James Garner, with his cynical cool and diverse TV family, was ahead of his time

I can’t get enough of “The Rockford Files,” even the episodes I’ve seen over and over. I watched one Sunday night, and mourned the man who embodied the title character. A writer can go to school on the twisty, witty scripts. But the show wouldn’t work without James Garner as Jim Rockford, the put upon private investigator who could say everything with a casual glance. He made it look so easy, but of course, it wasn’t.

Garner himself had no illusions about acting as a profession. After a tough childhood that left him on his own at a young age, making a living in a series of odd jobs, and a stint in the Army during the Korean War, where he earned two Purple Hearts, acting must have seemed easy. He said he learned the style that entertained so many when he – in a non-speaking role – worked alongside and watched Henry Fonda perform night after night in a stage production of “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.”

James Garner as Jim Rockford in 1979. (Courtesy NBC-TV)
James Garner as Jim Rockford in 1979. (Courtesy NBC-TV)

Yet I always admired him for more than the natural style that many actors who came after stole from, the unlikely hero who recognized the absurdity of life and found a way to win with smarts.

In his life, Garner stood up for himself, suing and winning settlements from the studios he said cheated him out of profits. He was also one of the actors who supported the civil rights movement, appearing with Diahann Carroll, Harry Belafonte and others at the 1963 March on Washington.

And in “Rockford,” which ran from 1974 through 1980, he and the rest of the show’s staff created a family in front of and behind the camera that reflected the diversity of life, particularly in a Los Angeles setting that featured the city’s gritty byways far more than the glitzy palm-lined streets. The show was populated with corrupt CEOs, con men and women, and shady cops that were sometimes hard to separate from the criminals.

You can see a complete world in “The Rockford Files” and its cast of memorable characters. Before he won his Academy Award, Louis Gossett Jr. teamed up with Isaac Hayes in “Rockford” to bust up an American Nazi bar – and that was before Eddie Murphy tried a similar scene in a country bar in the film “48 Hrs.”

African American actors such as Janet MacLachlan and another Korean War vet James McEachin worked on the show in parts that were about character, not race; award-winning Hispanic actress Rita Moreno elevated the heroic call girl stereotype in her recurring role of Rita Capkovic.

I am surprised that a show created years ago looks more realistic than more modern takes that present urban scenes with – it seems – minorities shooed off the sidewalks before cameras roll.

Maybe one reason is that the decision makers on “Rockford” reflected life, as well. Behind the camera, actor-director Ivan Dixon directed a chunk of episodes, and African American actor-producer Chas. Floyd Johnson was a longtime part of the production team. It all seemed no big deal in the Rockford/Garner world, one that was written, it can be noted, not only by David Chase, who obviously learned lessons he would later bring to “The Sopranos,” but also by Juanita Bartlett, who wrote many of the show’s best episodes and was story consultant.

Excellence, not gender and ethnicity, defined a show that continues to play so well in reruns, and reports from the cast and crew consistently said that Garner had their backs.

This year, when much has been made of the diverse lineup in the new slate of fall television shows, a picture of The Rockford Files” team I remember from back then showed the diversity that many of today’s executives say is so difficult to achieve.

Led by Garner, the “Rockford” family made it look so easy.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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