The streaming channel Peacock arrived in a free, ad-supported edition this summer, and it’s pretty much like having a full cable TV line-up for only the one-time price of an Amazon Fire Stick. The Fire Stick is typically available here at Amazon for between $30 and $50, depending on the options you want, and it’s a great portal to a variety of streaming platforms, from Netflix to YouTube and Disney Plus to HBO Max, as well as all the series and movies on Amazon Prime and the streaming platforms already available via that service, like BritBox. Named for NBC’s classic trademark logo, the Peacock channel is bigger than it sounds, incorporating the giant NBC network of historic programming, content from channels like Bravo, USA, Syfy, History, Nickelodeon, Fox, The CW, MSNBC, lots of XXXII Olympiad 2020 sports coverage, and more. On Peacock you get a variety of movies and series, much more than is supported on other TV network-based streaming providers. Like 46 seasons of Saturday Night Live, plus great fan-favorites like Psych, Monk, Parks and Recreation, six seasons of Vikings, Heroes, Eureka, Charmed, Sliders, and Battlestar Galactica, several seasons of the different flavors of Law and Order, classics like The Carol Burnett Show and Good Times, Cheers, and Columbo. But what should you watch first?
We suggest bingeing the first season of Stephen J. Cannell’s 1970s detective series, The Rockford Files.
The Rockford Files aired for six seasons, from 1974 to 1980. Starring James Garner as the suave and always cool under pressure Jim Rockford, a Los Angeles private investigator who only works cold cases so as to not have run-ins with local law enforcement. He manages to run into them anyway, and he’ll do it for you, too, for $200 a day, plus expenses. The beauty of finding The Rockford Files on Peacock is that it hasn’t gotten the same kind of life in reruns like the earlier series Dragnet, and the later series Magnum, p.i. If you watch the first episode, you’re likely to get hooked, even more so after Noah Beery, Jr. enters the picture in episode 2 as his father Rocky. In fact the entire first season is one of the best freshman seasons we know of all the great detective/mystery series.
And the stories, cinematography, characters–the whole package–stands the test of time. (It’s especially true with the recent 1970s/vintage clothes comeback). The double threat is the great, clever mystery scripts (which would be copied and adapted and updated by other shows over the next 40 years) and then there is James Garner in the title role. Garner was already well-known for playing the cocky lead on Maverick (which he’d reprise in a spin-off in the 1980s and later a 1994 movie), and he was a Han Solo-type in the war classic The Great Escape. He was coming off a stint as a sheriff opposite Margot Kidder in the short-lived series Nichols when he took on this key role of his career, before going on to 30 more years of TV and film roles, including familiarity to a new generation because of Barbarians at the Gate and The Distinguished Gentleman, and another generation with roles in teen-targeted films Twilight and The Notebook. Today watching Jim Rockford is like seeing Bruce Campbell in Burn Notice all over again, but in the 1970s. In fact, we think nothing would be more fun than a reboot of Campbell as Rockford. Anyone in Hollywood listening?
Rockford–the character–gets points for not being a jerk, compared to his counterparts before and after. He’s only blunt to prospective clients who think his daily rate is too high (practically all of them). His relationship with his dad is endearing. He’s not a womanizer and opts out of all conflicts when possible (it’s rarely possible). He’s a nice guy, a good guy, and he’s an ex-con (but his record was expunged because he didn’t do it). He’s not a “tough guy” so much as a survivor. He has real P.I. tricks and uses them–tricks of the trade to learn information, lose a tail, and gain entry to places he’s not supposed to be–tricks that never seem to come to light as expertly in other detective series. He eats fast-food tacos for breakfast from a food stand. He lives in a shabby, cluttered trailer by the sea, and if he wants to get anything done he must do it himself or enlist his dad (like with a garbage disposal repair). He wears the same clothes over and over. He truly is Everyman. And Garner played him when he was 46 to 52 years old–Rockford has been around the block a few times and it’s refreshing to see an older character lead.
