Question: I was always a big Rockford Files fan, but have been looking everywhere for the answer to this question. Was Jim Rockford's dad, Rocky, always played by Noah Beery, or did another actor have the role before him? And as a regular reader of your column, I want to keep the ball of disgruntled actors rolling. I know the show ended with star James Garner suing his studio over money, but were things happy at any time when the show was on? — Boyd F., Sarasota, Fla.
Televisionary: The first part's easy, Boyd. Joseph "Rocky" Rockford, father to ex-con and private eye Jim Rockford, was played by Robert Donley in the show's pilot, and Beery thereafter. (The series ran on NBC from September 1974 to July 1980.) In 1976, Rockford executive producer Meta Rosenberg told TV Guide that Beery was always the first choice for the role, and because I'm not at all cynical despite producers always saying that kind of thing, I choose to believe her. "We thought of Noah Beery, but he was doing Doc Elliot," she said. "By the time the series was sold, he was available. We didn't choose him because of his physical resemblance to Jim, although that is certainly there. We picked him because of his warmth, plus his unpretentiousness and the way he fits in. What he has most of all is warmth."
That he did, and it was a nice counterbalance to Garner's own cantankerous nature. Not that I'm criticizing, mind you. I'm a Garner fan and loved the show — and as his later financial battles over money with Universal demonstrated, he had good reason to be moody — but he was and is a first-class curmudgeon.
Chief among the star's non-monetary reasons for being grumpy was his physical condition. By 1975, at the reported age of 47, the poor guy was already a wreck due to football injuries, auto accidents and multiple knee surgeries. He had a bad back and no cartilage in one knee, while the other, Garner said at the time, was held together "by cottage cheese." (His doctor told him his knee was "fine, for an 85-year-old man.") With all that, he was losing stature — literally. "I used to be 6-feet-3," he said. "Now, with my knees and my back, I'm 6-feet-2, maybe less."
The back problems started when he was 19 and went on a date that ended with an overturned auto. They continued when he was racing cars and got into a few more crack-ups, and that was on top of some injuries he sustained from friendly fire during the Korean War.
Throw a schedule of working 14-hour days, six days a week on a hit show into the mix and it's no wonder Garner went through stretches of depression that lasted anywhere from days to months. "I don't want to go anywhere," he said of those times. "I don't want to do anything. I don't talk much. I don't know what I'm doing." One of those spells kicked in right after the Rockford pilot was sold and Garner signed a deal with Universal and producer Roy Huggins (The Fugitive) to begin shooting. "Whenever there is great uncertainty in my life, I go into a low period," he said. "This depression lasted three or four months. Once everything was settled, it went away."
The uncertainty about the show's success disappeared — it was a hit — but nevertheless tension reared its ugly head early on. By 1975, Huggins wasn't visiting the set because he and Garner didn't get along. Eventually, Huggins was off the show altogether, though he still received credit and payments. Then Garner took issue with Universal's studio tours, which ferried fans through the lot. "We come here to work, not to be put on display," he said. "Artists should be compensated for personal appearances. I'd like to see some of the tour money go to the Motion Picture Relief Fund."
And that was only the studio. The network caused problems, too, stepping in and telling the producers to "take out the comedy" in Season 2 because the very serious Hawaii Five Five-O was stealing Rockford viewers. "They'd talk to me and Meta separately," said creator and producer Stephen Cannell. "Neither of us could sleep well. Both of us had chest pains. We both thought we were having a heart attack. Then Jim called the head of Universal and said he'd had it. 'Get the network off Steve and Meta or I'm leaving'." It worked — and the show began beating Five-O, proving the Rockford people right.
Despite all the difficulties, however, Garner, who'd gone from mowing lawns at the age of 8, to working as a janitor at 13, to working in the Texas oil fields at 16 and clearing trees for Bell Telephone at 17, knew when he had it good. "I'm not the best actor in the world, but I think I do pretty well," he said. "I enjoy the work. It's not a form of torture. Either you want to work or you don't. I like to get up in the morning."
Or, as Beery put it: "No matter what anybody says, it's fun. Even when it's lousy, it's fun."