Existential P.I.

Playing private eye Jim Rockford won actor James Garner one Emmy plus a fistful of nominations. But, more importantly, “The Rockford Files,” which ran on NBC from 1974 to 1980, forever changed the way television depicted its most popular franchise.

According to scholars David Marc and Robert J. Thompson in their book “Prime Time, Prime Movers,” Rockford was “the first detective to arrive in primetime schlepping something resembling existentialist baggage.”

“The day before I started writing the pilot, I watched a ‘Mannix,’ ” recalls writer-producer Stephen J. Cannell, who also won an Emmy for “Rockford.” “And in this ‘Mannix’ a black girl came into his office. She was about 7 years old, and she came to hire Mannix because her mother was missing.

“She said, ‘How much do you charge?’

“And Mannix said, ‘How much do you have?’

“And she reached into pockets and took out a handful of coins and some candy and put it on the desk. And Mannix fingered it: ‘That’s just about right.’

“And I thought that my guy would go, ‘What, are you kidding me? I’ve got expenses. I can’t work for candy.’ To me, that was very funny. In mine, Lindsay Wagner comes in and tries to hire Rockford, and he won’t take a check.

” ‘Will you wait outside for a minute?’ And he dials her bank.

“They’re talking about the case — her father might have been murdered and all this tragic shit. And she’s crying. It’s her father, and she loves him. Then the bank calls. ‘You mean this check’s no good?’

“And Rockford goes back to the table, and she’s crying. ‘This check’s no good.’

” ‘I know, but you’ve got to help me.’

” ‘Well, OK, jeez, do you own your car? Give me the pinkslip.’

“I’m writing this, and it’s making me laugh. Of course when the network saw it, they said, ‘This guy’s impossible. You can’t have a hero who runs a credit check on a bawling client and quits every time he’s threatened.’ “

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