These are traits you don’t often find in one individual, but Jim Garner has it all. And so danged handsome!
James Garner’s career spans decades, but a newly released DVD collection and memoir give him some long-overdue recognition
Pblished: Sunday, May 22, 2011, 8:03 AM
Getty Images file photoActor James Garner, seen here after being honored with the 41st Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award in 2005, is back in the spotlight with the release of a DVD collection featuring several of his ’60s films and TV series, as well as the publication of his memoir later this year.
It is the old definition of a male movie star — someone men want to have a drink with, and women want to go to bed with.
Not many actors can project that kind of appeal.Do guys really want to kick back with Tom Cruise? Do ladies really dream about Adam Sandler? Both actors make millions of dollars because they sell millions of tickets, but these days real cross-gender appeal is difficult.
James Garner made it look easy.
A big, square-shouldered country boy, the actor always looked at ease, whether in the razor-sharp uniform of a military man or the rumpled sports jacket of a weary private eye. And for half a century he appealed to both sexes, creating characters who walked the line between childish mischief and adult duty.
This may be the year he gets his long-overdue reappraisal.
The Warner Archive Collection has just debuted several of his ’60s titles on DVD — the offbeat amnesia drama “Mr. Buddwing,” the private-eye story “Marlowe,” and the huckster comedy “The Wheeler Dealers.” “Grand Prix” is out on Blu-ray, too, and Garner’s working on his memoirs, set for publication this winter.
“I’ve avoided writing a book until now because I feel like I’m really pretty average, and I didn’t think anyone would care about my life,” Simon & Schuster quoted him as saying. “I’m still a little uncomfortable, but I finally agreed, because people I trust persuaded me people might be interested and because I realized it would allow me to acknowledge those who’ve helped me along the way … and even settle a score or two.”
And it’s that very American guy — the modest fellow who isn’t going to brag, but isn’t going to let you push him around, either — that Garner has been, onscreen and off, for his entire life.
He was born James Bumgarner in 1928 in Norman, Okla., with the Depression and the Dust Bowl straight ahead. His half-Cherokee mother died when he was 5, and his new stepmother beat him savagely — and would for nearly a decade, until Garner finally fought back. (He had his hands around her neck when his father walked in the door; the marriage ended that day.)
From barracks to broadway
At 16, Garner — who spent high school majoring in sports, and his spare time helping his father lay carpets — dropped out and enlisted in the Merchant Marine. Not a great choice for a boy who turned out to be chronically seasick; he left after a year, and went back to school. Still, stints in the National Guard and the Army followed, along with two Purple Hearts during his service in Korea.
“Marriage is like the Army,” he said later. “Everyone complains, but you’d be surprised by the large number of people who re-enlist.”
Actually, on the marital front, Garner signed up only once. In 1956, he met Lois Clarke at an Adlai Stevenson event; he took her out every night for two weeks, and on the 15th day, they tracked down a justice of the peace. They have been married, with two daughters and without a single scandal, ever since.
“I was just absolutely nuts about her,” he said about their quickie courtship. “I spent $77 on our honeymoon, and it about broke me.”
By this time, Garner was already acting. In high school, he’d done a few bathing suit ads; not long out of the service, he landed a job as an extra in Broadway’s “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.” Playing a judge, he didn’t have to do anything except sit onstage and watch Henry Fonda every night; it was, Garner said, like getting paid to go to drama school.
He must have learned something. He began landing TV commercials, and a few real roles; in 1957, he got a call for a humorous new TV western called “Maverick.” Garner’s job was to play a no-better-than-he-had-to-be gambler, a likeable rogue whose charm — and creative approach to the law — always saw him through.
That slippery character would be one that Garner returned to, but with a twinkle that set him apart from other, more anguished anti-heroes.
James Garner in “The Rockford Files.”
Garner’s guys were slick (which, not surprisingly, had been his high-school nickname) but they weren’t wounded, or wounding. Yes, they always snagged the best table, the prettiest girl — but they were so upfront about their schemes, you somehow didn’t mind.
In real life, the far-from-shifty Garner was bracingly blunt, and with a stubborn sense of justice. (He once got into a fight with Charles Bronson over a card game, because he thought Bronson was taking advantage of an extra.) And when the studio behind his new TV hit started pushing him around, Garner sued them for breach of contract — and won.
And then he quit the show.
