July 21, 2014 at 3:20 PM ET
James Garner, who was found dead over the weekend at age 86, was no one-trick pony. You might've remembered him from "Maverick," or his Oscar-nominated "Murphy's Romance," or his Polaroid commercials with Mariette Hartley. But for many of us, Garner will forever be associated with one role: Jim Rockford on "The Rockford Files."
Every episode opened with someone leaving an answering-machine message for Rockford, and the messages, perfectly delivered little comedy rim shots, always gave us a glance into why we love the hapless PI so much. There hasn't been a character like Jim Rockford since the show went off the air in 1980, and here's why:
He was barely making it
Rockford was an ex-con (falsely convicted!) who turned private investigator, and famously charged "$200 a day, plus expenses." But he lived in a trailer on the beach in Malibu, and seemed to be barely one step ahead of the debt collectors. We could relate.
Relevant answering-machine message: "It's Norma at the market. It bounced. You want me to tear it up, send it back, or put it with the others?"
Did we mention he lived in a trailer?
Rockford's trailer looks salt-stained and rusty on the outside, but inside, it was home (and didn't look as bad as the exterior suggested it would.) It was where he cooked, played cards, tackled cases, occasionally hid out, and tried to keep dad Rocky and pal Angel under control. The setting was perfect — outside his door rolled the sparkling waves and warm sands of Malibu, but inside, chaos usually reigned.
Relevant answering-machine message: "This is Mrs. Owens with the Association For A Better Malibu. Thanks for your contributions. We've made real strides, but it would help dear, if you could move your trailer."
We loved his car
Rockford's car was a gleaming gold Pontiac Firebird, and he drove it like he stole it. The term "pulling a Rockford" is still used, meaning to spin your speeding car 180 degrees, sometimes by yanking the emergency brake.
Relevant answering-machine message: "Hi, Jim, it's Jamie at the police impound. They picked up your car again. Lately, they've been driving it more than you have."
He was a star with the ladies
Who wouldn't want to date handsome Jim, with his rugged looks and sweet-talking ways? But don't expect a lifelong relationship. Rockford was too busy pulling Rockfords and staying out of the way of criminals to make a love match. We like to imagine he ended up with lawyer and sometimes lover Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett), but Jim's true love was his work.
Relevant answering-machine message: "Hey, Jim, it's me. Susan Ellis from the laundromat. You said you were going to call and it's been two weeks. What's wrong, you lose my number?"
He loved his family
Rockford's dad, Rocky, played by Noah Beery Jr., was a semi-retired truck driver, and had plenty of time to stick his nose into "Sonny's" cases. Whether he was bugging Jim to help him find the "clear" button on a calculator or relaying a lengthy nonsensical story from his trucker days, Rocky may have been the best character on a show full of them.
Relevant answering-machine message: "Sonny, this is Dad. Never mind giving that talk on your occupation to the Gray Power Club. Hap Dudley's son is a doctor and everybody'd sorta ... well, rather hear from him, but thanks."
He was loyal to his friends
Yeah, look Jimmy, it's Angel. Evelyn "Angel" Martin (Stuart Margolin) was Rockford's ex-cellmate and current pal, who'd never given up the con-man hustle. Half the time Rockford was barely hanging on to both life and his latest case, but the minute he let Angel in to either, things would go all over the cliff. But Margolin's Angel was so wonderfully entertaining that you kind of understood why Jimmy kept him around. Kind of.
Relevant answering-machine message: "Jimmy, Angel. Here's a tip, but his handwriting's bad. Third Son in the fifth race at Bel Meadows. Wait a minute, could be Fifth Son in the third. Wait, this might be next week's race."
He knew his stuff
Rockford wasn't the most elegant PI in the biz (that'd be Lance White, the rival detective played by Tom Selleck), but doggone it, he was loyal. If you could get him to take your case, he was going to see it through, even if he had to take a beatdown in the process.
Relevant answering-machine message: "Mr. Rockford, Miss Collins from the Bureau of Licenses. We got your renewal before the extended deadline, but not your check. I'm sorry, but at midnight you're no longer licensed as an investigator."
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper knows the 1970s — she's co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s." Follow her on Google+.