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From the premiere of its first hour-long episode in 1974, The Rockford Files was a critical and commercial success that gained a large and loyal following. Like other private-eye shows of the 1970s (such as Columbo and David Janssen's Harry O), the series offered smart mystery plots in the hardboiled-sleuth traditions of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Rex Stout, given a sunlit spin in contemporary California. But ex-convict turned private investigator Jim Rockford (who served time for a crime he didn't commit) was anything but a conventional gumshoe; for one thing, he rarely carried a gun, and resorted to violence only when he'd exhausted his options. As played to perfection by James Garner (in what would become his signature role, surpassing his previous success as Maverick), Rockford preferred wisecracks over violence, and his going rate ("$200 a day, plus expenses") was typically applied to cold cases, missing persons, and family disputes, frequently leading to entanglements with organised crime and L.A.P.D. Sergeant Dennis Becker (Joe Santos), whose friendship with Rockford lent the series one of its pivotal character relationships. As Rockford pursued the truth from his rusty trailer-home on the Pacific Coast Highway, his inherent warmth and compassionate sleuthing were further enhanced by engaging interplay with his retired ex-trucker father "Rocky" (Noah Beery, Jr.), his lawyer and on-and-off girlfriend Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett), and his weasely former cell-mate "Angel" Martin (Stuart Margolin), a trio of supporting players as memorably appealing as any in '70s television. As a loose-knit ensemble, they followed Garner's capable lead with intelligent dialogue (the best of it written by series cocreator Stephen J. Cannell and frequent contributor Juanita Bartlett) and occasionally burst of stunt-laden action, typically involving Rockford's expert driving of a versatile Pontiac Firebird.
With a catchy Mike Post theme song, The Rockford Files began each week with a new message on Rockford's telephone answering machine, usually a humourous indication that Rockford's life was always in some kind of financial disarray. Garner played this angle to the hilt, portraying Rockford as a nice guy who knew all the scams and wasn't above using them if it aided his case.