ROCKFORD FILES: “Tall Woman in Red Wagon” S1 E5

Air date: Oct. 11, 1974

Air date: Oct. 11, 1974

“It’s Laurie at the trailer park. A space opened up. Do you want me to save it, or are the cops going to let you stay where you are?”

 

Interesting message, because Jim’s trailer, which has so far been parked in a little vacant lot alongside the Tonga Lei tiki bar and motel on the Pacific Coast Highway, will soon be moved to its home for the rest of the series in the Paradise Cove parking lot. But not yet.

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Tall Woman in Red Wagon

 I

We begin in a cemetery late at night. Two yokels shovel dirt under the impatient watch of Jim Rockford. If it’s unclear to us the audience in these first moments what the digging is all about, Jim clears it up real quick by explaining to the superstitious yokels that what they’re doing is in fact called grave robbing, and to shut up and keep digging.

 

One of the shovels hits a wooden coffin, and before you can say “two hundred dollars a day plus expenses” Jimbo has pulled a portable winch from his bag of tricks and begun hoisting up the pine box.

 

The yokels nod their approval at Jim’s winch, and watch expectantly as he exhumes the coffin from its eternal resting place, opens the lid and finds it empty. “Hold it right there!” a voice barks out of the darkness as two men in suits and ties approach with drawn guns.

 

The yokels start making panicky sounds and 23-Skidoo motions like Lou Costello after he’s just seen the mummy. Meanwhile, Jim calmly picks up a shovel and takes a Ted Williams swing that connects solidly into the first suit’s ribcage, folding him like a card table. Unfortunately, the second gun-toting suit clips Jim with a headshot that sends him toppling into the grave he just pillaged.

 

Cut to black. The next sounds we hear are the machines of the intensive care unit, keeping Jim stable as doctors work to save his life.

 

“Charlotte?…Charlotte?…Charlotte?…” Jim mutters through the tubes and bandages as the picture fades.

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Jim in the ICU.

 

II

“Charlotte? Charlotte who?” Jim asks. We have cut to a completely different time and place now. Jim is wearing his signature checkered sports coat and is bathed in fluorescent office light.

Jim and Sandra

Jim meets Sandra.

“Charlotte Duskey,” answers the chirpy voice across the desk from him. The camera pans back to reveal that this is a newspaper office, and the youthful sparkplug of a woman is one Sandra Turkel, who is doing three things at once just then: storyboarding an article, explaining who Charlotte Duskey is to Jim, and instructing him to go to the deli across the street and get her lunch.

 

“Order me a tuna salad on white, a tossed green with vinegar dressing, and a coffee black,” Sandra tells Jim as she marches out to the editing room.

“How about a dill?” he responds acidly.

Sandra catches Jim’s drift and steps back into the room with a softened attitude. “Hey, don’t mind me,” she smiles apologetically. “I’m a little pushy. I’m a real turn off at first, but you’ll get to like me eventually. I’ll grow on you.”

And with that she marches back out to the editing room and calls over her shoulder, “heavy mayonnaise, no dill.”

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Sandra Turkel.

We hard cut onto a full frontal closeup of Sandra biting into her tuna on white and telling Jim she’s sorry she took so long but she has “an unorthodox journalistic style. I don’t pyramid.

“You’re supposed to put the important stuff at the top and the less important stuff at the bottom,” she continues, “but I don’t do it that way, and it drives the editor crazy.”

Sandra Turkel practices New Journalism, it appears.

“Look, Ms. Turkel…” Jimbo interrupts, already driven half-crazy himself.

“Sandra. Sandra,” she corrects him, still running the conversation. “It’s Jim, isn’t it?”

“I think we should start by talking about my fee,” Rockford attempts to get a toehold.

“What, I can’t talk to you without your meter running or something?” Sandra guffaws.

“I just think that we should start by making a professional arrangement.”

“How much?” Her eyes narrow.

“Two hundred a day plus expenses.”

“Do you have a rate card?” Sandra snaps, Jim looks at her blankly so she continues, “people who sell a legitimate service should have rate cards. That makes the prospective client feel that the fees are fixed and they don’t fluctuate with the market. It makes them feel like they’re not being hustled.”

“I like to size up prospective clients, and then try to gouge them,” Jim retorts.

