Monday, July 21, 2014

In Memoriam: James Garner 1928-2014


“If you look at Maverick and Rockford, they’re pretty much the same guy. One is a gambler and the other a detective, but their attitudes are identical.”

James Garner came to acting late, at the age of 25. From MY point of view (I'm 52), that actually seems kind of early, but all the obits I've read use the word "late", so whom am I to argue? Anyway, it seems Garner--who had several dead end jobs after serving in Korea--was driving down some road in Los Angeles when he saw a sign on a building that read Paul Gregory and Associates. He had known a Paul Gregory at Hollywood High School and wondered if it was the same guy. He would have done nothing more than wonder and just drive on by had a parking spot not suddenly become available. So, what the hell, he decided to pull in, go in, and check it out. No only was it the same Gregory he knew in high school, but he was now an agent and a producer.

“The only reason I’m an actor is that a lady pulled out of a parking space in front of a producer’s office.”

Gregory got him cast in a non-speaking part in Herman Wouk's play The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which was about to do a trial run in Santa Monica before moving on to Broadway. That's Garner, second from the left in the above picture. The guy lurched uneasily over the cake is none other than Henry Fonda, who played Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, a Navy defense attorney. If you're familiar with  the play or the novel on which it's based (but not the movie, where changes were made) you'll recall Grenwald gets drunk toward the end, and that's why Fonda looks a bit goofy here.

Garner on Fonda:

“I swiped practically all my acting style from him.”

Garner made his movie debut in 1956's Toward the Unknown, where he a small role as an Air Force test pilot. That's William Holden on the right, the film's star. I haven't seen this movie, so I can't tell you if it's good or bad, but Garner apparently didn't get along with its director, Mervyn LeRoy:

"...he'd just pick one guy and lord it over him for the whole picture. If he hadn't taken his pills early in the morning, he was nasty."

Among other things, Garner was quite the quote-maker, wasn't he?

Garner became a major TV star in 1957 when he was cast as the crafty card player Brett Maverick in the tongue-in-cheek western Maverick. Sometimes referred to as television's first anti-hero, Brett wasn't out to right wrongs, just make a fast buck at the poker tables. He somehow always got into trouble anyway, and usually did right wrongs in spite of himself, not so much through violence but by using his wits to bamboozle his various foes (both outlaws and lawmen) before riding off, or being chased, into the sunset.

This show had a kind of an odd production history. Actually, two production histories. Apparently, the producers couldn't get the episodes in the can on time, so after eight episodes--by which time the series was a hit--a second unit was started with a different actor, Jack Kelly as Brett's brother Bart. For the next couple of seasons, the Brett and Bart episodes alternated with each other, thus forever frustrating all of us Garner fans who tune in expecting one actor and getting the other instead (oh, I'm sure you two Jack Kelly fans also found it frustrating.) This confusion is said to have extended to the writing staff, the scribes finding out at the last minute that Brett had to be changed to Bart in their scripts. Nevertheless, Garner and Kelly did get to work together occasionally. These episodes generally regarded as among the best in the series. 

A mustached Brett Maverick--he's posing as someone else--makes conversation with a young lady on a stagecoach.

This is the only short clip I could find on-line with both James Garner and Jack Kelly. Ironically, Garner, with an even bigger mustache this time, isn't playing Brett but Pappy Maverick, the brothers father. Kelly is his dueling partner.

Garner left Maverick after the third season. Normally, it's not a good career move to walk out of a hit TV show. Just look at Pernell Roberts (Bonanza) and McLean Stevenson (MASH), both reduced to trivia questions after leaving their respective series. However, in Garner's case it worked beautifully, as he ended up with a nice little movie career in the 1960s, appearing in many hits (Hmm, maybe that's what influenced Roberts and Stevenson.)

As a man whose fiancée is the victim of a rumor in the 1962 screen version of Lillian Hellman's play, The Children's Hour. Audrey Hepburn plays the fiancée, Shirley MacLaine, the rumor's other victim.

Garner, Steve McQueen, and Judd Taylor (the odd man out in term of star power) celebrate the 4th of July in a German POW camp in 1963's The Great Escape. 

Garner starred in a couple of comedies with Doris Day, Move Over, Darling, and The Thrill of It All, both from 1963. Wish they had done more. Some good comic chemistry there.

