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Why Jim Harbaugh jumped at chance to live 'The Rockford Files' RV beach life

Corduroy sports coats. Shiny disco shirts unbuttoned to mid-chest. Bell-bottom slacks. Muscle-bound goons with noses crooked as Mulholland Drive.

And unsolved capers lining the sun-splashed streets like palm trees.

That’s how young Jim Harbaugh saw Los Angeles when he was growing up in Michigan.

“Laying on your stomach, hands on your chin, elbows on the floor, looking at the palm trees and mountains, sun, ocean,” said Harbaugh, 60, new coach of the Chargers. “`Wow, I want to be there someday.’”

Now, here he is, in the land of “The Rockford Files,” his all-time favorite show, which turned 50 last month. The series starred a square-jawed James Garner as Jim Rockford, who spent a couple of years in San Quentin (falsely accused) then scratched out a living cracking cases for $200 per day plus expenses. Garner died in 2014 at age 86.

“James Garner had all the things a leading man needs,” said David Chase, a writer and producer on the show who later created “The Sopranos.” “He was great looking. He was smart. He had a sense of humor. And he was also a really good guy.”

For six seasons, from 1974 to 1980, legions of fans fell in love with the show — and L.A. — the Harbaughs among them.

From “Dragnet” to “Adam-12” to “Columbo,” TV shows in those days highlighted a push and pull to the City of Angels, portrayed as a crime-ridden Eden. Sunshine and smog. Glistening wheels and gridlock. Sweltering days and cold cases. Glamour and grift.

There was even a yin-yang dichotomy to Rockford’s accommodations. He lived beachside in Malibu … in a ramshackle house trailer.

So taken was Harbaugh that when he took over in January as coach of the Chargers, he spent his first two months living in an RV across the street from the sand in Huntington Beach.

“On the sand it was $120 a night, but across the street it was $80,” said Harbaugh, who chose the cheaper option even though he makes considerably more than $200 per day plus expenses.

“An homage to Rockford? Yeah, that’s a perfect word for it,” he said. “It’s a tip of the cap to James Garner and all of the writers of that brilliant show.”

James Garner (right) with “The Rockford Files” filming crew at Paradise Cove with Jim Rockford’s classic RV on the beach in the background.

(NBC / NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

In an ultra-competitive industry filled with insecurities and backstabbing, Garner was one of those rare people who was pretty much universally beloved.

“Jim Garner was my favorite actor of the hundreds I’ve worked with,” said Jerry London, who directed eight episodes of “The Rockford Files.” “He’s the greatest guy. No stress, friendly, happy. I loved going to work on that show because of Jim. He was a great person.”

That spirit came through in the show’s rascal of a main character and spilled into living rooms all over the country.

“Jim’s true personality came through as Rockford,” said London, whose directing credits encompass some of the most popular shows of the 1970s and ‘80s, among them “Hogan’s Heroes,” “Happy Days,” “The Brady Bunch,” “The Bob Newhart Show” and the mini-series “Shogun.”

“Garner always did everything with a little comedy, so it was funny. Even the dramatic scenes were quirky because they always had kind of a wink of the eye. It was fun to watch. I think the people related to that and related to him.”

Garner’s daughter said her father always kept Hollywood at an arm’s length.

“My dad was a humble man from Norman, Oklahoma,” Gigi Garner said. “He never let any of that star stuff get to him. And I think people related to him. They just felt like they knew him, or he was their friend. He just had that kind of personality.”

Lindsay Wagner was 24 when she co-starred in the pilot episode of “The Rockford Files,” and she loved working with Garner. She said she might have had a recurring role on the show had she not gotten the opportunity to star in “The Bionic Woman,” a spin-off of “The Six Million Dollar Man.”

“That early in the business when it’s all kind of new and all the different egos and the things that you run into, the power trips, and James Garner was so down to earth, naturally funny,” Wagner said. “He treated everyone on the set the same. He was just as respectful and cheerful and social with the people that build the sets, to the grips, to the director, to the co-stars. He just had a wonderful respect for people and everybody’s contribution.”

Actors Lindsay Wagner (Sara Butler) and James Garner (Jim Rockford) ride in a Pontiac Firebird.

Actors Lindsay Wagner (Sara Butler) and James Garner (Jim Rockford) ride in a Pontiac Firebird during an episode of “The Rockford Files.”

(NBC / NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

Wagner said Garner had an uncanny ability to shift gears and go from real life to acting and back again.

“He would be telling the grips a joke and it would be, ‘OK, everybody, places. Quiet down,’ and he’s still telling the joke,” she said. “And we all get in our places. I start trying to get grounded and focused in on my character, and he’s still telling the joke. And the director says, ‘OK, come on. Silence.’