 

To be fair, Jim was the one who first mentioned a professional arrangement, and he doesn’t know what a rate card is, so point to Ms. Turkel.

“Ohhh, you’re getting mad,” she teases, coyly biting into the dill pickle that Jimbo apparently decided to get her her after all.

“Me? Mad? Whatever for?” Jim asks, dripping with sarcasm.

Unfazed, Sandra nods decisively and says, “I think we’re going to get along pretty good. One thing I ought to tell you though, I plan to run this operation. I know a great deal about police procedures and detective work, so what I need you for is to kind of go along with me in case there are any dangerous types, and you can take care of them for me,” she smiles and offers another effusive nod of the head.

Jim explains that he doesn’t work for people who try to tell him how to do his job.

Sandra narrows her eyes and hisses that maybe Jim doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does. Maybe he could stand to lis-ten.

“You don’t pyramid, you know all about police work, you drive your editor nuts, and you’re looking for a gunslinger to shoot people while you’re looking for your best friend, Charlotte Duskey. We ought to sell this to the comics!” Jim summarizes neatly, showing that he does listen after all and that he finds her whole proposition ludicrous.

“Listen, if you can’t keep up you just say so,” Sandra snaps back, playing the age card against Jim, who simply gets up and walks away, leaving her with a line about going home to grease up his wheel chair.

 

This is Turkel and Rockford’s first fight, but by no means their last. “Wait, wait, wait, wait!” she says, running after him with quick steps. “I need help. There isn’t time to find someone else…I would if I could, but there isn’t time.”

 

Sandra goes on to explain that Charlotte had been acting scared lately, that there was a strange man hanging around her house all week and suddenly she disappeared. Jim remains skeptical, suggesting that maybe Charlotte simply doesn’t want to be found.

Nonsense, Sandra says, ticking off three more details that will make Charlotte easy to find. “She’s driving a red station wagon, and she is a beau-tiful girl. I mean, strikingly, breathtakingly beautiful, and she is six feet tall.”

As Rockford takes in this description, Sandra arches a knowing brow and says, “Ahh, getting interested, eh?”

“Sandra, not all the men in the world subscribe to Playboy,” Jim replies tartly.

“Do you?”

“No. I borrow my father’s copy when he’s through.” That’s a nice tip of the cap to Rocky, who does not physically appear in this episode.

“How about it, are you gonna help me?” Sandra implores one last time.

“You’re coming along, that’s part of the deal?” Jim asks with a voice full of dread. But we’ve seen enough Rockford Files to know that at this point it’s already a done deal.

“Into each life a little rain must fall,” Sandra says, meaning yes, she’s coming along, before cushioning the blow with her signature words of reassurance: “Ah, don’t worry, you’ll get to like me eventually.”

 

If you ask me, the fact that Sandra’s drink of choice is black coffee and she’s not afraid to gobble down a tuna sandwich with extra mayo in mixed company means that she and Jim are practically soul mates. But we shall see.

 

 

III

In all of his acting roles, James Garner is someone who has always worked well with female counterparts of all kinds. Despite being the tall, square-jawed masculine type, he has no problem casting himself as the put upon straight man against a strong female lead.

 

Garner is the opposite of Clint Eastwood, an actor who had a similar career start on a TV Western in the late ‘50s, but who parlayed a coldness and inability to deliver convincing dialogue into a career as an iconic movie star. While Eastwood became Dirty Harry, Garner became Jim Rockford. Naturally, I prefer the latter.

 

While Garner works with a wide array of female guest stars on the Rockford Files, they generally boil down to two types: the sophisticated, glamorous matrons who are every bit Jim’s equal, and the ingénues for whom Jim is more of a father figure.

 

Sandra Turkel is the latter type, though her youthful naivete and tenacity make her think she is not only Jim’s equal but his superior, at least until we discover her vulnerabilities.

 

Sandra Turkel is a fully rounded character. She is both naïve and clever; headstrong and insecure; oblivious and observational; prickly and adorable; likable and annoying.

 

The character of Sandra Turkel is brought to life by a 28 year-old actress named Sian Barbara Allen, who seems completely at home in front of the small screen.

 

If you are running a brand new hit show in 1974 and trying to find a strong quirky female lead to play alongside your jaded middle-aged detective, you need look no further than Ms. Allen.

