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?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Quips and Quotations (Cleveland Sports Edition)

It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.

--Luke 15:32, King James Version

(Here's something I wrote a few years back--KJ)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

In Memoriam: Eli Wallach 1915-2014

Actor. Preferred the stage, but appeared in over 90 films and TV productions anyway.

"What is in my makeup that makes me want to fly halfway around the world to play a character? Why can't I just take it easy?"

Wallach first studied under the noted acting teacher Sanford Meisner at the National Playhouse School of the Theater in New York City. After serving in World War Two, Wallach resumed his studies under the noted acting teacher Lee Strasberg at the newly-opened Actors Studio. The two acting teachers were themselves followers of the teachings of Constantin Stanislavski, a Russian thespian and theater manager who was active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Meisner and Wallach wanted to disseminate Stanislavski's theories to a whole new generation of American actors (though they both sometimes grumpily disagreed as to what those theories were; more about that in a later post.) Wallach, of course, was one of those young actors, often described, when he was no longer young, as a "method" actor, though I don't believe he ever referred to himself that way. Let's just say all the studying paid off brilliantly.

The person at the Actors Studio who had the most impact on Wallach wasn't Lee Strasberg but fellow classmate Anne Jackson, whom he married in 1948. 

Wallach appeared on Broadway alongside Maureen Stapleton in Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo, for which he won a Tony in 1951.

Another Actors Studio classmate of his.

Wallach made his film debut in 1956's Baby Doll, playing a sleazy businessman who tries to get between fellow sleazy businessman Kurt Malden and his child bride Carrol Baker. Based on a hoot of a screenplay by the aforementioned Tennessee Williams, it was quite controversial in its day, but now is merely a good time, assuming your idea of a good time is watching sleazy businessmen trying get between other sleazy businessmen and their child brides (Baker also sleeps in a crib.)

Two on a swing.

As  Mexican baddie Calvera in The Magnificent Seven. Not the last time he'd play a Mexican baddie.

Wallach finally got to appear alongside that Actors Studio classmate of his in The Misfits, her final film. He thought she might have talked director John Huston into casting him as a working-class widower. 

Here's a couple of posters from the time of the movie's 1961 release. In the one at the top, Clark Gable's (it was his final film, too), Marilyn Monroe's, and Montgomery Clift's names are all prominently displayed, above the title, above everything. Eli Wallach's, meanwhile, is lower and smaller, to the right of Thelma Ritter's. On the bottom poster "GableMonroeClift" stands out, whereas Wallach's name is even smaller than before, and now underneath Thelma Ritter's. This all echoes the credits as they appear in the film. So why am I pointing this out? Because in the actual movie, not only does Wallach get more screen time than Ritter, but also MONTGOMERY CLIFT! His character is a major catalyst for much of what happens in the story, but you wouldn't know that from these ads.  In 1961, Wallach simply wasn't as big a name as Gable, Monroe, Clift, or even Ritter. Having seen this film several times I can assure you he's just as memorable.

Wallach tries out some pickup lines--in a pickup! 

One of many actors to appear in How the West Was Won (1962). He played an outlaw. Not his last Western, nor his last outlaw.

Wallach's relatively burgeoning film career didn't prevent him from appearing on stage. In 1964, he and wife Anne starred in the mildly successful comedy Luv by Murray Schisgal. That's Alan Arkin on the left.

Wallach, Jackson, and Arkin as Mystery Guests on the popular 1950s-60s game show What's My Line, emceed by John Daly. All the way up to 25. Must be stumping the panel (whom, if you've never seen the show, are blindfolded.)

“Actually I lead a dual life...In the theater, I’m the little man or the irritated man, the misunderstood man...[but in films] I do seem to keep getting cast as the bad guys.”

So let's get to one of those bad guys. But first allow me to introduce...

...Sergio Leone, an Italian director who in 1964 had never been to the United States and couldn't speak a word of English, yet had an abiding interest in the American West. He decided he'd like to make a western, and cast in the lead Clint Eastwood, an actor on the popular American TV show Rawhide (his first choice, Eric Fleming, from the same show, turned him down.) The result, translated in English, was A Fistful of Dollars, a hit--in Italy, that made Eastwood a movie star--in Italy. There was a sequel, also with Eastwood, called For a Few Dollars More, another hit--in Italy. Word of these Italian hits did make its way to Hollywood. United Artists approached Leone about distributing the two movies in the United States, but asked if he could make a third to go along with them. As Leone was interested in breaking into the American market--after all, his films took place in America--he readily agreed. For this third picture...

...he again cast Clint Eastwood... well as Lee Van Cleef, who had been in A Few Dollars More, but was playing a different character this time around. Finally, Leone cast an actor he hadn't worked with before...

...Eli Wallach as Tuco, a more hapless, and hilarious, variation of the Mexican baddie he had played in The Magnificent Seven.

Now, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on the whole wasn't a comedy, but Leone definitely took a tongue-in-cheek approach whenever Wallach appeared on screen. In fact, Van Cleef , "the Bad", was occasionally forgotten about so the director could focus on the comic (if occasionally violent) you-scratch-my-back-I'll-stab-yours relationship between Eastwood and Wallach. As for Clint--who finally did become a movie star in the United States thanks to this film--he may have missed his true calling as a comedy team straight man, albeit a straight man who scowls a lot. 

Tuco and the Man with No Name forge an uneasy alliance...Their third or fourth uneasy alliance, actually.

Can't a man get a little privacy?

What better sign that a second-tier actor had arrived in the 1960s than to appear as a villain on Batman? Wallach was the third person (following George Sanders and Otto Preminger) to play Mr Freeze. Several decades later the character would pop up again in a movie, which raises the tantalizing question, will Arnold Schwarzenegger ever star in a remake of The Misfits?

 Wallach won an Emmy for a supporting role in the 1966 made-for-television movie The Poppy Is Also a Flower, an anti-drug spy film.

Wallach and Milo O'Shea (on the left) played an aging gay couple in the Broadway comedy Staircase.

 Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson did most of their acting together on the stage--they were often compared to the one-time famous Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, another married acting couple--but did appear on the big screen in a couple of 1960s comedies, The Tiger Makes Out, where they played the leads, and How to Save a Marriage (and Ruin Your Life), in which they played  supporting roles. I've only seen the latter, a dated sex farce starring Dean Martin and Stella Stevens. Nice to see them together, even in sub-par material.

Wallach chats with a writer whose plays helped give him his start, Tennessee Williams.

In Godfather III (1990) Wallach played a ruthless Mafia mastermind, whom is nevertheless oddly trusting when it comes to accepting pastries. The woman is Talia Shire, whose brother, director Francis Ford Coppola, told Wallach his character was an old Corleone family friend. Wallach asked, "If he's an old family friend, then why wasn't he in Godfather I or II?"

 Wallach and Eastwood remained friends.

And the latter cast the former as a liquor store owner in Mystic River (2003)  

In 2010, Wallach recieved an honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. Not bad for a guy who resisted going into movies in the first place.

Anne Jackson survives him.