James Garner: 1928-2014

The world of entertainment lost a giant over the weekend with the passing of James Garner, who died of natural causes in his Los Angeles home at age 86. Born James Scott Bumgarner on April 7, 1928, he’s famously known for his legendary leading roles in a pair of TV classics, “Maverick" and "The Rockford Files". Each was a kind of an antihero, anchored by the handsome Garner’s ease and wit. Both characters could take a punch (and give one, too), but they usually preferred other means of settling an argument.

Garner also appeared in more than 50 films, playing his fair share of cowboys and military men. He starred alongside Doris Day in a pair of ‘60s frolics (“Move Over, Darling”; “The Thrill of it All”) as well as a string of other light comedies, westerns and detective fare. It’s said that his favorite film role was as Lt. Cmdr. Charles Edward Madison in “The Americanization of Emily,” in which he portrayed a high-living, cynical officer who falls in love with a vulnerable Englishwoman and is sent off on a dangerous mission. It allowed Garner to tap into his ample comedy and dramatic skills. His role as ‘Scrounger’ in “The Great Escape” is a fan favorite, and his sole Oscar nomination was for his 1985 turn in “Murphy’s Romance,” in which he starred with Sally Field.

Television buffs of a certain vintage will no doubt remember the series of Polaroid commercials Garner did with actress Mariette Hartley. So convincing was their sparky repartee and obvious affinity for ach other that Hartley took to wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed, “I am NOT Mrs. James Garner”.

Garner’s career started on a whim. While driving through Los Angeles he spotted the name of an old acquaintance on the front of a building: Paul Gregory & Associates, it read. A parking space directly in front of the office had recently been vacated, and so Garner (at the time, working for his father’s carpet laying business) pulled into the space and popped in to see his old friend. Douglas was an up and coming theatrical agent and producer, and was able to cast Garner in a touring production of Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial”. Henry Fonda and Lloyd Nolan were the play’s stars, and Garner later claimed that he “swiped practically (his) whole acting style from (Fonda).” Though it was the stage where Garner first pulled together his acting chops, he  was a victim of stage fright and after a few early roles avoided the stage (for the most part) for the remainder of his career.

He made it look so easy, because he never thought acting should be a complicated thing. Garner said that he ascribed to the Spencer Tracy school of acting: essentially that an actor should be on time, know the lines and not trip over the furniture. Just as importantly, he never thought an actor should take himself too seriously, and that acting, as a profession did not warrant pretension of any sort. That type of down to earth borderline bemusement carried over in his roles, and is certainly a key component in the eternal appeal of Jim Rockford.

As easygoing as Garner appeared, he wasn’t afraid to go up against the studios if he felt he wasn’t getting a fair shake. He quit Maverick in the third season after failing to come to agreeable terms with Warner Bros. In 1983, Garner sued Universal for breach of contract, winning an undisclosed sum when the case finally settled in 1989. He again filed suit against Universal in 1998 for $2.2 million in syndication royalties.

The Maverick character was revived for a short-lived TV series, and when the big screen version inevitably came out, Garner stepped aside for Mel Gibson to assume the title role, playing Marshal Zane Copper instead. The Rockford character was revived for a series of ‘90s TV movies, and Garner returned to series TV in supporting, recurring roles. His last major film appearance was 2004’s “The Notebook” and in 2012, the actor published his autobiography, “The Garner Files”.

Here’s one of our favorite examples of why we love James Garner in “The Rockford Files” so much. In one episode, he’s being hounded by a couple of thugs who greet Rockford at his beachfront trailer home, where he’s just arrived with his arms full of groceries. How many gumshoes were ever shown doing the menial stuff like this? Rockford, of course, is not impressed. But he’s actually in a bit of a hurry, as he’s got things he needs to get into the freezer before they melt. The bullies rip the groceries from his arms, toss them around the parking lot and break his eggs on the ground. It’s the archetypal Rockford annoyance, a real “Now, why’d you have to go and do that?” type of moment. Later in that same episode, after a squealing car chase (a standard feature in every episode) through a car wash and other locales, Rockford exacts a perfectly fitting — and equally annoying — revenge on the duo. He holds them at gunpoint under the highway, and rather than firing away, he flattens their tires. Just pulls out a pocketknife and slices a couple of valves. The thugs wince with the same flummoxed groan as Rockford did when his eggs were smashed, knowing they’ve been bettered; out-annoyed. The score is settled. Touche.

James Garner: one of a kind, cool without contrivance, wry and witty, humble and hardworking, and driver of one of the great TV cars of all time. Forever Rockford.

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