James Garner was such a great actor, everybody believed he was married to his commercial costar
No, that was not his wife in the Polaroid ads.
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Not every actor takes on commercial work as a cash grab. By the late-'70s, James Garner had already headlined the hit shows Maverick and The Rockford Files, playing quick-witted men of action. So, in some way, he starting pushing Polaroids for a change of pace. He saw the ads as a chance to perform some classic romantic comedy. Through the early-'80s, Garner appeared in a series of commercials for the instant cameras alongside Mariette Hartley, another familiar face from classic television, who portrayed his wife. The key word to remember here is "portrayed."
"I was making plenty of money. I didn't need money. It wasn't for the money," Garner told the Archive of American Television in a 2010 interview. "I think I wanted to do it to see if I could."
Garner compared his snappy dialogue with Hartley to The Bickersons, a radio program from the Truman era that centered around a married couple in a constant war of words. Originally, the advertising folks had hired Hartley to come in for just a single day of work. Garner and Hartley clicked. The chemistry between the two was instant and obvious.
"She and I got into this banter… and they thought it was fun," Garner explained. "We started doing this back-and-forth."
Polaroid turned Garner and Hartley into a winning comedy team, helping sell its OneStep camera around the holidays. Polaroid sold "millions" of OneSteps, at least according to Garner in an ad. So why not keep a good thing going? Hartley had to come back with results like that.
"The next year, they had to hire her," Garner said. He demanded that they not pay her a daily wage, but rather sign her to a contract just like he had. "I told them, you're not going to have me up there making all this money and her working, you know, the daily. That won't work. She'll be upset, I'll be upset, everybody will be upset. You've got to make a deal with her."
"She got a good deal and everybody was happy," he added with a smile. "We sold a lot of cameras."
The two actors were perhaps a little too good together — at least from the perspective of their spouses. The American public assumed Garner and Hartley were married. "[Mariette] and Jim were the couple bickering spiritedly on the Polaroid TV commercials. The repartee seemed so genuine that many viewers assumed the two were married—or so press agents hinted," People wrote in 1979.
Hartley began wearing a T-shirt declaring, I AM NOT MRS. JAMES GARNER! She had one printed up for her son that read I AM NOT JAMES GARNER'S CHILD. Yes, her husband, Patrick Boyriven, sported one that said, I AM NOT JAMES GARNER! Ironically, Hartley had met Boyriven when the two were testing for a commercial spot for Folgers coffee.
Garner, who was happily married to Lois Fleishman Clarke for 58 years, from 1956 to his death in 2014, got in on the fun, too. He made Lois a T-shirt with the line I AM MRS. JAMES GARNER.
The Polaroid ads provided a nice boost to Hartley's career. Before then, she was perhaps best known for numerous small roles on Westerns, from Gunsmoke and Bonanza to Death Valley Days and Daniel Boone. Surprisingly, she never appeared on Maverick.
But because of her winning chemistry with Garner, Hartley was booked in the season six premiere of The Rockford Files. The role earned her an Emmy nomination. She also took home an Emmy trophy for a guest spot on The Incredible Hulk. In 1979, she also landed a lead role in the television special The Halloween That Almost Wasn't.
The Polaroid ad may have turbo-charged her career, but Hartley did have to put up with some nagging personal issues. Like the fact that everyone still thought she had a romantic relationship with Garner. Even today, people perhaps think that was Garner's wife alongside him in the camera commercials. No, they were merely a wonderful comedic duo. Being talented has its side-effects.