No respectable obituary for James Garner is complete without a reference to the answering machine gag that opened each episode of the iconic actor’s equally iconic, tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek detective series, The Rockford Files, which ran from 1974 to 1980.
Eulogizing Garner, 86, who died Saturday in Los Angeles, the New York Times recalled The Rockford Files opening in pitch-perfect tone that make Gen-Xers and Boomers alike misty, the “distinctive theme song featuring a synthesizer and a blues harmonica and a message coming in on a newfangled gadget—Rockford’s telephone answering machine—that underscored his unheroic existence.”
“It’s Norma at the market. It bounced. You want me to tear it up, send it back, or put it with the others?” is the message cited by the NYT, the second of 127 messages, each one memorialized on YouTube and Wikipedia.
Another message, also from the first season, recalls how these clunky, analog boxes that required two cassette tapes to operate—one for the outgoing message, the other to record the caller—were still new on the commercial market in 1974, and so expensive that most early adopters rented them.
“This is the message phone company. I see you’re using our unit, now how about paying for it?”
“That and the terrific theme song. I loved the fact that Rockford would talk at various points about still having ‘payments’ due for the cost of the answering machine,” said Belsky, (who, incidentally, is the editor who fact-checked the infamous New York Post headline, “Headless Body Found in Topless Bar.”)
“I also remember reading once that it really became a challenge for them to come up with a clever message each week. They did though…”
True enough. It was those messages—often suggested to the show’s writers by random crew members—that sentimentalized this bit analog technology in the memories of latchkey kids who spent hours after school binge-watching “Rockford Files” reruns.
“When ‘Rockford Files’ was first on and answering machines were pretty new, I got really sick of people who taped the opening of the show and used it as their answering machine message,” another Boomer pal, the writer Marty Clear, added.
For my fellow former latchkey kid (now college writing professor), Gina Vivinetto, James Garner is forever tied into technology, for both Jim Rockford’s dual cassette answering machine and his classic TV commercials for Polaroid with Mariette Hartley.
“Garner may have been a relic of the macho, beef-eating, chain-smoking guys of yesteryear, but damn if his finger wasn’t on the pulse of cutting edge technology all through the 1970s and early 80s,” said Vivinetto, who emphasizes to her students the importance of popular culture in understanding what actually mattered to people at specific points in history. “The Polaroid camera pantheon: Andy Warhol, Andre 3000, James Garner.”
But I digress.
“Answering machines are an integral part of the culture’s digital DNA, which is why Rockford Files voice messages are being celebrated on YouTube,” Rick Schindler, culture critic and author of “Fandemonium,” a satire of nerd culture and corporate folly. “It’s the same reason that when Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake did the History of Rap, they included ‘Wait for the Beep.'”
The dual-cassette answering machine, so new and shiny at the time, is iconic in a way solid state technology will never be. You can see the parts moving, you can understand how it works. It’s the charm of a needle hitting a record, or the manual TV channel dial clicking to a favorite TV show.
The sound of a landline ringing followed by the click of the answering machine turning on. The anticipation of a message in the days before caller ID. These sounds of analog technology incite memories of a certain place and time never to be revisited. Except: Those machines still work.