Toasting Rockfish


John O'Kane

I hate television! The hours and hours of pre-pubescent gaping don’t count. That was merely tough love; the parents’ success at finding a surrogate babysitter to feed my head with enough happy trails to keep me out of trouble for another day. Neither do the fitful samplings during puberty, a must to plug into the social conversations that promised to pass me beyond it. But those pictures mostly heated my mettle for making it in the dating game, and the fallout from trying to match its soapy stories to real life probably stunted my age of reason. Love wasn’t that easy. Once stung with conflicting signals twice alienated, and I went off into adulthood a skeptical Oedipus, distrusting predictable stories, cardboard characters and weak, nauseating narratives. I became a believer in the idea of television as a toaster with pictures and got interested in literary stories, especially those that faced the nausea of the way things are with at least some sesame, doing a dissertation some years later on indie film in the sixties and seventies. Fascinated with shadows, framings, the metaphors of picture language and non-linear narratives, I realized how influential my technological past had been. That third-hand Admiral set with its multi-shadowed scenes; those mylar-like distortions on our toaster.

I forgot television until the nineties when I tasted the current fare, soon realizing that the programming I grew up with might be worth another look. There’s nothing like a void in the present to make you nostalgic. I was attracted to stories produced between the latter half of the sixties and the late seventies, finding the quality equivalent of those in indie film made roughly during the same time stretch. Many of these were programs I had snootily passed over, and I gave them another look. Not only did they help me fill in important gaps, they helped me better grasp the period I was living in. I quickly became a rerun junkie, my attention pitched to the present and past simultaneously. In the throes of nostalgia I swooned over my discoveries, especially The Rockford Files

I found a private eye story that rocked. The early episodes attempt to create some link with noir. We see Jim Rockford (James Garner) trying to make it as a private investigator in a dark and threatening urban scene. The tone is serious and the stories are dramatic. His father (Noah Beery) kids him about trying to be “Sam Spade,” an attitude that will continue throughout the series. He’s constantly trying to convince his son to get a normal, safer occupation. But soon the formula that kept it going from 1974 to 1980 takes over. The scenes are light and often suburban, and there’s very little direct violence. Quality stories about the social, political, economic and cultural mindset of America take over and the tone is often satirical.

Rockford’s character retains some of the stereotypical private eye traits. He dazzles people with witty one-liners that quickly size up situations, not unlike Sam Spade. In one episode Rene Auberjonois repeatedly jokes about his tone and language, calling him “Bogie!” His flip attitude, while mostly fun-loving and carefree, is often pessimistic. Inept bureaucrats, greedy corporate players and corrupt union officials are the norm in a world full of takers. He commiserates with Susan Strasberg in an early episode, as a client he tries to help while managing only to dredge up more and more obstacles and problems for her, and underlining how cruel life is. We have to grab moments of happiness when they randomly flash before us and do the best we can to survive. Not all that far removed from Bogie’s world either.

Some see this clever reference to Sam Spade as garnish on mostly the same ole formula; a ruse to snag the audience that grew up on the real noir. Which is true, of course, but when you’re swooning you focus your energy around the object desired and tune out mostly everything else. In passing over these stories back then I didn’t notice that the toaster had upgraded to a kind of closed-wire cuisinart convection oven that mostly hid its mojo. It spawned new stories with relevance but they were a mishmash of allusion, entertainment and serious reflection grasped in different ways by different watchers. Inevitable. To remain on the air and survive the ratings wars writers must pitch the content with market segments in mind and aim to satisfy the largest possible audience while staying coherent. Only in subsidized systems where the toaster is eliminated can there be deep and pure literary addresses to one segment. All in the Family, one of the great successes of that era, built huge audiences that identified with a conservative voice in Archie Bunker, and a liberal one in his son-in-law Michael, each audience willing to find a coherent perspective. And one of the persistent addresses of this apparatus is to those who merely want to escape and enjoy themselves.

Rockford’s world can be seen as a very specific one: the aftermath of the sixties when utopian aspirations for discovering big truths through existing institutions have all but vanished. The saving grace is that they’ve migrated as little truths into small pockets of vital experiment where the little and good people bond together in community and help each other out, practicing the values of a benevolent America shadowed by changes in the new decade. Live within your existential limits and be happy, the stories say. This new America is often contrasted with the one Rockford’s father, Rocky, lived through in the thirties under Roosevelt when the New Deal worked for the people. Since the sixties generation gap still resonated with audiences, this was a clever way to capitalize on contrasting values and interests, giving some a nostalgic bypass of the painful contemporary moment to one they recognized, and giving others pleasure in knowing how they’d advanced beyond those threadbare years of old.

