by Maria Lagalante Schulz
Hi. My name is Maria, and I loved James Garner.
There, I said it. The deep, dark secret of my tortured adolescent youth is out. While all the other girls in my class were tacking up posters on their bedroom walls of Andy Gibb, Bobby Sherman, Scott Baio, or John Travolta, I was taping up the TV Guide. Why? The answer is simple: James Garner was on the cover.
Oh, I thought I’d loved movie stars before. My grandmother, Lena, loved Dean Martin, and whenever she was over, we watched his Celebrity Roasts together. At six, I thought his drunken laughter and terrible jokes were hilarious. I laughed along with my grandmother at jokes I didn’t even understand.
Nonni said that Dean Martin was handsome, so I agreed with her. We watched his TV show together and I got to see Dean free-wheel his way through his show, cigarette in one hand and a glass of (probably) booze in the other. My grandmother and I sang “That’s Amore” and “I’m Not the Marrying Kind” together on dozens of occasions.
Yes, Dean Martin was funny and handsome, but at 6, I wasn’t quite ready to say “I loved him.” He was okay, really, and more my grandmother’s type than mine. It seemed that everybody had a movie or TV star that they idolized, but I didn’t. My mother loved Clark Gable since she saw him in Gone With The Wind. She even had his picture hanging in the living room (next to Dad’s picture of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca).
Even Dad liked Catherine Duneuve. I had to cover his eyes every time that Chanel No. 5 commercial came on the screen, because he’d yell “that’s it! I’m leaving your mother for her!” I would panic, because surely, wouldn’t Catherine just drop everything for my father?” Surprisingly, my mother only laughed.
But everything changed for me when The Rockford Files came to television.
Every Friday night from 1974 until 1980, James Garner starred in The Rockford Files. This was by far my favorite private detective show ever. Jim Rockford was a down-on-his luck kind of guy, just a regular Joe who was more interested in getting his $200 a day (plus expenses) paycheck then in finding out who was right or who was wrong.
If he could track down the bozo you were looking for without getting into harm’s way—and actually collect his fee—that was gravy. He kept his gun in a cookie jar in his trailer and depended on tips from his pal in the police department to help him settle cases quickly. He drove a gold-colored Pontiac Firebird that I thought would look really cool in my driveway.
Jim Rockford had a way about him that was immediately endearing and easy to understand. He didn’t play dumb like Columbo, who may have looked like a bum in his wrinkled trench coat but was actually a certifiable genius. He wasn’t cranky and curmudgeonly like Cannon. He didn’t ride a horse like McMillan or drag his wife everywhere with him. And while Mannix got shot, wounded, and left for dead any number of times, my hero Rockford saw absolutely no shame in avoiding, hiding, and running for his life at the first sign of trouble.
Of course, nothing ever went smoothly for Jimbo. Clients rarely told him the truth; friends from his jailhouse days (did I mention that he was innocent and got a full pardon?) would surface and get him into scrapes, and his lawyer/sometimes girlfriend talked him into taking cases he knew he shouldn’t touch. He was often getting thrown from speeding cars, getting punched in the face, or running from a group of guys while bullets whizzed past his head.
But Jim was a handsome man with a soft spot for his father, Rocky, and friends that would always stand by him. I soon grew to love all of the characters on the show and looked forward to curling up on the couch next to my father and mother and seeing what mess Jim would get himself into this week.
Friday nights at 9 pm, we turned on Channel 4 and waited to hear the phone message that would play in the beginning of the show. It was always hilarious, and always completely unrelated to whatever was about to happen on this week’s episode. We would laugh and sing along to the “duh na na na na, dah na na na na na na…” of the theme song.
On most of these nights, my parents, brothers and I would split a bag of pretzels, or a few Oreos. Sometimes we’d munch on Drakes coffee cakes or pies. My Dad liked Apple Pie, I liked Blueberry, and my mother was happy with coffee cake. Other times, we’d treat ourselves to an Entenmann’s cake. My father liked their crumb cake (the bigger the crumbs, the better), while my favorite was marshmallow chocolate fudge. With the help of Mr. Coffee, I’d make my parents a fresh cup of java. Then, I’d brew a cup of tea for myself, and as the clock struck 9, my brothers would grab their milk or soda, and we’d all settle into the living room for our show.
