James Garner as Jim Rockford, wisecracking private detective and ex-convict
Los Angeles, Fall 1975
Series: The Rockford Files
– “The Farnsworth Strategem” (Episode 2.02, dir. Lawrence Doheny, aired 9/19/1975)
– “The Deep Blue Sleep” (Episode 2.05, dir. William Wiard, aired 10/10/1975)
– “Pastoria Prime Pick” (Episode 2.11, dir. Lawrence Doheny, aired 11/28/1975)
– “The Girl in the Bay City Boys Club” (Episode 2.13, dir. James Garner, aired 12/19/1975)
– “Joey Blue Eyes” (Episode 2.17, dir. Meta Rosenberg, aired 1/23/1976)
– “Foul on the First Play” (Episode 2.21, dir. Lou Antonio, aired 3/12/1976)
Creator: Roy Huggins & Stephen J. Cannell
Costume Designer: Charles Waldo
James Garner, one of my favorite actors, was born today in 1928. Shortly after his decorated Korean War service that provided him with the relevant background for his eventual role as “the scrounger” in The Great Escape (1963), Garner found early acting success in films like Sayonara (1957) and his breakout role on the ABC western series Maverick. Though he would enjoy an illustrious, varied career for six decades until his death of a heart attack in 2014, the role most associate with Garner is that of the affable, beach-dwelling private detective Jim Rockford on The Rockford Files.
“If you look at Maverick and Rockford, they’re pretty much the same guy,” Garner himself recalled in his fantastic memoir, The Garner Files. “One is a gambler and the other a detective, but their attitudes are identical.”
Jim Rockford provided an opportunity for Garner to tap into his natural charisma, self-deprecating wit, and passion for motor-sports as the “$200 a day, plus expenses” investigator who speeds through L.A. in his sierra gold Pontiac Firebird Esprit. Each hour began with Jim receiving a random message on his answering machine—whether it’s a debt collector, an angry client, a jilted date, or his father “Rocky” (Noah Beery Jr.)—before launching into Mike Post and Pete Carpenter’s familiar theme song.
For my second Rockford-themed post, I wanted to focus on an outfit that represented the character’s sense of style as well as some of the series’ best-regarded episodes. Indeed, “The Farnsworth Strategem” (Episode 2.02) and “The Girl in the Bay City Boys Club” (Episode 2.13) are considered among the best of The Rockford Files‘ sophomore season.
“Instead of being a tough guy who thrives on danger, Rockford is cautious,” Garner wrote. “Rockford softened the hard-boiled detective image made popular by Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, and Robert Mitchum. Every real private detective I’ve ever talked to said Rockford was much closer to the truth than a lot of the tough ones on the screen.”
Rockford served as spiritual successor to Philip Marlowe, reviving the private detective genre a generation later via television rather than pulp novels. Some have cited Garner’s performance as the detective in Marlowe (1969), adapted from Raymond Chandler’s 1949 novel The Little Sister, to be his ostensible audition for the Rockford role, and Garner would pay Chandler a subtle tribute in the sole episode he directed, “The Girl in the Bay City Boys Club,” nodding to the fictional corrupt suburb Chandler developed to stand in for Santa Monica in his novels. Rockford also continues the tradition of Marlowe’s signature snark, a skill that Garner had honed as the equally charismatic and risk-averse Bret Maverick fifteen years earlier, as illustrated when Rockford pulls into a Jack-in-the-Box drive-thru when he notices he’s being tailed:
Cashier: Your order please.
Rockford: Call the police.
Cashier: Your order please!
Rockford: That’s it, you got it. There’s a guy following me in a white 1974 Datsun, California plates. Tell the police I’ll be headed south on Verdugo and for them to intercept.
Cashier: Are you nuts, mister? Is this a joke?
Rockford: Just tell them he took a shot at me… and while you’re at it could you throw in a taco and a bag of fries?
What’d He Wear?
Jim Rockford’s wardrobe ran the gamut of 1970s casual wear from leather jackets to windbreakers and even the odd Western-styled ranch suit for his various disguises, but his ostensible daily “uniform” was a sport jacket, open-neck shirt, and dark trousers with loafers. In addition to the timeless selections of dark blazers and tweed sports coats, our cheeky private eye tapped into the burgeoning Disco-era trends of colorful plaid jackets patterned with checks in varying colorways and scales.
One of my favorite jackets was a second season staple from Rockford’s closet, a finely woven black-and-white Glenurquhart plaid with a pink overcheck. This type of design is often colloquialized to “Prince of Wales check”, though the POW appellation most accurately applies specifically to a red-brown on white ground with a slate gray overcheck, according to Alan Flusser in Dressing the Man; however, Rockford’s jacket does neatly fit Flusser’s definition of Glenurquhart plaid as “a woolen or worsted suiting or coating material made with the ever popular glen plaid with an overplaid effect in both warp and filling directions.”
Like all of Rockford’s sport jackets, this plaid worsted piece is single-breasted with notch lapels that are wide enough to be fashionable in the mid-’70s without being too broad as to date the jacket too much. The two silver shank buttons could give us permission to refer to the jacket as a “blazer” which, despite what some retailers’ marketing shortcuts would have you believe, is not a catch-all term for tailored odd jackets, though I prefer to reserve the term for solid-colored blazers or those boldly striped in the rowing tradition. There are also two smaller silver shank buttons on each sleeve cuff.
Aside from the metal buttons, Rockford’s jacket is patterned and styled like a classic sports coat. The jacket has a welted breast pocket and slanted hip pockets with wide, rounded-corner flaps. The wide hip pocket flaps, long double vents, and purple-and-pink paisley lining all date the jacket to its 1970s provenance.
“The Deep Blue Sleep” (Episode 2.05) begins with Rockford twice awakened by phone calls in the middle of the night, first from doomed fashion model Margo Adams (Doria Cook-Nelson) and again from his lawyer and occasional girlfriend Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett), hiring him to solve the mystery of what happened to Margo. He slips out of his deep blue sleep and into a hot pink shirt, which becomes his standard accompaniment with this sports coat in five different episodes. It makes sense that Rockford chooses this shirt so frequently as the pink fabric neatly coordinates with the pink horizontal stripes on his plaid jacket.
The next time Rockford wears this plaid blazer, in “Pastoria Prime Pick” (Episode 2.11), he again wears it with the pink shirt to lead off the episode, set in the fictional berg of New Pastoria where Rockford is undercover as L.A. insurance man Larry Metcalf. He’s also wearing it when the action begins in the first act of “The Girl in the Bay City Boys Club” (Episode 2.13), playing poker as newspaperman Aaron Kiehl with the titular Bay City Boys Club. (In a nod to The Sting, one of his fellow poker players is played by Byron Morrow, who played Mr. Jameson from Chicago during that movie’s famous poker scene.)
Rockford reprises the outfit for a brief scene at an amusement park in “Joey Blue Eyes” (Episode 2.17), posing as Jim Taggart, the personal attorney of the titular convict retaining his services, and then again during the denouement of “Foul on the First Play” (Episode 2.21) as Rockford consoles fellow private eye Marcus (Louis Gossett Jr.) when his brother shamus is forced to hang up his shingle.
The shirt itself has a long point collar, plain front, squared breast pocket with a rectangular top yoke, and single-button cuffs with gauntlet buttons. All of the buttons are a white pearlesque plastic.
This sport jacket makes its first appearance in “The Farnsworth Stratagem” (Episode 2.02) when Rockford assumes the identity of oil tycoon J.W. Farnsworth, tapping into Garner’s own proudly Oklahoman origins to run a con investigating the syndicate that roped Detective Becker (Joe Santos) and children’s book author Audrey Wyatt (Linda Evans) into a fraudulent investment. Jim spends the first few days of the con rigged out in a beige corduroy ranch jacket and snap-front shirts, but he eventually settles into a comfortable routine, wearing this jacket that is much more Jim Rockford than it is J.W. Farnsworth.
In this episode only, he wears the jacket with the silky Qiana nylon red shirt that he wore earlier in the episode when Audrey first met with him in his trailer to help pay for him to take on Becker’s case.
Worn frequently across the first two seasons, this shirt has a point collar, “stacked” two-button barrel cuffs, and red buttons up the front placket. Like all of Rockford’s shirts, it has a straight hem with side vents to be worn untucked if he so desires.
As part of his oilman getup, he also wears burgundy cowboy boots, a taupe cowboy hat, and a navy blue belt with white decorative stitching and a large brass buckle. His charcoal flannel flat front trousers have then-fashionable frogmouth front pockets and plain-hemmed bottoms.
Rockford tends to balance the plaid jacket and colorful shirt with flat front trousers in somber shades of gray that coordinate with the black-and-white effect of the jacket. In “The Deep Blue Sleep” (Episode 2.05) and “Joey Blue Eyes” (Episode 2.17), he wears medium gray slacks, though he opts for a charcoal wool for most other episodes.
Both the charcoal and the medium gray trousers are high-waisted with the “frogmouth” full-top pockets that were most fashionable during this decade. These pockets originated on ranch-wear and, as Western-styled clothing grew popular during the late 1960s and into the ’70s, they were increasingly seen on everything from casual slacks to dress trousers. Slanted across the front with only a short notch open on each side, frogmouth trousers are less accessible when seated but also avoid the tendency to flare out like side-seam pockets can. Rockford’s trousers have no back pockets and the bottoms are plain-hemmed.
Aside from “Joey Blue Eyes”, when his belt has a simple rounded brass single-prong buckle, Jim exclusively wears his wide black leather belt with the large shiny gold rectangular buckle with four vertical bars in the center.
The declining formality of the 1970s saw the rise of loafers worn with suits and sport jackets, particularly among American men though even James Bond was sporting loafers with his double-breasted dinner suits by the end of the decade. If a well-tailored British secret agent is wearing slip-ons with his tuxedo, you better believe that a laidback southern California private eye like Jim Rockford will be wearing loafers as well, in this case a pair of black leather moc-toe loafers with gold horsebit detailing, worn with charcoal or black socks.
Apropos the racing enthusiast who starred in Grand Prix, owned the American International Racers team in the late 1960s, and made the risky “J-turn” famous on The Rockford Files, Garner wears his own steel Heuer Carrera 3647N racing chronograph strapped to a black leather band in most episodes of The Rockford Files. He likely received the watch sometime in the mid-1960s, and a closer look (as afforded by this 2017 article at Calibre 11) reveals his name “JAMES GARNER” inscribed in white against the black dial, positioned just below the two sub-dials at the 3:00 and 9:00 positions.
In “Pastoria Prime Pick” (Episode 2.11), Rockford is rudely awakened in his hotel room by a trio of gun-toting thugs who rouse him from his bed and throw him to the ground while he’s dressed only in his white short-sleeved undershirt, which has a deep enough V-shaped neckline that it’s clear the undershirt would be concealed even when Jim keeps the top few buttons of his shirts undone. The scene also shows off the gold necklace Rockford wears, which Garner explains was his own when it came into play during a violent off-camera incident just after the series ended:
That’s when I got clobbered. This character was punching me through the open window! I couldn’t get out from behind the wheel because he’d grabbed hold of the gold chain around my neck and kept flailing away, and I didn’t have room to throw a punch.
What to Imbibe
There is precious little documentation about the provenance of Nacy L. Courey’s Age-Dated Beer, the fictional brew that was ubiquitous in movie and TV productions of the ’70s and ’80s, perhaps most recognizable as the aluminum cans that John Belushi crushes against his forehead in Animal House (1978). The generic-looking labels were available in different colorways like blue, black, and a Budweiser-style red.
Cans and bottles of Nacy L. Courey’s, “brewed from the choicest hops, rice and best barley malt,” as the labels advertise, are currently among the stocks of Earl Hays Press, an “insert house” that has provided modern and period labeling, packaging, newspapers, and more to Hollywood productions since 1915. The unique Nacy L. Courey’s label was evidently a specialty during this era, seen not only on The Rockford Files but other shows of the era including The Dukes of Hazzard, Eight is Enough, and Magnum, P.I., to name only a few.
While it’s impossible to enjoy the same brand of beer that Rockford had during his poker game, West Coast dwellers at least have the opportunity to pick up Jim’s late night dinner of tacos and fries from the Jack-in-the-Box drive-thru window. (The San Diego-based chain has also been expanding eastward, with locations as far east as Charlotte, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Nashville!)
How to Get the Look
Like Bogie’s trench coat and fedora or Magnum’s Aloha shirts and Tigers cap, Jim Rockford followed in the tradition of big and small screen private eyes by adhering to a personal “uniform” in accordance with the era’s fashions with a wardrobe of trendy but tasteful sport jackets and neatly color-coordinated shirts such as the pink he chose to pull out the overcheck of this Glenurquhart plaid sports coat.
- Black-and-white Glenurquhart plaid (with pink overcheck) worsted single-breasted sports coat with wide notch lapels, two silver shank buttons, welted breast pocket, wide-flapped slanted hip pockets, 2-button cuffs, and long double vents
- Pink shirt with point collar, plain front, squared breast pocket, and single-button cuffs
- Charcoal gray wool flat front slacks with belt loops, frogmouth front pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black leather belt with polished gold rectangular four-bar buckle
- Black leather moc-toe horsebit loafers
- Black socks
- White cotton V-neck short-sleeve undershirt
- Gold necklace
- Heuer Carrera 3647N racing chronograph watch with steel case, black dial (with two sub-dials), and black leather strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Look, I do my job my way or I don’t do it at all.