Lance White (The Rockford Files)

Created by Stephen J. Cannell

“Hunches don’t come from any place, Jim, they’re just hunches. That’s how we solve our cases. We get hunches, they turn out to be right, and the case gets solved. Gee, I don’t know how you survive as a private investigator, Jim. You don’t seem to know any of this stuff.”
— Lance explains to Jim how the universe works in “Nice Guys Finish Dead”

“Freddy, lemme tell ya somethin’, Freddy. There’s one thing you never do: you never say ‘put ’em up.’ You smile at the guy, then sucker-punch him.”
— Jim explains to Freddy how his universe works, in “Nice Guys Finish Dead”

The 1970s were the Golden Age of the television private eye. While the 1950s may have ushered in the P.I. as a video mainstay (replacing the gun-totin’ cowboy) and helped to further embed it into popular culture, the sad fact is that many of those early P.I. shows, while memorable, just weren’t that good. Done on the cheap, poorly acted, and spat out like candy on a conveyor belt not unlike the one Lucy and Ethel were working. For every A-lister like Peter Gunn, there were dozens of them lived in B to C range, only a few occasionally making it to maybe A-.

Granted, I loved them all, and I love watching some of those dusty, musty shows. Bourbon Street Beat, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Staccato, Richard Diamond, even dusty dinosaurs like Martin Kane and Man Against Crime–they all have their moments, even if some of their charm lies in the fact they’ve most aged about as well as a glass of milk left out in the sun for a few days.

Still, by the time the seventies rolled in, certain tropes, both the good, the bad and the questionable, had pretty much set like concrete. The flashy car, the attractive secretary, the “cool” setting, the “hip” ladies’ man P.I.–they were to be expected and almost demanded.

And then along came The Rockford Files, created by Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell, and starring affable ol’ James Garner. Right from the start, it was clear this was a whole new breed of eye. This wasn’t your grandpa’s hard-boiled dick, nor was he some gallant knight charging off to save a client. Most of the time, he’d rather go fishing. He worries about the milk in his fridge turning bad, and paying his bills, his father nags him constantly about getting a real job, and he rarely even carries a gun, preferring to keep it in the cookie jar his rundown house trailer. And truth be told, although he was (relatively) honest and (relatively) loyal to his friends and clients, Rockford (“Jim” to his friends) was also a bit of a scam artist. And a scrounger. And a coward.

In many ways, the show was a sly update of Maverick, Rockford co-creator Roy Huggins’ iconic western from the fifties, which had also starred Garner, and had similarly lampooned the tropes of the western.  The Rockford Files did the same thing with private eyes.

It was clear that the show’s writers (and particularly series co-creator Cannell) loved private detectives, and they certainly introduced a whole slew ball of them during the show’s run, including young, idealistic Richie Brockelman, dweebie wannabe Freddie Beamer, black power P.I. team of Marcus Aurelius “Gabby” Hayes and Gandolph Fitch, and  the cynical bottom feeder Vern St. Cloud.

But by far the most memorable P.I. to ever visit the show by far was LANCE WHITE, the rich, elegant, and seemingly flawless male-model private eye; the walking cliché come to squeaky clean life, just to drive Rockford crazy. “Lance is perfect,” Jim sneers in exasperation at one point, “It’s his only flaw.”

White was played by a then-unknown Tom Selleck whose biggest prior creditwas his stint as the Marlboro Man. In the episode “White on White and Nearly Perfect” (October 20, 1978), he shows up on the peripheral of a case for which Jim has just been called in–the kidnapping of a wealthy defense contractor’s daughter. But White worms his way into the case, as a favor to a “dear, dear friend,” despite Rockford’s opposition. “I’m only here as a friend, Jim. Don’t Worry, this is your case.”

Uh-huh.

The contrast between the two detectives is played for maximum laughs, and is a hoot from start to finish. Rumpled and cynical Jim is an affably jaded hustler who’s seen it all, scratching out a living the only way he knows how, scrambling for every buck. Lance, by contrast, is a shiny, happy Boy Scout–blindly optimistic, and fond of hollow platitudes that drive Rockford to distraction. “Don’t worry, Jim. Things have a way of working out. They always do,” this Teflon dick reassures Jim, when the case seems to have come to a standstill. And much to Jim’s dismay, they do.

And through it all, Lance seems totally oblivious, a smiling, impeccably dressed idiot. Everyone loves him (even, much to Jim’s dismay, his police nemisis Lieutenant Chapman), women fawn over him, he drives a big ass white convertible, and he’s completely unaware that his keening optimism almost gets Jim killed several times. At the end, when the case is solved, Lance gets the girl, is hailed as a hero, and is given the keys to a multi-million dollar company, thanks to a very grateful client. Meanwhile, Jim gets $500, but loses out on a promised bonus.

Lance returned the next season in “Nice Guys Finish Dead” (November 16, 1979). This one takes place at a private association’s awards dinner, which allows Cannell to fill the show with many of the eyes he’d already created for the show, including Freddie Beamer,  Vern St. Cloud, his nephew Larry and of course Lance. In fact, both Lance and Jim are up for the associations Detective of the Year Award–Lance for some heroic deed full of gunplay and danger; Jim for a boring, nose-to-the-grindstone number crunching exercise that nobody quite understands. But of course, the gala evening goes awry, when hapless Freddie Beamer is accused of murdering a state senator in the men’s room, while the conference is in progress, and Jim–to everyone’s surprise–is presented with the award. It’s all played for laughs, of course, as Jim and Lance, like a sleuthing Oscar and Felix, rush around trying to save Freddie’s ass, and find the real killer, all while the St. Clouds try to pin it on him. Lance of course screws up almost everything and cracks the case, while Jim rolls his eyes and looks pained (like when Lance casually mentions he’s “Doctor Lance White). It’s a fun episode, but it feels like a bit of a letdown after Lance’s first appearance; more like wheel-spinning than a fully developed episode. Then again, “White on White and Nearly Perfect” is generally considered one of the show’s very best episodes, so…

Selleck, of course, showed up the next year as the star of Magnum P.I., a show that owed more than a little to The Rockford Files, although I always though that Magnum was essentially Lance White with most of the wink washed out.

TELEVISION

  • THE ROCKFORD FILES  | Buy the complete series on DVD | Buy the complete series on Blu-Ray
    (1974-80, NBC)
    TV Series
    60-minute episodes
    Created by Stephen J. Cannell and Roy Huggins
    Starring James Garner as JIM ROCKFORD
    with Noah Beery, Jr. as Joseph “Rocky” Rockford
    Joe Santos as Sergeant Dennis Becker
    and James Luisi as Lt. Chapman

    • “White on White and Nearly Perfect” | Buy this season on DVD
       (October 20, 1978)
      Written and directed by Stephen J. Cannell
      Starring James Garner as JIM ROCKFORD
      and Tom Selleck as LANCE WHITE
      With James Luisi as Lieutenant Chapman
      Joe Santos as Dennis Becker
    • “Nice Guys Finish Dead” | Buy this season on DVD
      (November 16, 1979)
      Teleplay by Stephen J. Cannel
      Directed by John Patterson
      Starring James Garner as JIM ROCKFORD
      and Tom Selleck as LANCE WHITE
      With James Whitmore Jr. as Freddie Beamer
      Simon Oakland as Vern St. Cloud
      Larry Manetti as Larry St. Cloud
      James Luisi as Lieutenant Chapman
      and Joe Santos as Dennis Becker
      Also starring Erica Hagen

FURTHER INVESTIGATIONS

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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