In the 1964 film The Americanization of Emily (screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky), Julie Andrews plays the title character, a duty-bound British woman who falls in love with a cowardly Yank during World War II. However, it's Garner as the Yank, an officer dragooned into a D-Day photo op, that really propels this cynical comedy-drama.


Trailer from The Americanization of Emily.

 A nice bit of conversation over tea.

 As a race car driver in 1966's Grand Prix.

The guy on the left is Walter Brennan, and you should by now know the one on the right, even if his face is obscured. In the 1969 western spoof Support Your Local Sheriff, Garner plays a laid-back stranger from back east who cleans up a violence-ridden western town, through the use of drollery more than anything else. That, and his finger fits nicely into gun barrels. 

Trailer from Support Your Local Sheriff.

Support Your Local Sheriff was Garner's last big hit for some time afterwards. No longer a big box office attraction by the mid-1970s, he decided to return to TV. Initially, it didn't look like he'd be much of an attraction there, either. His first series of the decade, Nichols, lasted just one season. Undaunted, he got back together with his old Maverick producer Roy Huggins, who brought along a rising young TV writer named Stephan J. Cannell. The result...

...The Rockford Files (1974-1980). Garner played Jim Rockford, a private eye who plied his trade in an indifferent, enervated, leisure suit-infested Los Angeles of small-time crooks, corrupt politicians, corrupt constituents, smarmy real estate developers, suburban hustlers, bored actresses, snooty receptionists, cynical society matrons, and grumpy mob bosses. In spite of all that, the show STILL managed to make LA look inviting. Must have been the weather.

I said earlier that Maverick was a tongue-in-cheek western. The Rockford Files, by contrast, was a detective show with a sense of humor. The difference? On the funniest Mavericks (and they weren't all comedies) the humor extended into the storylines themselves, the plots often driven by some comic dilemma. Not so with The Rockford Files. First off, there were no "comedy episodes". The storylines were always straightforward melodramas (albeit more cleverly plotted than what you usually saw on TV at that time.) The show even had car chases! It was the reactions of the often very average people caught up in the drama that made the show funny. Rockford's clients were generally likable losers who'd gone after the American (specifically, the Southern Californian) Dream, and ended up finding themselves in a whole lot of trouble, which they then expected our hero to get to get them out of. Always difficult for him to do as his clients usually lied about being in any kind of trouble. As for Jim Rockford himself, he was as close to an Everyman private detective as you were likely to get, assuming an Everyman would go in that line of work in the first place. Hounded by bill collectors whose pleas dominated his answering machine, and working out a dilapidated trailer parked next to a fishing pier, he was, like Brett Maverick, just trying to earn a living and not right wrongs, wishing to avoid any kind of danger but getting punched in the gut once an episode anyway.

Or maybe not. Jim Rockford was no Barney Fife. Truth be told, he acted with a fair amount of physical courage and heroism most of the time. If such a man existed in real life, the average person would have a difficult time emulating him. Ah, but he didn't exist in real life, see, just in a TV crime-solving drama. You didn't have to compare Jim Rockford to the shrink wrap salesman who lived next door (or to yourself) but instead to Mannix or Kojack or Cannon or Ironside or Barnaby Jones or McGarret or Starsky or Hutch or Baretta or Dan Tanna or Jon or Ponch or, for that matter, Sgt Pepper Anderson. It was then that Rockford seemed a little less courageous, a little less heroic, but perhaps more realistic, and of course, that's where the humor lie.

In addition to Garner, The Rockford Files also had an interesting bunch of supporting characters.

Noah Beery Jr (nephew of Wallace) played Rocky, Jim's doting but worried father. Rocky wanted his son to do something else for a living. Understandable. Coming home beat up every night would worry any parent.

Joe Santos, as the harried Sgt. Dennis Becker, Rockford's  contact at the LAPD police department, who continually had to make excuses for his private eye friend to his superiors.

Gretchen Corbett as Beth Davenport, Rockford's sober-minded attorney and maybe ex-(or current?) girlfriend, who got him out of his many legal jams.

And, best of all, Stuart Margolin as the hyperactive con man Angel, whom Rockford met while serving time behind bars for a crime he did not commit (I'll never understand why they made that part of Jim Rockford's backstory. He didn't seem particularly jail-hardened or bitter about such a travesty of justice. But if it was the only way they could explain why he'd hang around such a lowlife as Angel, then I'm all for it.)

