.

In So Help Me God Rockford is subpoenaed to give evidence before a grand jury and discovers that his constitutional rights are worth nothing. It’s all to do with the disappearance of a union boss. It’s a pretty savage indictment of abuse of power. An unusually passionate episode, but effective.

Angel gets Jim into hot water once again in Rattlers' Class of ’63. Angel is getting married but of course there’s something dishonest behind it. The awkward part is the two dead bodies, plus the bride’s Armenian brothers who want to see both Jim and Angel dead. In this episode we see Angel being particularly sleazy and then, for a brief moment, actually trying to be a decent human being. The plot is not as delightfully convoluted as usual but it’s not a bad episode.

There’s nothing like an old army buddy to get a guy into trouble. Rockford’s old buddy is Al Brennan (Ned Beatty) and in Return to the 38th Parallel he certainly provides the trouble. Al has had a lot of bad luck, mostly with racehorses and bookies, and he needs a break. He wants to try his hand at being a PI. When he takes on a missing persons case Rockford feels he has little choice but to go along with it. He really would have been better off keeping right away from the case and from Al Brennan. And those paintings. A good episode.

Piece Work seems to be a routine investigation into insurance fraud but Rockford finds that it leads to much bigger stuff. Like gun-running. But it’s more complicated than that. Much more complicated. A very good episode.

The Trouble with Warren starts with Rockford doing a favour for Beth. Her cousin Warren is in some trouble, although she doesn’t tell Jim the full extent of the trouble. And Warren just seems to keep digging himself in deeper. Being mixed up in one murder is bad but two murders is just too many for Jim’s liking but by now he’s in as much trouble as Warren. Not to mention having a whole raft of other charges hanging over his head. An enjoyable episode.

In Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, But Waterbury Will Bury You L.A.’s private investigators are having a tough time of it. Firstly one of Rockford’s old buddies tells him a story of how he lost his PI’s licence in what he is sure was a setup. Then another PI spins Rockford exactly the same tale. And then a third PI, and the story is identical.

There's One in Every Port concerns a con, or rather a series of cons. Jim gets innocently mixed up in the first one and now he’s got a really nasty gangster type who wants his money back. Jim hasn’t got the money but if the gangster doesn’t get Jim will end kinda dead. In fact that first con was merely the prelude to a much bigger much more elaborate one. But not quite as elaborate as the con Jim comes up with to get himself off the hook. These conman episodes are among my favourites and this is a very good albeit fiendishly complicated one.

The Trees, the Bees and T.T. Flowers is a two-part episode. Many years ago Rocky’s old buddy T.T. Flowers wanted to get right away from the city so he bought a ten-acre place where he could raise his animals and tend his bees. Now the city is catching up to him and his property would make an ideal site for a very profitable apartment block. T.T. is an eccentric but he’s a nice harmless old guy. His son-in-law is anything but harmless and he’s trying to get T.T. committed so he can sell the property. Jim didn’t want anything to do with the case and only reluctantly agreed to go to the mental hospital to check things out. Then the people at the hospital tried to kill him. That got his attention. And now he can smell a very nasty scam and he doesn’t like it. Unfortunately exposing the scam seems like it will be almost impossible. An OK episode but a bit too predictable and the surprise twist isn’t going to surprise anybody.

In The Becker Connection Becker is set up while temporarily assigned to the Narcotics Squad. He persuades Rockford to help him prove his innocence. This is a disappointingly routine episode with none of the clever twists we expect from this series.

Just Another Polish Wedding reunites Rockford with his old prison buddy Gandolph Fitch (Isaac Hayes). Rockford lines up with a job with another old buddy, Marcus Aurelius Hayes (Louis Gossett Jr), which proves to be a mistake. Rockford and Hayes are actually working on the same case, a missing probate heir case, but they’re not the only ones looking for the missing heir. It all gets very messy, but entertainingly messy. A fun episode.

To Protect and Serve, a two-parter, is a missing persons case but if Jim had known the identity of the missing person and the identity of the man who wanted to find her he would never have touched the case. But it’s too late now. Plus there’s an interfering buff named Leanne to deal with. Buffs are kind of like police groupies. They’re civilians who hang around cops. Leanne is a particularly unfortunate specimen. She’s obsessed with Becker. Hanging around with cops really excites her. And she’s inserted herself into the middle of Jim’s case. The case is quite bad enough without that complication. It’s fairly typical Rockford Files stuff but it’s done pretty well.

New Life, Old Dragons brings Rockford one of those clients who tells him all sorts of stories, none of them true. She’s a Vietnamese refugee and her brother has been kidnapped and as you might expect the real story is complicated and involves all sorts of illegal activities on the part of just about everybody involved. A fairly good episode with some decent plot twists.

In Dirty Money, Black Light Rocky is in Hawaii but while he’s away money is arriving in his mailbox. Lots of money. Jim obviously wants to find out what’s going on but he doesn’t want to get Rocky in trouble. He could however be getting himself in trouble with some nasty people. People like gangsters. And even nastier people, like the Feds. Not to mention loan shark Electric Larry. Jim is going to have to be smarter and more devious than any of them, always a good setup for a Rockford Files episode.

Final Thoughts

In season three The Rockford Files maintains a pretty good balance between cynicism and fun. Highly recommended.


  1. My biggest (and perhaps ONLY) gripe with The Rockford Files is that he has such horrible old friends and acquaintences that he just should cut ties with all of them. Bless him, but everytime Angel shows up, he just shoud walk away and not look back.

    I find the same plot true of so many cop/PI shows from the 70's.

    1. My biggest (and perhaps ONLY) gripe with The Rockford Files is that he has such horrible old friends and acquaintences that he just should cut ties with all of them.

      Yes, very true.

      I find the same plot true of so many cop/PI shows from the 70's.

      Yes, fair comment. They all seem to have vast collections of old buddies with amazing propensities to get mixed up in every kind of sleazy (and spectacularly unsuccessful) criminal activity imaginable.

  2. I liked "Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, But Waterbury Will Bury You" a lot. Simon Oakland's character shows up a few more times, and I loved the distraction they pulled for Jim and Billy to find the evidence they need.

    1. I liked "Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, But Waterbury Will Bury You" a lot.

      Yes, that's an excellent episode.