 

Although Allen gets no name recognition today, when this episode aired she was one of Hollywood’s hottest young faces. In 1973 she was nominated for a Golden Globe as ”Most Promising New Actress,” and had been the guest star on a couple of critics’ favorite episodes of the breakout show of that year, the Waltons. In pilot season 1974, she would have been at the top of Hollywood’s short list of next big things and a good get for the Rockford Files.

 

Though she had been an accomplished actress since being accepted to the Pasadena Playhouse at age 18 some ten years earlier, the reason the stars all seemed to line up for Sian Barbara Allen in Hollywood at that particular time could probably be traced to two words: John Boy.

 

The 1973-74 TV season was the year of the Waltons, when that show achieved its highest ratings and became the second most watched show of the season (behind All in the Family and ahead of Sanford and Son).

 

Richard Thomas, who played John Boy, became the breakout star of the show. His mole-faced mug was pasted across the covers of all the teen magazines, making him the unlikely heartthrob for the Tiger Beat generation that year.

 

Sian Barbara Allen was the girl who stole John Boy’s heart (and the hearts of Waltons fans) as his love interest Jenny Pendleton in a pair of the most acclaimed Waltons episodes. The tabloids picked up on the fact that the two were a real life item as well, going back to when Allen appeared with Thomas and Patty Duke in a film called “You’ll Like My Mother,” for which Allen got her Golden Globe nomination.

 

Ms. Allen parlayed that success into starring roles in a 1973 ABC Movie of the Week and a 1974 release called “Billy Two Hats” with Gregory Peck. So in the fall of that year, Sian Barbara Allen was more than ready for her primetime pairing alongside TV’s newest sensation, Jim Rockford.

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IV

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Jimbo meets his match.

 

James Garner famously appears in almost every scene of every episode of the Rockford Files, and that’s especially true in this one. What’s different is that he shares all but two of these scenes with Ms. Allen, and she matches him line for snarky line throughout.

 

So much of this episode is devoted to introducing the character of Sandra Turkel and to developing her relationship with Jim that it seems like they might have had plans for bringing her character back as Jim’s partner in crime solving, like they would in later seasons with Richie Brockelman and John Cooper.

 

At this point in the young series (it’s only the fifth episode) Jim doesn’t have a sidekick yet. Angel Martin has only appeared in the pilot episode so far, and we haven’t seen much of Beth either, or even Rocky.

 

James Garner works so well with female leads, either platonically or romantically, that the producers were probably eager to bring in a fresh-faced ingénue to star alongside him and see what sort of on-screen magic they would create.

 

Think back to the success of those Polaroid commercials Garner did with Mariette Hartley in the late Seventies. They had such great chemistry together that those commercials became a sort of rom-com of their own, with the general public assuming Jim and Mariette had to be a couple in real life.

That’s the sort of leading man potential the Rockford Files producers knew they had on their hands with James Garner. Aside from Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James in McMillan & Wife, none of the other prime time detectives could come close to offering that sort of charisma in the 1970s.

 

Although Sian Barbara Allen did a very good job on the show, we never did see her again on the Rockford Files.  For that matter, the Most Promising New Actress of 1973 would soon all but disappear from television and movies altogether. She would play a handful of guest roles on TV series throughout the Seventies, and then return for two TV appearances in 1988 and 1990 (Cagney & Lacey and L.A. Law respectively) before retiring from acting altogether.

 

There is not a whole lot of information about Sian Barbara Allen out there on the Internet. She is on Facebook, where she has about 74 friends and seems to post the kinds of things most progressive West Coast moms would post on their pages. The material that comes up on a Google search seems to suggest that Allen was a true free spirit of an actress, not in it for the fame and glory but for something more esoteric and personal.

 

A clue to this might be in her stage name itself. Allen was born Barbara Susan Pokrass in Reading, PA. It would be perfectly normal for an aspiring actress to change a name like that to something more user friendly for any prospective fans, but she chose to come up with a first name so obscure, Sian, that no one can even be sure how to pronounce it. Clearly we’re dealing with someone who marches to the beat of her own drummer.

Sian Barbara Allen

What’s in a name?