Garner did his own stunts on The Rockford Files, including the car chases. You can see where starring in Grand Prix really paid off. 


Rockford and Angel share a tender moment.

One last thought about The Rockford Files. Roy Huggins seems to have been a much more efficient producer than he was back in his Maverick days, thus sparing us all from the prospect of alternating episodes with Jack Kelly as Bart Rockford.

James Garner and Mariette Hartley appeared in a series of popular commercials for Polariod cameras (remember those?) in the late '70s and early '80s. The relationship between the two was never explained, but they seemed to be husband and wife. A fictional or real husband and wife? Many people assumed real, helped by the fact, though a highly accomplished actress, Hartley wasn't all that well known at the time. In fact, for a while she walked around wearing a T-shirt that read: I am not James Garner's wife. I don't know how many cameras these commercials sold, but they raised Hartley's profile considerably.

After The Rockford Files ended its run, Garner went back to making movies. 

With Julie Andrews again in Victor/Victoria (1982). She played a woman playing a man playing a woman, much to the confusion of Garner's character.

Garner plays a cowboy--actually a druggist but he dresses like a cowboy--who has a thing for Sally Field in the 1985 romantic comedy Murphy's Romance.

Garner played the real-life former CEO of RJR Nabisco, F. Ross Johnson, in the 1993 made-for-cable comedy (I said real life, didn't I?) Barbarians at the Gate.

James Garner appeared in a lot of other things, but I'm going to leave it there. Who wouldn't want to go out as a CEO?


  1. Sad news.
    I must say I loved him in every movie I saw him in and of course Maverick and Rockford.
    A friend and I were talking and laughing about Rockford and everything you mentioned. The trashed trailer, the pier, the car his dad such great memories.
    Again, what a great post of his life as usual.
    Why aren't you writing for a newspaper or the internet ?

    cheers, parsnip

    1. Actually, parsnip, I am writing for the internet. I'm just not getting paid for it. As for newspapers, these days even professional journalists are having a hard time finding employment at those places.

      For months now I've been working on a post about folk music. Consider me a folk blogger.

  2. I have a question. If Garner "came to acting" at age 52, does that mean he was not acting when he was a star in Maverick at age 29 (b. 1928...hit TV show 1957)?

    I haven't seen Maverick since it was first run on TV, but I preferred the Garner episodes over the ones with Jack Kelly.

    Rockford Files was my favorite detective show when it was popular in the '70s. Even though Garner was an excellent actor, he was complemented by his supporting players: Noah Beery Jr as his dad, Stuart Margolin as Angel, Isaac Hayes as Gandolph Fitch, and even Tom Selleck as the impossibly perfect Lance.

    Garner was one of those actors who had a persona, the cool guy with the wisecracks. That's the Garner I think of when I think of him.

    1. OOOOOPS....I meant to say he was 25, Postino. I'm 52, and the numbers must have been jumbled in my mind, thus spoiling my entire point. I've since changed it. It seems lately whenever I make a typos on this blog it has to do with numbers.

      I think Lance may have been a spoof of the Mannix/Vegas type of detectives popular back in the '70s, his appearances the only times the show actually parodied the crime show genre, though on even those episodes I don't recall plots being inherently comical, but it's been a long time since I've seen them. Of course, Sellick went on to do Magnum PI, and became the very thing he parodied!

  3. Righteous post about Garner. I spent many hours hanging out with Jim and Doris on rainy afternoons. You didn't mention The Notebook, love it or hate it, that movie brought sexy back to dementia. Lol

  4. I haven't seen The Notebook, Patricia, but if you recommend it I'll put it on my must-watch list.

    1. Dude, my hipster daughter turned me onto it, Tearjerker.

  5. I really enjoyed James Garner in everything he did. It's interesting to learn how accidental his career was. The Notebook was a sweet movie and I loved the cinematography of the opening scene, along with the music. I like Patricia's comment about bringing sexy back to dementia.

    1. Well, Kass, that's two votes for The Notebook.

  6. I'm sad he's gone. I liked him when I was a kid. Your article brought back memories.

    1. Pop culture memories is something I'm particularly good at. Thanks for commenting, Akeru.