“This is Jim Rockford. At the tone leave your name and message. I’ll get back to you.”
“Jim, it’s Norma at the market. It bounced. You want us to tear it up, send it back, or put it with the others?”
So began the Rockford Files’ premier episode, which debuted before American TV audiences on Sept. 13, 1974, Day 34 of the Gerald Ford presidency.
It’s no wonder Rockford’s first season was so highly rated. Who else on TV provided:
- Witty answering machine messages at the start of every episode, and a brand new message each week.
- A Grammy winning Top-40 theme song catchy enough to cheer you up even in heavy traffic. In the 70s, you found your moments where you could, and you were happy to get them.
I wonder if anyone has looked at the numbers to see just how much demand for telephone answering machines spiked after the Rockford Files went on the air. I’m guessing it went off the charts.
Whereas the Rockford pilot kicked off with 90-seconds of aerial jazz meditation on the physical geography of the California Coast, this episode starts with a carousel-sounding reprise of the theme song and Jim driving the four-lane blacktop of the Pacific Coast Highway in light traffic near what appears to be Leo Carrillo Beach, a stretch of coastal preserve that can easily make you forget you’re still in L.A. County.
Of course, just as in the pilot, we are soon drawn down to the white sand and roaring surf. The music stops dead and a whole array of strange circumstances unfolds that leads to Rockford waking up on an unfamiliar couch, minus his pants.
The femme fatale of this episode (Julie Sommars) is a woman of mystery, which is to say I’ve never heard of her before. She’s kind of got the Mia Farrow thing going on, and she knows a thing or two about fishing poles.
Larry Kirkoff turns out to be a very young James Woods, who receives Rockford in a stunning lakeside mansion that until very recently belonged to his murdered parents.
While on the case, Rockford uses his quick wit and fearless charm to infiltrate the swinging tennis club lunch scene, where he has his third encounter of the young day with this episode’s femme fatale. A dinner date is made.
Jim returns to the trailer, and we notice Rocky’s truck parked off to the side. I thought the site of Jim’s trailer for the entire run of the series was the Paradise Cove parking lot. But that is not the case. As in the pilot, Jim’s trailer occupies a narrow parking lot on the shoulder of the Pacific Coast Highway here. From this approach we see that the trailer is right up on the property line of the old Tonga Lei restaurant and motor lodge. (A good gauge of how this stretch of coast has changed is to note that the one of a kind Tonga Lei was later replaced with a Don the Beachcomber franchise, which was torn down and is now the home of the Malibu Beach Inn, a “luxury oceanfront hotel.”)
Inside the trailer, Rocky’s waiting for Jim. The back and forth between these two is flawless. Noah Beery owns Rocky from his first line of dialogue. He’s a little like Nicholas Colasanto as “Coach” in Cheers, coming out of nowhere to take on a TV role later in life and hitting it out of the park.
The Rocky we see in this first scene is the same Rocky we get to know so well throughout the show’s run. In some TV series, the characters develop and change over time. But Rocky, along with Dennis, Angel, and Beth (who has yet to be in a script) are all pretty much themselves from the get-go. Jim, too, needless to say.
Over the course of the Kirkoff Case, Jim survives a poisoning and two beatings, but he finally gets through the door to see the capo de tutti capo, Don Abe Vigoda, (fresh off filming his cameo in “Godfather II”) and lives to tell about it.
Rockford reaches an understanding with Don Vigoda, and soon afterwards, the episode’s high-speed car chase takes place across a golf course. That’s Jim in the tan sedan.
“I’ll bring your coffee later,” the carhop informs Jim after the episode’s denouement. In the pilot, Jim had hot dogs and coffee with Lindsay Wagner, and now it’s burgers and coffee with Julie Sommars. I sense a trend. Looking forward to seeing if it continues in the next episode, “The Dark and Bloody Ground.”
Episode’s most memorable line: “Now I want my pants, and I want to get out of here!”
THE OTHER STAR OF THE EPISODE: THE TONGA LEI
Tiki culture is a lost art whose heyday was half a century ago, but which will always linger on to be rediscovered by future generations, thanks to the devoted purists who keep the genre alive.
Tiki culture is a lot like Seventies culture in that its basic aesthetics seem loud, brash, and out of place next to the rest of the 50s, 60s, and every other decade. But with its bold colors, fake grass, beaded curtains, and clunky kitsch, tiki culture seemed to reach equilibrium with society as a whole in the Seventies.
Suburban, post-WWII America was a very buttoned down place, but the one venue where the crew-cuts had license to primp like peacocks was the tiki bar. This could be anything from a backyard patio to an Elks Club rec room, and it signified the place where the man in the grey flannel suit could relive the days of his youth with his army buddies, even bringing the missus along for mai-tais.
Jim Rockford was a Korean War vet, but he could get along in most circles. It’s hard to imagine Rocky hanging out with the hippies though. But it’s not at all hard to imagine Jim and Rocky walking over to the Tonga Lei any night of the week and closing it down with the bar staff.
The private investigator who lived in a rusty trailer was fictional, but the Tonga Lei wasn’t. If not for archival footage like this episode’s establishing shot of Rockford’s trailer, we might forget it had even been there.