In Special Guest Star, Gwen Ihnat takes a look at a standout turn by a performer in a TV series, noting what effect the appearance had on the actor, the series, and the TV landscape overall.
With The Rockford Files, James Garner picked up where he left off in 1969’s Marlowe, embodying the charming, self-deprecating L.A. private eye who spies on rich people in Bel-Air when he’s not sparring with the LAPD. Jim Rockford was actually a direct descendant of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, updated for the 197os: He lived in a trailer off the beach in Malibu, drove a Pontiac Firebird, and favored checked, polyester sport coats—he was like a James Bond you could have a beer with (preferably canned domestic). The Rockford Files’ cases of the week captivated NBC audiences through several seasons and TV movies, winning Emmys for its star and the series overall. Like Peter Falk in Columbo, Garner’s appeal meant that he didn’t need much in the way of a supporting cast, outside of LAPD colleagues like harried Sergeant Dennis Becker (Joe Santos), and Rockford’s old San Quentin cellmate Angel, a role for which Stuart Margolin won a pair of Emmys himself. But although he had plenty of episode-long flings, Rockford lacked a girl Friday like Sam Spade’s Effie, and his profession made it difficult for him to maintain a romantic relationship for very long. It would take quite a dynamic performer to cut through all that testosterone, and in Rockford’s fourth season, Rita Moreno did just that.
In the new, Lin-Manuel Miranda-produced documentary Rita Moreno: Just A Girl Who Decided To Go For It, the EGOT winner is brutally frank about the racism and sexism (including emotional abuse and sexual assault) she experienced under the Hollywood studio system. Even after the performance that earned her Oscar—Anita in 1962’s West Side Story—she says she didn’t make another movie for several years, rejecting parts that were basically “all Latina characters in gang movies.” In Rita Moreno: A Memoir, she writes that “the little tube was more welcoming than the big screen,” and she eventually landed a regular gig alongside “Easy Reader” Morgan Freeman in the PBS children’s program The Electric Company from 1971 to 1977. Moreno notes that around this time she also started “marathon ‘guesting.’ I was a guest star on dozens of shows. For instance, I returned three or four times to guest on Rockford Files with my old friend Jim Garner.”
Moreno and Garner did indeed go way back: She was his very first screen test partner over at 20th Century Fox. The studio passed, but Garner soon went on to play the lead in the TV series Maverick, which made him a bankable star. The liberal, civil-rights-minded pair also reunited on what Moreno called “a famous flight—a planeload of celebrities dedicated to the cause” who flew to Washington in 1963 to participate in the March On Washington, where they were in the audience at Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
(Much more recently, Moreno made headlines by protesting the backlash against Miranda’s self-acknowledged lack of Afro-Latinx representation in In The Heights, remarking to Stephen Colbert, “Well I’m simply saying, can’t you just wait a while and leave it alone… [T]hey’re attacking the wrong person.” She walked the comments back the very next day, saying, ‘”I’m incredibly disappointed with myself… I was clearly dismissive of Black lives that matter in our Latin community. It is so easy to forget how celebration for some is lament for others.”)
The chemistry between Garner and Moreno definitely sizzled with her appearance in Marlowe, so it made sense that she would eventually show up on her pal’s popular P.I. program. Although famous for being the early stomping grounds for Sopranos creator David Chase and a production of the prolific TV writer Stephen J. Cannell, Rockford Files also featured prominent women behind the scenes, like producer Meta Rosenberg, and writer Juanita Bartlett (Rosenberg’s former secretary), who wrote all three of Moreno’s episodes.
Moreno made her debut as as Rita Capkovic in The Rockford Files’ fourth-season episode “The Paper Palace.” The proverbial sex worker with a heart of gold (who’s also a police informant), lonely Rita wants to make actual friends.So she wrangles a dinner party invite out of Rockford regular Dennis Becker, where she fortunately meets Jim Rockford—because then she’s attacked in her own apartment by some mysterious French-speaking assassins, and she hires Rockford to find out who’s after her.
The murderous plot is kind of half-baked by Rockford standards, but the real star of the show is Moreno as Rita: constantly chattering to fill in any conversational lapses, complaining about boring stakeouts, crashing bigwig cocktail parties, flirting with Jim’s adorable dad Rocky (Noah Beery). A lot of Rita’s charm can be credited to the actor herself, as Moreno explained to Variety: “One of the nicest things [about Rockford] is they actually allowed me to improvise here and there. I thought of things that the character would say.” Also, in a move that was fairly progressive for the 1970s, Rita is a sex worker with agency. As she tells Jim: “I do what I do. I’m not gonna apologize, I’m not gonna explain.” He rightly responds: “I’m not asking you to.” The long-term affection between the two stars is palpable in their characters’ incessant banter.
Unsurprisingly, Moreno was soon asked back for a follow-up. Season five’s “Rosendahl And Gilda Stern Are Dead” is an embarrassment of riches, even by ’70s detective show standards: Rita accidentally witnesses a mob hit orchestrated by Phil Gabriel (Abe Vigoda) that also involves surgeon Russell Nevitt (Robert Loggia), and needs Jim to help her flush out the real killer. Again she functions as a delightful sidekick to Rockford, rivaling Garner in his near-exclusive territory of charisma and charm. There are nods back to her original appearance—her hatred of stakeouts, her love for Rocky—but she also hilariously pesters Jim Rockford, as when he breaks in to Dr. Nevitt’s office, pointing out that what he’s doing is illegal. Rockford: “Rita, on my best day, I’m borderline.”
Rita shows up again in season six’s “No Fault Affair,” where she develops a crush on Jim, to everyone’s dismay. She even appeared, at Garner’s request, in the last Rockford Files ever, the 1999 TV movie If It Bleeds… It Leads; it’s revealed that Rita finally settled down and got married to a schoolteacher, played by Barney Miller himself, Hal Linden. Moreno told Variety that there was talk of giving Rita a spin-off, although the character’s profession would have made that kind of difficult: ‘What made me laugh a lot after was people would say to me, ‘I love that character, you should do a series about her.’ I’d say, ‘What, of a hooker? Are we gonna do phone booth scenes?’ People loved her so much they forgot she was a hooker.” But as Moreno was between shows at the time (and would remain so, outside of a few failed series like Nine To Five and B.L. Stryker, until she was hired to play Sister Peter Marie Reimondo on Oz in 1997), it’s easy to imagine her as a series regular along with The Rockford Files’ primarily male cast—to Jim Rockford’s perpetual irritation/amusement.
Moreno was already an EGOT winner when she got her second Emmy for guesting on Rockford Files. Although IMDB lists the win as for “The Paper Palace,” Moreno writes in her memoir, “I garnered two Emmy nominations for two separate episodes, and my second nomination turned into an Emmy.” She wasn’t able to accept her first Emmy (for her appearance on The Muppet Show). She made up for it with her second win, racing to the stage, stopping to hug an obviously thrilled Garner (The Rockford Files also won Best Drama Series that year). In her speech, Moreno primarily lists her many blessings, including Garner, Rosenberg, Bartlett for being “a lady who really knows how to write about ladies,” her husband and daughter. Then the girl who just decided to go for it—with decades of stardom still ahead for her—offered the following hope for her audience: “I can only wish for you… that you were me.”