V

 

The plot of “Tall Woman in Red Wagon” is a thick and juicy one. Sandra Turkel has called Jim out to the town of Longview, where she lives. The paper she works for happens to be owned by her father and managed by her uncle (the editor she’s driving nuts). Charlotte Duskey, the missing woman, is also involved with the newspaper. After showing up in Longview several months earlier, Charlotte Duskey not only started working for the paper, but invested a six-figure sum in it as well (back when six figures was more like seven figures). And now she’s suddenly disappeared and Sandra’s determined to find her.

 

Coincidentally, a large stash of cash that belonged to a recently deceased Chicago mobster has gone missing at about the same time Charlotte showed up in Longview, and a man named Harry Stoner (portrayed by the guy who played Vincent Bugliosi on Helter Skelter) is looking for both Charlotte and the money. Pretty soon the dead mobster’s son and the duo of Rockford and Turkel are in on the action too, in what amounts to “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” with the Coppertone Firebird in the lead.

 

The Firebird gets put to good use when Jimbo, with Sandra Turkel riding shotgun, decides out of nowhere to back into Harry Stoner’s car at tire screeching speed because it’s been following them all episode and Jim’s just gotten “damned tired” of it. You know nobody’s wearing a seat belt in 1974, but amazingly nobody gets whiplash when Rockford’s car backs into the sedan at 40 mph.

 

Jimbo about to flip it into reverse and put the petal to the metal.

Jimbo about to flip it into reverse and put the petal to the metal.

Harry Stoner has no idea what is about to hit him.

Harry Stoner has no idea what is about to hit him.

The moment of impact.

The moment of impact.

The tension mounts when the man whose car Jimbo has just front-ended, Harry Stoner, emerges from the vehicle pretty shaken and flashes a federal badge. The look on Sandra Turkel’s face is a sad-eyed mask of dread, shame, and loathing for what Jim has just done.

Now that you know my car, I'd like you to meet my badge.

Now that you know my car, I’d like you to say hello to my badge.

I actually pay this rageaholic $200 a day plus expenses?

I actually pay this guy $200 a day plus expenses?

Another thing Turkel doesn’t approve of is Jim’s mobile printing press, which makes its series debut in this episode. She refers to Jim’s practice of creating fake business cards on the fly as “disgusting” not once but twice, until Jim prints up a card for her as well.

 

Disgusting.

Disgusting.

Disgusting.

Double disgusting.

Double disgusting.

Though Turkel tags along on all Jim’s capers, their respective modus operandi generally mix like oil and vinegar. Turkel is a tenacious journalist whose method of getting information is to corner her interviewee and hammer away with a barrage of terse questions like a reporter would do. Rockford is a con man at heart. He uses cajolery to get what he wants.

 

The con man and the crack reporter.

The con man and the crack reporter.

So, when Turkel and Rockford work people over for information about the missing Charlotte Duskey, their styles clash, at least at first. Eventually they achieve a kind of synchronicity, with each party playing off the other’s strength.

Eventually they gel as a team.

Gelling as a team.

 

Charlotte Duskey, it should be noted, is the tall woman in the red wagon. But despite being the title character, she appears in the story for all of two scenes that come rather late in the episode, first when she’s found by Jim and Sandra lying unconscious, and in the following shot when she’s laying in a hospital bed recuperating as Jim and Sandra pay her a visit.

 

Charlotte Duskey’s main onscreen role is advancing the plot by attempting to play matchmaker between Jimbo and Sandra. Though Sandra is full of bluster, she in fact suffers from low self-esteem in at least two ways. She’s already made it clear that she knows she drives people nuts, and in addition she also believes she’s not attractive to men.

 

Sandra confesses there in the hospital room that part of the reason she is so eager to track down Charlotte Duskey is so that Charlotte will come back to Longview and continue palling around with her like an older sister. Sandra sees Charlotte as everything she’s not: physically beautiful, naturally charismatic, and irresistible to men. Sandra thinks that Charlotte will attract all the eligible bachelors that Sandra herself naturally repels, and that once Charlotte lures them into striking distance, she (Sandra) will have a better chance of finding a suitable candidate with whom to close the deal.

 

“What’s wrong with him?” Charlotte says, eyeballing Jim.
“Nothing…There’s nothing wrong with him.” Sandra says blushingly.

“…Are you…eligible?” Sandra finally asks Jim with lowered eyes and a voice barely above a whisper. .

