“Backlash of the Hunter” is the movie-length pilot for the TV serial, “The Rockford Files,” which ran for six seasons beginning in 1974. The pilot aired on Mar. 27 of that year, while the first season didn’t kick off until September. For syndication purposes, “Backlash of the Hunter” is split into two parts and treated as two regular season show episodes. However, there are a couple of subtle differences that distinguish this pilot from subsequent episodes.
Backlash of the Hunter opens with a 90 second panorama of tanned coastal mountains, blue-green ocean, and frothy white sea-foam, accompanied by the slow strains of a mournful Charlie Parker-sounding horn, establishing a mood of Pacific blue noir that suggests a tragic ending is in the cards. The sweep of the camera eventually settles on a pier and burrows into its dank underside, a perfect place to put somebody’s lights out for good with no witnesses.
A blue bus makes its way down an L.A. artery, originating in Charles Bukowski’s skid row and terminating at the Santa Monica Pier. The bus is being tailed by a man in blood red slacks behind the wheel of a blood red convertible Cadillac. In the rear of the blue bus, two construction workers doze in their hardhats as a besotted old man suggestive of Bukowski himself struggles to keep from nodding out. “Hey you,” the driver tells him as the bus pulls up at the pier. “Gotta get off or pay for the return trip. We’re at the beach…Don’t make me throw you off.”
It’s the end of the line for the old man.
We cut to a police station, where a couple of detectives are giving a batch of unsolved murder files one last gander before consigning them to oblivion. “How about this wino they found under the pier?” the superior officer asks his junior.
“That looks like a mugging except for one thing…” the junior officer, Dennis Becker, says. “I got a hunch it’s more than a mugging.”
“You got anything solid?’ the superior probes.
“I got a FEELING! I got a HUNCH!” Dennis persists.
“Dump it,” says the superior, unpersuaded.
With the case now officially cold, the action hard cuts to a bikini shop whose proprietor, Sara Butler, played by a 24-year old Lindsay Wagner, opens the Yellow Pages and locates the ad for one Jim Rockford, private investigator specializing in closed cases. It’s not hard to see why Lindsay Wagner was given the role of Jamie Sommers in the Bionic Woman after this performance.
Ten minutes into the pilot of the show that bears his name, we get our first look at Jim Rockford himself. He’s ambling up the beach, fishing pole in hand, alongside an old guy who at first glance looks to be another doomed wino like the one who got snuffed out under the pier. The old man is trying to persuade Jim to join him on a fishing trip to a cabin that is “all stocked with scotch. We could really have ourselves a hoot, son. What do you got that’s so important you can’t go fishing with your old man?”
“Come on Rocky, don’t get personal.”
ROCKY?? There’s only one Rocky on the Rockford Files, and that’s Noah Beery, not this guy. Beery’s Rocky loves to fish, but not to get blackout drunk on whatever whiskey’s lying around the cabin. Of course, pilot episodes don’t always have all the show’s elements in place yet. In fact, Rockford’s beach trailer is not in its normal spot either. It’s ensconced in a little Malibu parking strip wedged between the Pacific Coast Highway and the beach, rather than in the more secluded parking lot of Paradise Cove.
It’s worth taking a moment to consider the pilot’s trailer location, which is probably closer to what the show’s creators first had in mind. At the time, L.A. County’s coast from Malibu to Venice was still the domain of beach bums. Some were hippies, some were off-the-grid fishermen, but all were dropouts from the rat race. For Hollywood people, who were just beginning to colonize the Malibu area, the sight of all these American gypsies roaming freely upon the million-dollar beach lots must have captured the imagination in many exciting ways.
In later episodes, Jim’s beach trailer is almost an afterthought. By then what drives the show are Garner’s portrayal of Jim Rockford, the relationships he has with the recurring cast members, the action-packed plots, the car chases, and of course the soundtrack. But back when “The Rockford Files” was just the gleam in some TV writer’s eye and had to be imagineered from the ground up, before they could have known about how Garner’s character would play out with TV unknowns like Noah Beery (Rocky), Gretchen Corbett (Beth), Stuart Margolin (Angel), and Joe Santos (Dennis), it probably all started out as a lunchtime brainstorm along the lines of “what if we took Sam Spade out of the 40s and made him into one of these Jimmy Buffett guys who lives in a beach trailer?”