Rockford lives in a modest trailer on the beach where he receives those in the community who desperately need his services. That need is not constant enough to keep the creditors at bay, however, and he occasionally supplements his second-storey work with temporary gigs down at the docks where his father spent his active life. Not often, since he relishes his freedom to maneuver as a self-employed entrepreneur, using much of his time in leisure activities, especially fishing. He’s a man of the people; a connoisseur of the quotidian everyday. If he didn’t wear sports coats and have short hair he could easily pass for a dropout who refuses to work the system. His actions and beliefs suggest sympathy for some sort of democracy of the people not all that different from what the alienated youth of the sixties harbored, though he’s hardly naïve enough to believe it could be institutionalized. The folksy permutations of blue grass on the sound track drench us in populism.

But Rockford’s populism is a strange mix of qualities and can attract viewers that wouldn’t seem to share much. The economic populism comes through in many episodes. There’s an especially interesting two-part story from late in the decade, starring Ned Beatty (“Profit and Loss”), exposing the cooked books of shell corporations and their predatory mergers and acquisitions (and with not one single shootout!). But when it comes to culture a not-so-liberal audience can find comfort. While Rockford easily bonds with people of color, and supports women’s rights (reluctantly, perhaps because he’s a heart throb, though no womanizer either), many see him as a typical sports fanatic, obsessed with the Lakers and Rams, with no interest in high art, or any art for that matter. His on-again, off-again flame, Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett), tries to upgrade his cultural sensibilities one night by taking him to the opera, though he splits in the middle.

One of the great episodes is “Quickie Nirvana,” set in Venice. It satirizes a counter-culture hippie dropout who is trendiness personified. She chants and meditates, spouting love and sharing and peace and virtually any cliché circulating through the seventies’ culture of narcissism. She claims to be free and her own person but she’s irresponsible and blind to the world around her. Her actions damage people, including Rockford who gets caught up in some payoff scheme at the law firm where she barely works. She idolizes a guru who commands the minds and bodies of the impressionable at a cultish camp in the mountains, and during pre-death therapy, where she immerses in a tank of water for several hours to revive her senses, he learns of the scheme and absconds with a stash of cash she’s unwittingly carrying to pull off the scheme, heading south with a local waitress. The coda shows Rockford bumping into her under the original Abbot Kinney arches on Windward where her new personality and name serve bible-hawking evangelism.

Few viewers of this program, then or now, would say that it ever presents a coherent comment on populism. But then few over the years have likely been interested in such matters. They go with the story flow, Garner’s smooth, seductive persona, the witty dialogue. No doubt more compelling than populism for original viewers was Rockford‘s rich slant on criminality. Bohemians are often fascinated with criminals or at least those who stretch the law (the Hell’s Angels for Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg, for example), and this series has a lively sample. Rockford himself was in prison for five years, getting a pardon, but in the process meeting several muses who find their way into the scripts. Evelyn Martin aka Angel (Stuart Margolin) is a central character whom Rockford meets in prison and befriends. Angel is master of the con and is always being pursued and arrested by Dennis (Joe Santos), Rockford’s close friend at the LAPD who runs plates and does other favors for him. But he always gets off. His personality and interaction with characters suggest he’s often framed or a victim of circumstances driven by a scamming society. Angel’s subterranean lifestyle is shown to be a culturally liberating force within Rockford’s larger community.

Another “criminal” type in the series is Gandolf Fitch aka Gandy (Isaac Hayes) whom Rockford also meets in prison. It’s through him that we get another angle on Rockford’s character. Gandy calls him Rockfish, despite being corrected repeatedly, because of his take on Rockford’s timidity when it comes to physical activity and threatening situations, a strong suggestion he’s not the criminal type. Unlike his friend, Gandy’s an angry black man who settles disputes with his fists, though it turns out he was framed too, and Rockford’s efforts are central to proving his innocence. We witness his ability to use charm and guile to get results. Like all members of Rockford’s community, this “criminal” has a heart of gold. They’re always willing to help each other out when circumstances demand it. This pattern even extends to women’s roles. Rita Moreno plays a perennially busted, down-and-out hooker whose real identity is closer to a nurturing, mature feminist. Shades of Jane Fonda in Klute, from 1971; Diane Keaton in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, from 1978; or even Julie Christie in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, from 1972. The era was fascinated by hookers-as-persons.

When the best citizens are branded criminals, something’s amiss with the branding and the branders. And it’s this sense of things that keeps these stories — made in the indie Hollywood era of the sixties and seventies, before the mega-corporate conglomeration of the industry — freshly relevant. Con-artists, angry aggressors and plainly awful people fill the current-day commercial screen, but they’re usually stereotypes, with no links to a community or society. Their actions are often unambiguously evil but redeemable by their coolness and attractiveness, leaving them reinforced but, so far as we’re concerned, inconsequential. The Rockford Files, by contrast, provides more than a glimpse of a complex, imperfect community which now and then sponsors practical goodness and refuses the myth of the larger-than-life hero.