The Rockford/Dude Files

“I won’t kill for it, and I won’t marry for it,” the private eye Jim Rockford sometimes said about money. “Other than that, I’m open.” That credo suggested a man with one foot on the solid ground of decency and the other submerged in slime, a good man with no illusions, a wry, slick navigator of a crazy, hard world whose humanity, bruised and bandaged though it might be, remained intact. That was Rockford, given life by the recently deceased and sorely missed James Garner.

As a kid watching The Rockford Files in the 1970s, I often wondered why its hero stayed friends with the lowlife Angel (played by Stuart Margolin), but now I see that just as decency was essential to Rockford, so was the world that the ironically named Angel represented: a place long on danger and short on scruples. Rockford needed to stay in touch with the world of kind-hearted folks so he wouldn’t lose the best part of himself; he needed Angel and others like him so he wouldn’t be bored.

Rockford also straddled other worlds, or, perhaps more accurately, different eras. He was part John Wayne but part Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H, too; he was brave and handy with his fists, but he didn’t win every fight, and when honor and brawn didn’t carry the day, he had no problem with trickery.  But mostly, Rockford was . . . there, a magnet for some of the craziest shit the world could dream up, a hole in the balloon toward which so much rushed and, in rushing, dispelled itself.

Recently I persuaded my wife to watch one of my favorite movies, the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. At the end she said — among other things — that there was a lot of The Rockford Files in it. And she had a point. The Dude of The Big Lebowski might be said to be Jim Rockford reduced to his essence: divested of Rockford’s fighting and driving skills, missing even the twisted satisfaction Rockford got from keeping company with the scum of the earth, and yet the one sought out by the hidden evil of the world around him, the one toward whom those forces gravitate, as if desperate to find something better than themselves.

2 thoughts on “The Rockford/Dude Files

  1. If I may recommend a particular Rockford “File” to watch and commemorate Mr. Garner’s passing, Quickie Nirvana (season 4, episode 7) exhibits many of the qualities you mention. In his scenes with the aging hippie Sky Aquarian, Rockford sums up America’s quizzical attitude towards its own recent past. Those, and their final meeting, are surprisingly nuanced and bittersweet for a private eye TV show. One of the writers, I notice, is David Chase, later of The Sopranos.

  2. Gracious, Georges, you know your Rockford Files! I may have seen that one — I’ll have to go back and refresh my memory. I always remember the ones with Isaac Hayes; his character, Gandolph Finch, had served time with Rockford (whom he always called “Rockfish”).

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