“Jim shuts his mouth and he turns around and starts doing his lines, completely in character. It was just natural for him. He just had an amazing ability to focus and get right into something, whereas myself, I like quiet for a minute or so before we start so I can get grounded and block everything out. He could just compartmentalize. On a dime, he’d be right into character.

“And as soon as they’d say, ‘Cut,’ it was, ‘So anyway…’ right back to the joke he was telling.”

Garner was an outstanding high school football and basketball player and might have been a football star at his beloved University of Oklahoma but for his knee issues. Those resurfaced in a big way during his Rockford years.

“Every hiatus every year I had one or both knees operated on,” Garner said in a 1999 interview with the Television Academy. “I never had time to get well. We were working on pavement, working on hard floors, doing all kinds of stunts, running, jumping, all that. The knees finally gave out. And if you look, go through the history of guys who have done action-drama television series, none of them have good knees.

“It started with football. I had my right one operated on when I was about 18 and never had any problems until the first year of Rockford. It just kept locking on me, and I had to have it fixed. And then the next year I had both of them fixed … By the end of the six years, I was not only physically but mentally shot.”

In the actor’s memoir, “The Garner Files,” he wrote that legendary quarterback Joe Namath called him once to recommend a knee surgeon, and that he finally had both knees replaced. He also wrote he needed muscle relaxants and painkillers just to get through the filming of an episode.

“I got beat up a minimum of twice per show,” he wrote. “I don’t know why, but viewers loved to see me get whipped. Maybe they knew I’d get even later on.”

Garner could be warm and friendly, yet he was anything but a pushover. Once, he and Stephen Cannell, who created “The Rockford Files,” discovered a rival producer had stolen some scripts and given them the slightest of tweaks in hopes of making his own L.A. detective show, one that never would get off the ground. What’s more, the guy had come up with his own version of “The Rockford Files” theme song.

Garner and Cannell were infuriated and they played the knock-off song for Mike Post, who agreed it was a rip-off but not close enough to sue for copyright infringement.

James Garner speaks with director Bernard L. Kowalski on set during the filming of an episode of "The Rockford Files."

James Garner speaks with director Bernard L. Kowalski on set during the filming of an episode of “The Rockford Files” in the early 1970s.

(NBC / NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

That didn’t quell Garner, who grew up a high school sports star in Oklahoma and had a temper when pushed.

As the widely told story goes, that same producer later approached Garner at the studio gate and pleaded his case, repeatedly putting his hand on the star’s shoulder. Each time, Garner told him not to steal material and not to touch him.

That happened one too many times, however, and Garner dropped him with a single punch. He then turned to the gate guard, shrugged and said, “I told him not to touch me.”

Post, whose catalog of TV music spans six decades and includes such hit shows as “Hill Street Blues,” “Magnum, P.I.,” “Doogie Howser, M.D.” and “Law & Order,” said he and his late composing partner Pete Carpenter had Garner’s Oklahoma roots in mind when they wrote the Rockford theme.

“Garner wasn’t a full-on Southerner, he was a Southwesterner,” Post said. “So we wanted something that sounded a little Southern. Pete and I were at the right place at the right time, me being a rock-and-roller that could orchestrate and conduct, and Pete being a big-band guy and a jazz guy … With Rockford Files, we wanted to write a one-minute earworm that people couldn’t get out of their head.”

It worked for Harbaugh, who on request happily whistles that catchy theme song. He says his son whistles it even better.

Harbaugh loved the humility of Rockford — and Garner in real life — and said that falls in line with what his own dad taught him.

“Rockford wasn’t trying to impress anybody,” the coach said. “I think we all go wrong when we try to make that leap to, `Today I’ve got to impress somebody.’ Because then you’re not yourself anymore. You don’t have a lot of practice at that.

“If you want to get better at something, just work a little harder at it. And whatever you do, don’t get a big head. That’s a trap. A deep, dark, lonely trap.”

The car chases. There seemed to be one in every episode, and the Harbaugh brothers loved them.

“We never had a cool car,” said John Harbaugh, Jim’s older brother and coach of the Baltimore Ravens. “We had a red VW bug that leaked more oil than it burned gas. We shared it once Jim got his driver’s license.”

The family lived on a hill. That beetle was banged up because when John first got his license, he didn’t realize that because it was a stick shift, he needed to put the handbrake on when parking. One day the car rolled backward down their street for a full block.

“We got a call from our neighbor on the corner,” John recalled. “The stop sign was completely bent over and the car was sitting on top of it. It was like, ‘Hey, your car’s on our stop sign.’ Then I ran into somebody from behind, so that car got smashed like an accordion.”