My mom would sit on the love seat and I’d take my place next to Dad on the floor. Dad had a bad back, so the soft cushions of the couch were too much for him. He’d sit against the edge of the couch, with me next to him. While we sat there, my mom would twirl my hair and rub Dad’s baldhead. Joey, Paul, or Chris sat across from us on the love seat, laughing along at Jim’s exploits. Jude, Tony and Louie were usually out at a party or with friends—they missed out!
Since Jude’s band, New York’s Unemployed, often had gigs on the weekends, Friday nights were quiet. With Tony or Louie working the lights for the band’s set, or just going to see them play, it was the perfect night to watch a show. Since they practiced in our basement until 10 pm every night, there was always rock and roll music blasting and pounding, making it difficult to watch television during most of the week.
But on Friday nights, for once the walls were not shaking and the TV set was not blaring. You could hear what was going on and follow the most intricate plotline—even though the show was on at 9. That only added to the fun of watching.
Most nights, we would sit there and laugh as Jim’s pal, Angel, got him into some crazy scheme, or his father Rocky implored him to get “a real job.” But in my favorite episode late in the show’s run, something spectacular happened.
Someone tried to blow up Jim Rockford’s trailer while he was throwing away his trash. He’d run outside—SHIRTLESS, mind you—to dump the garbage when BAM! The trailer burst into flames. My parents were as shocked as Jim looked. I was too, but for a different reason.
James Garner was shirtless! Oh sure he always had his shirt open at the collar—so did every other man in the 1970s—but this time he didn’t even have a collar! I was not horrified or incensed that this man who I admired up to this point was half naked. No, I was delighted.
I thought of my grandmother, Elvira, who had seen Cesar Romero in a movie in the 1940s wearing nothing but his boxer shorts. She promptly left the theater.
“Ese cerdo!” She said, which in English means “That pig!” She said it for decades after that and never changed her mind about him, even when we watched Batman with him as the Joker. It seems that Cesar Romero in boxer shorts was not what my grandmother had paid to see.
James Garner in nothing but blue pajama bottoms WAS something I was glad to see, and it was FREE! Life was good.
When the show went into syndication, my brothers and I would watch it every afternoon from 4-5 pm. Over cookies and milk, Joey, Paul, Chris and I would sit around the living room, talking about plot twists and laughing at Jim’s inability to actually get paid. Paul would tell us something about each person involved in the production of the show; his encyclopedic knowledge of everyone from the leading man to the best boy was truly amazing.
“You know,” Joey said one day, as we were watching, “Mom told me that I look like James Garner.”
Chris and Paul laughed. I was horrified.
When I thought about it, though, it made some sense. Even I had to admit that Joey was tall, and dark, and handsome. He really was a regular Joe. He had an easygoing way about him, a charming smile, and a great sense of humor. I could even see him charging $200 a day, plus expenses, to cut your cold cuts at his deli job.
But I had seen Joey in his pajamas and it didn’t have the same effect on me. Why did he have to go and ruin everything?
When The Rockford Files went off nighttime TV in 1980, I was sad. We found other shows to watch together on Friday nights, including Dallas and Falcon Crest. But none of them had the simple, enduring charm of The Rockford Files.
James Garner and dessert was the best combination of all.
Deep Dish Fruit Crisp
- 6 cups fresh (or frozen) blueberries, peaches, strawberries, apricots, nectarines (any combination you like)
- ¼ cup flour
- ¼ cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 2 tsp. lemon zest
Next, make your Streusel topping and set it aside (this is the same streusel topping used in the Bisquick Coffee Cake, plus some nutmeg and allspice. It’s delicious and tastes great on the fruit tart).
- 1/3 cup Bisquick
- 1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon (I like to add a bit more since I love cinnamon!)
- 2 tablespoons of margarine or butter
- ¼ tsp. ground nutmeg
- ¼ tsp. allspice
Vanilla ice cream or lowfat frozen yogurt.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees
- Combine filling ingredients in large bowl. Pour into 9-inch deep dish pan.
- Combine topping ingredients in small bowl; mix the first three ingredients together. Then cut in the margarine with a fork until crumbly.
- Sprinkle topping over fruit filling. Bake 30 to 35 minutes, or until golden brown. Allow to cool slightly.
- Cut into wedges and serve with a scoop of ice cream or yogurt.
- Makes 8 servings.
For a quick Apple Crisp recipe, go to:
Heresy! They’re bringing back The Rockford Files with Dermot Mulroney as Jim: