“The Rockford Files” (1974)

My heart broke a bit upon the news that Martin Sheen is a 9/11 truther. Though it’s likely I simply confused him with his character on The West Wing, the most level-headed, reasonable politician in television history, I had hoped that he would be above all that moonbat nonsense about controlled demolitions and steel not melting even at thousands of degrees. Alas, it was not to be, as he joined Rosie O’Donnell, Woody Harrelson, Jesse “the Body” Ventura, and Charlie Sheen, amateur physicists all, who prefer to think that the attacks on the World Trade Center were some elaborate plot by the United States Government to strip its citizens of their liberties, rather than the work of a well-known terrorist.

It was another letdown to discover that James Woods, who brings a certain sleazy charm to virtually every role he’s ever played, is a hard right Republican. Whether it’s due to age, his political viewpoints, or his reportedly prickly personality, the acting jobs have dried up for Woods in the past couple of years, and he seems to have remade himself into a conservative pundit on Twitter, spouting the same old tiresome “controversial” opinions (such as questioning the validity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate) and filing a $10 million defamation suit against one user who dared to make a joke at his expense.

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“It’s my favorite wine, Scumbag Vineyards, 1952.”

While we’re stuck with that James Woods, let’s take a moment to fondly remember the old James Woods, who struck on just the right level of scumminess very early in his career, with an appearance on the first episode (pilot aside) of The Rockford Files. It goes without saying that The Rockford Files is probably the greatest detective show of all time, and that James Garner gave one of the best television performances of all time playing the lovably shady, always underestimated Jim Rockford. In “The Kirkoff Case,” Woods plays Larry Kirkoff, heir to his murdered parents’ considerable estate, who’s hired Rockford to find out who’s responsible for their deaths.

The twist here is that the police think Kirkoff himself is the culprit, but can’t build a case against him. Woods plays Kirkoff like a lesser Bond villain, a pile of slime formed into the shape of a man, and it’s great watching him and Garner spar with each other during Woods’s limited screen time. Kirkoff’s motives in hiring Rockford are vague, as opposed to Rockford’s motives in taking the job, which are largely financial in nature. He’s pretty sure Kirkoff is guilty, but Kirkoff is also willing to pay him a lot of money, something that is constantly in short supply for Rockford (the show opens with an answering machine message from the local grocery store telling Rockford that his check bounced). This crisis of conscience in relation to taking desperately needed money from various scumbags and lowlifes would be a running thread in The Rockford Files, offering a unique and compelling spin on the genre.

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Jim and Tawnia arm-wrestle over who’s picking up the check

With the help of Kirkoff’s father’s mistress, Tawnia (Julie Sommars), Rockford discovers that the case is not as cut and dry as it initially seems (are they ever?), and involves real estate holdings, a failed boxer turned killer for hire, and a special guest appearance by Abe Vigoda (R.I.P.). Rockford, having been beaten, drugged, and threatened with further bodily harm for his trouble, returns to Kirkoff with the case half-solved: his mother was murdered by a hitman hired by his father. He goes on to tell Kirkoff that he still believes he killed his father, but that the case will likely never be pursued by the cops due to lack of evidence.

In an amusing turnabout, Rockford then offers to work for Tawnia, in an effort to find more evidence proving Kirkoff’s guilt. Before he has a chance, however, Kirkoff turns himself in, admitting that he did indeed kill his father. Why being told that there isn’t enough evidence to arrest someone for a crime would compel them to admit to that crime is unknown, but in any case Rockford misses out on both the payout from Kirkoff, and the potential money from Tawnia, and thus must continue rubbing shoulders with miscreants and people of questionable repute just to earn a living, for six seasons and eight TV movies.

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Holy shit, water rates go up in South City?!?

Though he plays a pivotal character, Woods appears on screen for barely ten minutes total, near the beginning and at the end of the episode. This is a shame, because he and Garner have terrific chemistry. You get right away that Kirkoff isn’t entirely sure that Rockford isn’t as smart, or even smarter than him, and so he doubles down on the class snobbery instead, knowing that it’s a sore spot for Rockford. Meanwhile, Rockford only just barely swallows his distaste for Kirkoff, putting up with it for the sake of being able to pay off his bills and various debts. Their dialogue crackles with energy, and it evidently carried over into real life, with Garner and Woods becoming close friends and poker buddies, and starring together in a few other television projects in the 80s. Considering that James Garner was a well-known Democrat, one can assume that politics never came up in their conversations, or perhaps Twitter has simply brought out the worst in James Woods.

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