The first time Gretchen Corbett got into a car with James Garner on the set of The Rockford Files, she had no idea what she was in for. “She knew Jim was a good driver, but she didn’t know exactly how good,” author Ed Robertson tells Closer exclusively, who explains that the scene called for sudden “hairpin turns,” which terrified the actress. “She told me when they finished the scene, she realized she had wet her pants!”

Fifty years ago, America got its first look at TV’s The Rockford Files, and it was love at first sight. The series about charming everyman private detective Jim Rockford would run six seasons, from 1974 to 1980, and lift its star James Garner to four Emmy nominations and one win. “Aside from getting beat up by thugs and stiffed by clients every week, Rockford didn’t have a care in the world,” the actor said. “That’s the difference between television and real life.

Secrets From the Set of The Rockford Files 50 Years Later
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Even if Rockford did get punched in the face most episodes, he almost always caught the bad guy through a combination of quick thinking, tenaciousness and keen observation.

Wearing a threadbare blazer, he always tried to talk his way out of trouble first. He rarely carried a gun — usually leaving it back at his mobile home hidden in a cookie jar. “My dad had a way of playing the underdog,” Gigi Garner tells Closer exclusively. “People say it didn’t evenl ook like he was acting.”

Rockford , a wrongfully convicted ex-con, was conceived as a variation of the genial conman character James had played on TV’s Maverick in the early 1960s. The role leaned hard on the actor’s real-life charm and humor. “Rockford was really the first private eye show to blend humor with the detective genre,” explains Robertson, author of 45 Years of The Rockford Files: An Inside Look at America’s Greatest Detective Series. “Pretty much every police [show] since has blended humor with storytelling, and that all started with The Rockford Files.”

‘Rockford Files’ Took It’s Toll on James Garner

Every episode began with a phone message heard over Rockford’s answering machine. “The producer who was the designated message guy would solicit people on the staff, like secretaries, to come up with ideas,” says Robertson.

Car chases in Rockford’s Pontiac Firebird also featured prominently — and again took advantage of James’ real skills. “He was probably one of the best stunt car drivers,” says Robertson, who explains that the actor honed his driving when he starred in 1966’s Grand Prix. “He did a lot of his own stunts,” says Robertson, who adds that the production kept “three or four Firebirds on rotation every season.”

James also did many of his own fight scenes and pratfalls — which wore on him. “It killed me, just killed me,” said James. “Every hiatus every year, I had one or both knees operated on.” In 1980, the series ended because he couldn’t continue. “By the end of the six years, I was not only physically but mentally shot.”

The Rockford Files did return for eight reunion movies in the 1990s, and today lives on in syndication and streaming services. “My father wasn’t crazy about the autographs, premieres and parties, but he really loved the process [of creating a show],” says Gigi. “He loved the people he worked with, and they loved him. He really loved it.”