Vern St. Cloud is, for all intents and purposes, an oddball. A sadly underused oddball, who appears in only three episodes. Yet after one has seen him, he becomes impossible to forget. Brash, rude, arrogant, desperate. . . . These are all words that describe this down-on-his-luck private investigator. Jim Rockford refers to him as a “jarhead”, but after having been a P.I. for over twenty-five years by his last appearance, Vern surely is not as incompetent as all that. After all, something has been putting bread on his table all that time.
When we first meet Vern, he has been a victim of the shady Waterbury incidents that are resulting in P.I.s being framed and put out of business. He is working in his brother-in-law’s shoe store and detesting it. Longing to get his license back, he finds his first possible lead in a case Jim Rockford is investigating. He then takes it upon himself to attack Jim in a parking lot, acting tough and demanding information. When Jim gets the upper hand, however, Vern shows his true colors. He isn’t really so tough at all and didn’t want to hurt Jim, and ow! Jim just tore open his stomach ulcer. He carries Maalox in his pocket for such disasters.
Vern is often making comments he really shouldn’t, such as when he complains about another P.I., Billy Merrihew, sitting back and collecting welfare while he toils away in the shoe store. And he inadvertently sets up a situation that kills Marvin Potemkin, a third P.I., when he convinces that man to continue spying on an apartment house that Jim believes they should leave alone. Vern feels terrible about it, however, and instead of making excuses or rude remarks at that point he immediately acknowledges his part in what happened. That was a bit of a surprise, but it further shows that he really is a good person.
Vern is quite prideful. At the end of his first episode, Sticks and Stones Will Break Your Bones, But Waterbury Will Bury You, he can’t bring himself to thank Jim and Billy for helping to get his license back, nor to concede to them being friends. But he does hesitate as though he is going to say something of the kind, before changing his mind and just advising them not to take any wooden nickels. In the end, Vern is lovable underneath all the uptight behavior.
The writers seem to forget his better traits in his other two episodes. He is just as rude and brash and desperate in his second appearance, The House on Willis Avenue, but that behavior is never countered with moments of a softer side. Instead, he just comes across as quite pathetic and appalling, although he has some amusing moments early on when he breaks into the office of a P.I. who died a mysterious death. After rifling through the man’s desk, he discovers a bottle of wine, which he opens and samples. Giving a nod of approval, he pockets the bottle to take with him. Then he uses the telephone, putting his feet on the desk as he calls first his secretary and second, his brother on the East Coast.
Later on, believing that a young P.I. named Richie Brockleman stole the dead P.I.’s caseload (which he had been hoping to take himself for want of a job), he breaks into Richie’s office. Richie and Jim, the latter of whom has accepted the boy’s help on the case, promptly catch him. Once Jim grills him for information on his presence there, he kicks him out by pulling on his tie and forcing him to walk to the door.
Vern arguably shows a bit of his soft side again in his third and final appearance, Nice Guys Finish Dead. He has taken his nephew Larry into the agency, hoping that they can work together. Unfortunately, Larry takes it to heart far too much. He ends up killing a politician who wanted to vote a bill into effect that would have made it more difficult for the P.I.s to do their work.
Vern acts antagonistic towards Jim in both his second and third episodes, particularly his third. He can’t believe that Jim is actually the recipient of a coveted P.I. award (although in the end he is proven right, as there was a miscount in votes) and refuses to help with the case. He is convinced that a friend of Jim’s is the murderer, based on circumstantial evidence, and ends up punching the fellow out after he is challenged to fight. He is devastated later when he realizes that his own nephew is the guilty party. The boy flees the room, knocking poor Vern down in the process. Vern berates Larry’s behavior, exclaiming, “After all I’ve done for him!”
The writers seem to make it look like the problems between Vern and Jim are all on Vern’s part and that that is why Jim can’t stand him. They never seem to remember in Sticks and Stones, when Jim says he doesn’t like what Waterbury is doing to his friends. Vern asks if he is Jim’s friend. Jim’s response is a silent, displeased, and perhaps even disbelieving look before he walks out. And when Jim calls Vern a “jarhead” prior to this, they’ve barely interacted at all—certainly not enough for Jim to know what Vern is like. Jim definitely has a right to be angry, after having been attacked in the parking lot, but one wonders if his view is colored just a bit unfairly. It takes two people to have problems; it can’t be all Vern’s fault, and I don’t find it just that the writers seemed to want to make it such in his other episodes.
There’s not even any reason for Vern’s callous behavior towards Jim, going on canonical evidence alone. It almost seems that getting his license back made his personality worse. Perhaps he is jealous of how Jim always manages to get cases while he’s struggling? There have been indications that Vern is a bitter, or at least a jaded, man. More than once he has talked about the “dog-eat-dog” world of private investigating and that he is not going to be eaten. It is often hinted at that Vern struggles to make enough money to keep himself going. Perhaps many of the jobs go to other P.I.s, and perhaps even, Vern has had dealings with some who have treated him poorly. He may not know how to react to Jim and feel that even if Jim is offering friendship, it will be dropped later if a case gets in the way. Vern himself might be the type to drop it, but on the other hand, maybe he was the one who was dropped and doesn’t want to go through that again.
To me, he seems more the latter type. It’s just the whole way he keeps insisting on it being a “dog-eat-dog” world, as though he has been gravely disillusioned by the actions of others and feels he must stay a loner to be safe and keep up.
Of course, this is all very speculative on my part. There’s no real canon evidence for such complex thoughts, only little things that can possibly be gleaned from his words and attitude. But he has been shown to be more than just a one- or two-dimensional character, so I like to think better of him than the writers sometimes seem to. While he does do some things that are eyebrow-raising, such as going through the dead P.I.’s office looking for the caseload, he doesn’t seem to want harm to come to anyone and he may very well be better than someone who is only out for money and would betray a friend for it.
Or perhaps his apparent grudge against Jim is just lousy writing, plain and simple. I only know that while I like Vern’s characterization in Sticks and Stones, I don’t care much for how he was written in The House on Willis Avenue and Nice Guys Finish Dead.
I also don’t like how he is barely involved in those episodes, particularly The House on Willis Avenue. It was a double-length episode, but Vern was scarce. He was more prominent in the first half, even being abducted by the villains and interrogated, and then only appeared once in the second half. I had hoped that they would have a lot for him to do in such a big episode, and that he might even be involved with the case. Wikipedia says that he and Jim worked on several cases, grudgingly, trading insults along the way. Actually, they only work together at all in Sticks and Stones. In the other episodes, they stay as far apart as possible. One wonders if something could have happened between Sticks and Stones and The House on Willis Avenue to cause the jagged rift.
In any case, it is disappointing that so little was done with the character. There could have been a lot more for him to do than there was. He and Jim could have even really worked on another case together and then parted on better terms, as they more or less did in Sticks and Stones. They could have learned more about each other. Or the partnership could have taken a humorous turn, with them arguing all the while. Or even, it could have had both.
Simon Oakland was invited back for one more episode, but instead of playing Vern he played Beppy Conigliaro, the harried and frustrated owner of a restaurant. Disappointingly, he only got one short scene in that strange episode, but as Simon always did, he made the best of it and he made the character work. Beppy’s scene is very memorable, as he sarcastically demands whether his nephew Eugene thinks he is a magician and that he can say “Abracadabra!” and all of the food will march into place.
Oh, Simon. The ability to spout classic lines like that is just one more reason why we love you. And a reason why we love Vern, too. Don’t take any wooden nickels, Vern.