Once the show got picked up and had a budget, the site of Jim’s trailer became the Paradise Cove parking lot, which is more favorable for a TV crew and for choreographing tire-screeching car chases. But the ramshackle trailer we’re presented with in this pilot episode, wedged into this very working-class roadside parking area as the whitecaps and the entire curve of Santa Monica Bay unfold in the background, is probably what the show’s creators originally sought. Similarly, Robert Donley’s gin-soaked, streetwise Rocky might be more of what they originally had in mind for Jim’s dad, rather than Noah Beery’s cuddlier Rocky.
Two other longstanding Rockford tropes–$200 a day plus expenses, and going to jail for a crime he didn’t commit–are addressed at length in this pilot.
Sara Butler calls on Jim at his trailer, where Rockford flaunts most of the conventions of good customer service, negotiating as if her mansion is filling up with sewage from a busted septic line and he’s the last plumber on earth.
Suspicious of the shoddiness of his operation, she is even more shocked by the steepness of his daily rate, an issue over which the two banter for the duration of the show. Sara isn’t afraid to ridicule the entries to Jim’s ‘plus expenses’ ledger either. Eventually, she confesses that she can’t afford Rockford, but he’s her last hope. Her persistence pays off and a trend is set: Rockford is on the case for a damsel in distress whether he gets paid or not.
That most controversial and nebulous chapter of Rockford’s past, his prison time, is addressed head on. We are introduced to Angel Martin, Jim’s old cellie, who is now on parole and working for a major LA newspaper. We learn that while Jim was “sprung by the governor,” i.e. fully pardoned, Angel is out on conditional parole. After checking over his shoulder to make sure the coast is clear, Angel divulges to Jim sotto voce that despite his continual protestations of innocence throughout their time in the joint, he, Angel, really did do “that bank job” after all. Much to Angel’s frustration, Rockford continues to insist that he himself was innocent of the robbery charge for which he served five years.
Some show notes:
- Bill Mumy has a brief role as a punk early on this episode, that’s punk in the classic hardboiled detective novel meaning of the word. Mumy is all grown up now and scarcely recognizable as the child star of Lost in Space or the creepy “wish him away to the cornfields” kid from the Twilight Zone.
- The femme fatale of this episode, Mildred Elias, is a recently widowed former show girl, who is supposedly so glamorous that men melt like putty around her. But at first glance she looks like Richard Speck in prison drag. This doesn’t mean she’s not a great femme fatale though. The actress who portrays Mrs. Elias, Nita Talbot, had a fifty-year career in television as old as network TV itself, starting in 1949.
- The bad guy in this pilot (played by muscleman William Smith) is pure over the top psychopathic evil. He looks like another arch-villain, Greg Marmalard from “Animal House,” on steroids.
Two other Rockford tropes that debut in the pilot:
- Jim goes to a restaurant that has a strict dress code and has to borrow a tie from the maitre’d.
- Jack Garner plays a brief, uncredited role opposite his brother, Jim.
THE OTHER STAR OF THE EPISODE: PAY PHONES
Future historians will marvel at the ubiquity of public phone booths in this pilot. No fewer than four are placed conspicuously in the sightline throughout the episode, including a Las Vegas payphone that takes a bullet from the gun of Steroid Greg Marmalard.
In another scene Jim pulls over and uses a payphone to consult a client and simultaneously flip through the Yellow Pages to check on his ad. It’s uncanny how much this resembles checking your email while making a phone call. Phone booths were the closest things to smart phones in the 70s, places where you could pull over to the side of the road and conduct your multitasking and networking in plain view of the general public.
Then there’s this:
The Gazzarri’s disco light looks eerily like a giant insect overlord.