People told him it would end his career, but old Slick kept working, finding a home in sturdy war movies like “Darby’s Rangers” and “Up Periscope.” He co-starred with Doris Day in two of her better comedies, “Move Over, Darling” and “The Thrill of it All” and although “The Wheeler Dealers” needed to be funnier, its character of a crafty businessman showed how endlessly adaptable that “Maverick” type could be.
It drove two of his best movies in the ’60s — both excellent in their way, both complements of the other.
America’s caliber of hero
In “The Great Escape,” we see Garner the operator at his best — caught in a German P.O.W. camp, he’s an American who can still somehow get anything. He’s integral to the escape effort, and yet suspect to the English prisoners — with his cynical smile and elastic morals, he really doesn’t seem to be “our sort.” And yet, of course, he’s as much a hero as anyone — and ultimately willing to risk everything for a friend.
In “The Americanization of Emily,” he’s another guy with an angle, an officer whose job is to keep the top brass happy in the weeks leading up to D-Day — something Garner does by pimping out every pretty Englishwoman he meets. He’s a coward, and proud of it — in the film’s finest, fiercest speech he tells a shocked Julie Andrews that it’s heroes who cause wars. But when push comes to shove, he too will push back — and try, at least in the film’s final moments, to do the right thing.
This was a great character for Garner and the times — the man who didn’t buy into conventional morality even as he stood up for a personal principle. But there were only so many parts like that, and the best ones went to his pals Paul Newman or Steve McQueen; although Garner grabbed a few good assignments (like “Grand Prix,” a racing picture either friend would have jumped at), too often the parts, like the cheaply made “Marlowe,” seemed second-tier.
So, by the late ’60s, did Garner’s career.
First, he returned to the genre that had made him famous, offbeat Westerns like “Support Your Local Sheriff” and the provocative “Skin Game” (which featured Garner and Lou Gossett as two tricksters working a slavery con); then, eventually, he went back to TV, reteaming with Roy Huggins, the creator of “Maverick.”
Their new show was called “The Rockford Files,” and while any number of writers passed through it (Stephen J. Cannell was a co-creator, and David Chase wrote 16 shows), Garner had already created this character; a man willing to bend (if not absolutely break) the rules, fond of women (but devoted to his souped-up Firebird), and a firm believer in self-preservation — until he finally had to take a stand.
Television has a ubiquity, and an intimacy, that the movies don’t, and although Garner did richer work onscreen, it will be the six entertaining seasons of “Rockford” that he’ll be most remembered for. But, eventually, six was enough — he did all his own stunts, and an old knee injury from his National Guard days began to trouble him.
When he went into the hospital with a bleeding ulcer in 1979, his doctors told him it was time to take a break.
Melissa Moseley/New LineJames Garner (left) stars as Duke and Gena Rowland (right) stars as Allie in “The Notebook.”
Still, Garner — typically — did not go quietly. When the studio held back his share of the profits, claiming there were none — despite half-a-dozen top seasons and a presumably lucrative syndication deal — Garner called his lawyers again. It took a decade, but he got his money. (The studio execs should be glad he handled it through the courts, too — when Garner once ran into a producer who’d been reportedly filching “Rockford” scripts and music, he knocked the guy down with a left hook.)
Yet for a man who burned a lot of bridges, Garner kept working, and doing good work. He did fine TV movies like “Barbarians at the Gate” and “My Name Is Bill W.” He reunited with Julie Andrews for the very funny “Victor/Victoria,” and got an Oscar nomination for the offbeat love story “Murphy’s Romance.” The dopey “Space Cowboys” provided some nostalgic thrills with Garner as a called-back-into-service astronaut; 2004’s sweetly sentimental “The Notebook” showed the weathered old guy still had it.
Not that vanity ever was one of his Garner’s vices; when his hairline receded, he didn’t chase it, and when his eyesight began to go, he simply got glasses.
He is a well-worn 83 now, and has had plenty of health problems over the years, including multiple knee operations, a quintuple bypass in 1988, and a stroke in 2008. His last credits have been voice-overs for cartoons.
But his old movies are still in great shape, and so is the character he created — the man’s man who was also a ladies’ man, the rascal who wasn’t quite as dishonest as he pretended to be, the laid-back fellow who let it all roll off his back, until he didn’t. It was a great, modern and very American hero, and it worked because it wasn’t a persona.
It was a person named James Garner, and we’ve been lucky to have him.