The Rockford Files came six years after Steve McQueen starred as a cool, tough, quiet cop in Bullitt, and nine years after John Frankenheimer’s movie Grand Prix. Bullitt was known for one of the best car chases in any movie, ever, and Grand Prix starred Garner opposite Eva Marie Saint and Toshiro Mifune–and it provided the opportunity for Garner to perfect his car racing. Good car chase scenes were popular in the 1970s, and practically every episode of The Rockford Files features Garner in a cool, smartly choreographed scene driving the series’ trademark “Sierra gold” colored Pontiac Firebird Esprit. Garner was tapped by Cannell to drive the car in these chase scenes because he was a great race car driver, even a better driver than the stuntmen initially hired for the scenes. Backed by one of TV’s best-ever theme songs by TV’s theme song greats: Mike Post and Pete Carpenter, and episodic scores that were both funky and perfect to back up a detective in L.A who gets a lot of bruises. California, which looks so dirty and gloomy in so many other series, actually looks like a nice place to live. And the series has that brilliant, trademark opening: an answering machine with a different, funny, message for every episode.
Recurring characters are Jim’s kindly retired father, mentioned above (who is constantly trying to persuade Jim to get a safer job), Jim’s lawyer played by Gretchen Corbett (a genre-bending move for the 1970s crowd), and Joe Santos as Jim’s LAPD contact (that classic gruff, bothered police archetype that would appear in most private eye series from then on). And it introduced Stuart Margolin as Jim’s quirky friend Angel, who would go on to turn the series into a buddy cop show in much of the ensuing seasons. Each of these actors were familiar faces, staples of 1970s television. Other actors would get their sea-legs in an episode (or a few) and go on to take over in the genre, like Tom Selleck, Larry Manetti, and Roger E. Mosley, who would go on to star in Magnum, p.i., and Gerald McRaney in another, Simon & Simon, Cagney and Lacey and Burn Notice’s Sharon Gless, Hart to Hart’s Stefanie Powers, Starsky & Hutch’s Paul Michael Glazer, and Bonanza’s Pernell Roberts, who would star in the sleuth show Trapper John, M.D.
The first season roll call of guest stars is a checklist of favorite TV actors of the 1970s, actors that would get even bigger names in the coming years, plus classic film actors performing their swan song performances. Look for Lindsay Wagner, Suzanne Sommers, Jill Clayburgh, Shelly Fabares, Linda Evans, Blair Brown, Linda Kelsey, Joan Van Ark, Hector Elizondo, James Woods, Mary Frann, Ned Beatty, classic Hollywood actors Joseph Cotten and Jackie Cooper (who you’ll find acting and directing episodes) and Star Trek’s Diana Muldaur, Marc Alaimo, and James Cromwell–all in only the first season. In later seasons keep an eye open for Hollywood legend Lauren Bacall, WKRP in Cincinnati’s Howard Hesseman, Richard Sanders, and Gordon Jump, Star Trek’s Rene Auberjonois, Bibi Besch and Malachi Throne, footballer Dick Butkus, singers Willie Nelson, Dionne Warwick, Rita Moreno, Rick Springfield, and Barbara Mandrell, Airplane!’s Robert Hays, Planet of the Ape’s Kim Hunter, The Incredible Hulk’s Jack Colvin and Mariette Hartley, Blade Runner’s M. Emmet Walsh, James Hong, and Brion James, TimeCop’s Ron Silver, The Right Stuff’s Ed Harris, Blazing Saddles’ Cleavon Little, Barney Miller’s Steve Landesberg and Abe Vigoda, Witch Mountain’s Kim Richards and Bewitched’s David White, Buck Rogers’ Erin Gray, Rocky’s Burt Young, and more familiar TV faces including Bill Mumy, Larry Linville, Larry Hagman, Lane Smith, Louis Gossett, Jr., John Saxon, Alex Rocco, Sorrell Booke, actor-musician Isaac Hayes, and Rob Reiner long before he’d be known as a great director. No wonder the character came back in the 1990s in a series of made-for-TV movies.
Catch all six seasons of The Rockford Files for free with ads (or a small monthly fee without ads) on the streaming platform Peacock–now. The first season is fantastic, with five more seasons to enjoy if you agree.
C.J. Bunce / Editor / borg