So it’s been a little over a week since the sad passing of James Garner. I suddenly realized that the Simon blog is a perfect place for a tribute, as Simon and James had some wonderful interaction. Really, it wouldn’t be at all right not to do a tribute here.
It was because of Simon that I first tried The Rockford Files. And while it took a long time for me to warm up to the show itself, I was instantly fond of Simon’s hilarious character from three of his four guest-spots. And eventually I was also fond of the priceless interaction between Simon and James Garner.
I found myself wanting to write a story where they try to solve another case together. I wrote up a scene for it, but I could never figure out a plot to go with it. So there it sat for a couple of years, waiting for the perfect plot.
Last summer, thanks to two more of my favorite guest-stars and one of their episodes, I finally had a plot. I wrote a story involving those characters, Ginger Townsend and Lou Trevino from The Queen of Peru, and made that the mystery that Jim and Vern have to solve. http://www.fanfiction.net/s/9614161/1/ While I’ve fleshed out Ginger and Lou a bit differently now than in this story, and I forgot that the fourth jewel thief was caught off-screen in The Queen of Peru episode, overall I’m very proud of my effort. It was so much fun writing this story every step of the way, including Jim and Vern’s interaction. And with a few tweaks, I was able to use that scene I wrote so long ago.
The Rockford Files was definitely an acquired taste for me, but even back then, I liked James Garner as a person. I heard how kind he was to people on the set and I appreciated that. Hearing about how important his family was to him, and that he was married to the same woman all through the years, also added a lot to my respect for him.
I still prefer other shows over The Rockford Files, but gradually, gradually, the more episodes I saw, I began to like and appreciate The Rockford Files for what it was and what it had to offer. It’s certainly one of the most unique private-eye shows ever created! (Meanwhile, I fell in love with the original Maverick instantly, even though I wasn’t that fond of the sequel.)
One of my favorite things about The Rockford Files, which is also one of my mom’s favorite things, is the family element. It’s not usual to find a series about a private detective that shows his family. Frank Cannon’s family was killed. Joe Mannix’s mother is dead and he has a sometimes-rocky relationship with his father (albeit it thankfully improves later). But Jim Rockford’s father is alive and they have a beautiful relationship that is one of the cores of the series.
Character interaction is important on The Rockford Files, whether it concerns cast regulars or guest-stars. And certainly Simon’s Vern St. Cloud is one of the most colorful and unique of the guest-stars! Jim Rockford has never quite known what to make of him. They are two such different people who can never seem to stop clashing.
The first episode, Sticks and Stones, sets it up with both of them being a bit responsible for their problems. Vern is loud and brash and Jim doesn’t like that, nor does Vern like Jim’s easy-going manner or sarcasm. They struggle to solve the case nevertheless, arguing and occasionally getting along on the way.
When Jim exclaims that he doesn’t like what the Waterbury agency is doing to his friends, Vern retorts, “Oh yeah? Am I your friend?” and Jim gives him one of those classic stares as only Jim can and can’t even muster up a verbal reply. Of course, words are not needed; the look says it all. It’s a fun little scene that shows both that Jim really doesn’t like Vern and that Vern is quite aware of that fact. Vern scoffs at the idea that Jim would consider him a friend, and Jim can’t quite seem to wrap his mind around the concept, either.
Interestingly, by the end of the episode, they both seem to feel a little better about each other. Jim acts genuinely friendly, and while Vern can’t quite let go of his pride enough to thank him for helping, he gives a gruffly adorable farewell in the form of instructing, “Don’t take any wooden nickels.” There’s a definite fondness there that was never really brought out again.
It puzzles me how by The House on Willis Avenue there seems to be a complete rift between them, after that lovely epilogue in Sticks and Stones. Vern acts friendly towards Jim, although perhaps it’s falsely so. Jim, meanwhile, comes across as very antagonistic and disliking of Vern, in contrast to his friendliness at the end of Sticks and Stones. He tries to avoid meeting up near the beginning.
In Jim’s defense, the later discovery of Vern in Richie Brockelman’s office is certainly an unpleasant surprise. Vern shouldn’t have broken in there, the rascal. And he has the gall to try to blame Richie for taking a dead P.I.’s caseload, when that’s what Vern himself wanted! But since Jim was displeased to run into Vern long before that scene happened, it couldn’t fully account for Jim’s attitude.
In their final episode together, Nice Guys Finish Dead, the antagonism is fully on both sides, with Jim and Vern equally bitter about each other and their encounters. Either we’ve been having a case of bad writing for their interaction since The House on Willis Avenue or something definitely happened between the characters, off-screen, before that episode. Or else Vern recovering his license made him a much less likable character, since he was returning to the hardboiled world of the private eye and the personality he had cultivated to keep himself alive through the years.
I’ve speculated before that Vern may also hold some level of bitterness or jealousy towards Jim Rockford, who often would prefer fishing but always gets plenty of cases, while Vern is desperate for a case and often doesn’t have one. Vern has been in the “dog-eat-dog” business so much longer than Jim and often has so much bad luck. And especially in The House on Willis Avenue, he seems rather spineless. The bad guys even tell him that when he has his surgery, to make sure the doctors don’t leave out any of his guts; he can’t spare any!
However, Vern’s been a P.I. for over twenty-five years. As I mused before, he must be a lot more competent at the job than he appears to be and Jim thinks he is. No one could survive in that line of work for that many years just on dumb luck. It would have been nice to have seen a little more of Vern’s case-solving, instead of just using him as a sort of idiot comic relief in the latter two episodes and particularly in The House on Willis Avenue. He’s a more well-rounded character in Sticks and Stones. The writers must have decided they liked it better when he didn’t show quite as much depth to his character.
But in any case, bad writing or not, the interaction between the two is always amusing and fun to watch. Their characters clash so beautifully, so perfectly, that I still long for what Wikipedia said to be true, about them solving cases together and snarking at each other along the way. That really only happens in Sticks and Stones, and it’s definitely a missed opportunity that it didn’t continue in the other two episodes. Still, I’m grateful for every bit of interaction that does exist. Any time they’re on screen together, it’s a gem.
It’s a shame the writers couldn’t work in any scenes for them together in Simon’s final episode, Just a Coupla Guys. But these two actors do have one more wonderful bit of screentime together, in James Garner’s short-lived sequel to his other most memorable series. In the Bret Maverick episode A Horse of Yet Another Color, as I recall, Simon plays a shifty character trying to get hold of the titular creature. Unfortunately, it’s been so long since I’ve seen it that I can’t bring up the details. Warner Brothers has finally released the series on DVD, although the price is far too much for one season, especially one that had less episodes than some! But I have been longing to see that episode again for Simon, and for the interaction between him and James Garner. Perhaps someday I shall.
And perhaps meanwhile, these two greats will find some opportunities to perform again together up in Heaven. I sincerely hope so. It would be a treat for everyone up there.
Rest in peace, Mr. Garner. You will be missed by many.