Stunt drivers they weren’t. Incidentally, Garner did his own stunts, bum knees and all, and was a racecar driver in real life. One of his favorite maneuvers was a J-turn, in which he would floor it in reverse, then whip the car around 180 degrees and keep moving forward in the same direction. It was such a hallmark move of the show that many people simply call that a Rockford turn.

The bug was primarily John’s car. Jim drove the family’s brown 1966 Mercury Comet — decidedly not a Rockford-type Firebird — and friends nicknamed it “The Vomit.” He pretty much destroyed that by running into a curb.

“You couldn’t put a nice car into our hands in those days,” John said.

When Jim was playing quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, he owned a piece of the Pennzoil car at the Indianapolis 500. One year, parents Jack and Jackie Harbaugh were invited onto the track for prerace festivities.

“While there, Jackie spotted Jim Garner walking toward us and jumped in his path like a basketball player taking a charge,” Jack recalled in a text message. “Jim made a great move to get around her and she shuffled her feet to get in front of him. He countered her move and was getting around her and she called out she was Jim (Harbaugh’s) mom. He stopped, smiled and they had a conversation. One of Jackie’s all-time favorite stories.”

Jim Harbaugh was playing quarterback in a preseason game for the Chicago Bears, his first of six teams. On the Los Angeles Raiders sideline at the Coliseum one summer, he spotted Garner, who was friends with team owner Al Davis and a big fan of the Silver & Black.

At halftime, as his teammates headed for the locker room, Harbaugh made a beeline for his favorite TV star.

“Mr. Garner, my name is Jim Harbaugh.”

“I know who you are, Jim,” Garner said. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m a big fan of yours and I’m wondering, can we take a picture?”

Actor James Garner (left) and former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh pose for a picture at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Actor James Garner (left) and former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh pose for a picture at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

(Courtesy of Gigi Garner)

So there they stood on the Raiders sideline, Harbaugh fresh-faced and beaming, with his arm around Garner, in a striped Raiders golf shirt, Panama hat and shades. Garner later autographed the photo, one of Harbaugh’s prized possessions.

The two would strike up a friendship, chatting by phone on occasion and once playing golf at Bel Air Country Club, one of Garner’s favorite hangouts.

“I fly out there, have breakfast with James Garner and he takes me out to play golf,” Harbaugh said. “He brought along (longtime Rams executive) Don Klosterman who couldn’t walk very well and had some problems with his hips. Well, Klosterman gets a hole-in-one. It’s the only hole-in-one I’ve ever seen in person. He could barely stand up. He was playing some really good golf with bad hips.

“That’s a top five in my life, playing golf with James Garner and Don Klosterman.”

One of the aspects of Rockford — and Garner — that Harbaugh most appreciates is authenticity. These are flawed people with their own weaknesses and blind spots, not pristine Hollywood creations.

“He’s the hero who it doesn’t always go perfect for,” Harbaugh said. “It’s more like real life. He doesn’t get paid in the end, or he takes a bullet in the hip. But he’s really loyal, a force for good. More like a real person.

“One of Rockford’s best lines is when he’s asked if there’s anything he won’t do for money. ‘I won’t kill for it, and I won’t marry for it. Other than that, I’m open to just about anything.’ That’s very human to me.”

New Chargers offensive coordinator Greg Roman (left) and Jim Harbaugh check out the inside of the coach's RV on the beach.

New Chargers offensive coordinator Greg Roman (left) and Jim Harbaugh check out the inside of the coach’s RV on the beach.

(Courtesy of the Chargers)

Living on the beach might have been an homage to Rockford, but Harbaugh didn’t do it blindly. His offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, had lived in an RV for three months when he joined John Harbaugh’s staff in Baltimore.

Harbaugh and Roman each had RVs on Huntington Beach, parked about 100 feet apart and a 14-minute drive from team headquarters. The coach has since moved into a house with his family; the offensive coordinator soon will follow suit.

“Here’s the story,” Roman said. “Jim and I started talking, and I said, ‘You take that Chargers job, man, and I found this RV place right on the beach.’ He goes, ‘Really? Jim Rockford. You’re Jim Rockford. I want to be Jim Rockford. We’re doing this thing.’”

When Harbaugh pulled up stakes and headed for his new house, he gave Roman a stack of Rockford DVDs for film study.

“It’s like going back in time for him,” Roman said. “I think that really impacted him as a child. And just like Rockford, Jim is a problem solver. I’ve got a problem and I’ve got to investigate and solve it. That’s him. That investigative thinking, I’m sure that resonated with him as a kid. That’s how he is on the job.”

Lifting the Chargers to new heights? The case is there for him to crack.

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