As proof that humor and characterization were more important to THE ROCKFORD FILES than its plots, “Tall Woman in Red Wagon” ends with its plot unresolved--a rarity in network television, where executives like their stories tied up in neat little bows. And it’s not an example of writer Stephen J. Cannell forgetting about plotholes; Rockford (James Garner) makes a joke about the open-ended story point at the closing freeze-frame.
A pesky journalist named Sandra Turkel (Sian Barbara Allen) hires Rockford to find her beautiful friend Charlotte, the ex-girlfriend of a dead mobster. Charlotte has vanished with over a million bucks of the hood’s money, and among the people who want it is a suspicious Treasury agent named Harry Stoner, played by George DiCenzo, just a couple of years away from his “role of a lifetime”: district attorney Vincent Bugliosi in HELTER SKELTER.
Much of the episode’s humor is contained in Rockford’s confrontations with the appropriately named Stoner, a man who, by his own admission, has no sense of humor. Their first great scene occurs after Rockford, angry at the stranger who has been tailing him all day, throws his Firebird into reverse and smashes it into his pursuer’s sedan. Before Stoner can recover, Rockford pulls him out of his car, reaches into his coat, and tosses his gun away. Perfectly performed by Garner is Rockford’s complete turnabout from indignation to sycophancy when he discovers the guy he’s roughing up is a Fed. He even straightens Stoner’s jacket and runs off to fetch his pistol. Rockford's not too proud to grovel when it means avoiding a night in jail or a sock to the gut.
One element that set Jim Rockford apart from other TV private eyes is his skill as a con artist, which Cannell, co-creator Roy Huggins and Garner obviously nicked from Bret Maverick. Rockford disguises himself as a coffinmaker, a Federal agent and a shrink in this episode, aided by one of the series’ most interesting props (and one we didn’t get to see very often after this). Here we learn that Rockford drives around with a portable printing press stashed in the backseat of his Firebird, just in case he needs to whip up some instant credentials.
Also in this episode are character actors John Crawford (who appeared with Garner in the great THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY), Dick Cavett lookalike James Murtaugh (now often seen as a judge on LAW & ORDER) and Angus Duncan, who played creepy Dr. John in the WIP classic SWEET SUGAR (“Dr. John is invincible!”). Jerry London, who made the classic KILLDOZER the same year, directed his first ROCKFORD FILES episode.