“For everything but marriage,” Jim states plainly.

I wonder…” Sandra smiles, getting that scheming look on her face again.

charlotte duskey

Charlotte Duskey

 

VI

A COMPLICATED PLOT

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Immediately after teaming up and following their first lead to the town of Elmira, Rockford and Turkel run into multiple eyewitnesses (a doctor and a hotel manager) who testify that Charlotte Duskey died there from a heart attack. Turkel doesn’t believe it for a minute, and Jimbo gets suspicious himself once he realizes they’re being followed by another party (Harry Stoner).

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Sandra not prepared to believe Charlotte is really dead. Note the “Magic Mountain Parkway” freeway sign behind them, telling us that the stretch of I-5 north of Los Angeles (where much of the series is filmed) is filling in for the town of Elmira.

 

At this point, they begin chasing the casket, which has been taken by train to a town called Ashbrook. When Jim and Sandra (pretending to be a pair of federal agents) finally catch up with the casket at a local cemetery they discover it is empty. In his guise as a federal agent, Jim orders the pine box to be buried anyway.

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The train station scenes were filmed at the Pasadena Amtrak Depot, which is now a station on the L.A. Metro line.

Next the pair hops a flight to Minneapolis, where they track down Charlotte Duskey, who has indeed faked her own death. Of course when they do find Charlotte, she appears to have been beaten unconscious, and when they talk to her in the hospital, she claims the thugs who beat her also took all the money she had stashed.

 

Sandra and Jim have another argument outside Charlotte’s room in the Minneapolis hospital, with Jim insisting Charlotte is lying about the money, while Sandra is certain that Jim is the one not being truthful.

 

The next scene returns us to the California cemetery with Jim and the two yokels digging up the casket, and we find ourselves back in the moment where the entire episode began, with Jimbo about to be shot by the pair of mobsters.

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The episode comes full circle.

There is even more plot to this episode, more than can be adequately explained in one hour of primetime. But thoroughness was never the point of “Tall Woman in Red Wagon.” The point was to team up jaded, salty Jimbo with a wide-eyed cub reporter half his age and watch the sparks fly.

 

In the end, despite having just come within an inch of his life in a foolhardy attempt to dig up an empty casket at midnight hoping to find a wad of banknotes hidden somewhere in the lining, Jim winds up letting go of the dream of finding the money.

 

After Jim is released from the hospital, Harry Stoner tracks him down on the streets of L.A, where he flashes a gun and demands the money. Jim explains that if it’s the money Stoner wants, he has to go find the mortician back in Ashbrook–the mortician stole the money from the coffin and absconded, Jim says, and Jim is too weak to go after the mortician himself. He needs to recuperate. Doctor’s orders. Jim demands a 20% cut of the money for supplying Stoner with the information, but it’s clear Jimbo doesn’t expect to see a dime of it, and Harry Stoner has no intention of cutting him in. Jim is only pretending to want a cut so that Stoner will believe he’s being told the truth. The ruse works like a charm. Stoner buys it and heads off to Ashbrook to continue chasing the fortune.

 

At long last Jim gets back to his trailer for the first time all episode. But when he opens the trailer door, Sandra Turkel is waiting inside to tell Jim he had been right about Charlotte Duskey all along. She was faking her injuries just like she faked her own death. And what’s more, Charlotte went and fled from Longview yet again the first chance she got, even after Sandra went to all that trouble of bringing her back the first time.

 

And now Sandra wants to hire Jim to track down Charlotte once more. Jim tells her to forget it: Charlotte’s just a fortune hunter, not a real friend. Charlotte’s going to go back to the cemetery to dig up the money, but it’s not going to be there, Jim explains, because the mobsters who shot Jim have already got it.

 

“I should just leave it alone, eh?” Sandra says disappointedly.

“Why not? I am,” Jim affirms. “I’m supposed to get lots of rest, drink lots of liquids, and avoid excitement.”

 

This gives Sandra another idea: She’ll stick around to take care of Jim and patiently nurse him back to health. But Jim tells her to forget it. She should go back her newspaper job in Longview, and he’ll call her in the morning.

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Adieu, Sandra Turkel.

 

Finally alone in his trailer, with no one else in the room besides the camera, Jim asks, “I wonder where that money really is.”

 

This last scene really is the tao of Rockford.

 

Initially, Jim’s lust for the promise of a quick fortune got him shot by mobsters while grave-robbing at midnight. But for Jim there’s hope. The near death experience taught him something, gave him some sort of existential insight.

 

Harry Stoner is still out there pulling guns on people, chasing after the money and getting nowhere except closer to his inevitable run in with the mob. Sandra is still running around trying to manipulate someone into being her soul mate. Of the three protagonists, only Jim has transcended the shallow pursuits of money and codependency to live like the Buddha in a simple trailer above the roar of the surf, free of all ego-driven conceits.

 

Well, almost free. Jim’s head is never entirely out of the game for long, is it? He’ll always wonder where the money really is. And when opportunity comes knocking on the trailer door again, eventually Jim will answer, and another episode of the Rockford Files will begin.

 

VII

CLASSIC TV NOIR

 

Like all the first dozen or two Rockford Files episodes, “Tall Woman in Red Wagon” is adapted from a script written by the show’s creator, Roy Huggins (under the pseudonym John Thomas James) back in the late ’40s/early ’50s.

 

One way you can tell this is a story from another time is by noticing what Sandra Turkel isn’t. She’s not a women’s libber. This episode was shot in the heyday of Maude, Gloria Bunker, and Helen Reddy singing “I Am Woman”. Sandra’s confrontational personality combined with Jim’s patriarchal status towards her means their relationship is tailor-made for some “typical male chauvinist pig” type of accusations to be hurled Jim’s way. But that whole aspect of Sandra’s character, which would be all but impossible to leave out of a mid-70’s-penned script about an ambitious young career girl and a crotchety older man, are missing altogether.

 

In fact, when Sandra’s not looking for her friend Charlotte, she’s using all her youthful tenacity to hunt for a husband. The whole reason she wants Charlotte around in the first place is to draw marriageable men into her vicinity. This is how you would script the role of Sandra Turkel in the early Fifties, not the early Seventies.

 

VIII

THE OTHER STAR OF THIS EPISODE: THE NEWSPAPER BUSINESS

 

As most of the first dozen or two episodes of the Rockford Files are adapted from stories written by the show’s creator Roy Huggins in the 1940s/50s, they center on themes that were universal to detective fiction at the time: rich widows, crooked embezzlers, dead blackmailers and the like.

 

While “Tall Woman in Red Wagon” keeps up to date with modern lingo and fashions, its portrayal of the newspaper business seems like something from a bygone era. Today, when we see Sandra Turkel storyboarding by making an actual story board out of construction paper and scotch tape, we are reminded of just how outmoded actual print journalism is.

 

But even when this episode aired some 40 years ago, in 1974, the portrayal of the small town newspaper seemed like something from a distant past. By the 1970s people got their news from television and radio. The local paper wasn’t the prestigious institution it once was. Yet, Charlotte’s family’s newspaper has a budget of six, possibly seven figures, which would make it the biggest family-owned businesses in almost any small town in 1974.

 

On the other hand, this episode aired barely 60 days after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency due to the biggest scandal in American history being uncovered by some old-fashioned gumshoe reporting. The prestige and popularity of print journalism was probably at an all time high in this country at that moment.

 

After the incredible story of the two intrepid Washington Post reporters bringing down the president, there would come a best-selling book about those events, and then an Oscar-winning movie based on that book. Meanwhile, in one little corner of prime time television, a trailer-dwelling detective and a small-town reporter half his age did their own bit for the cause in that fall of 1974.

 

Woodward and Bernstein

Woodward and Bernstein?

 

VIII

ADDENDA

  • While Charlotte Duskey’s substantial height of 6’0″ is referred to consistently throughout the episode, the actress who played Charlotte, Susan Damante, is listed at 5’7″, which may be why they never showed her standing up.
  • Once again, a payphone plays into the plot of the episode

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    Rockford about to make a call and gain some valuable information about the case.

  • In the establishing graveyard scene the camera pans across a few tombstones. Though it’s dark and the camera passes quickly, if you look closely you can catch two successive tombstones that read “Rowan” and “Martin”, the men behind “Rowan & Martin”s Laugh-In,” with a date deceased of 1972 on one of them. 1972-73 was the last season Laugh-In ran before being cancelled.

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    R.I.P. Rowan & Martin.

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