Friday, October 28, 2011

Grilling Garner

Chalk this up as the highlight of my year: my recent opportunity--which, of course, I took--to interview James Garner.

Yes, that James Garner, the manifestly self-effacing American actor who became the star of such TV series as Maverick and Nichols, The Rockford Files and Bret Maverick. The same James Garner I grew up watching on television with my father, and who made himself famous and beloved for his roles in films on the order of The Great Escape (1963), The Americanization of Emily (1964), Grand Prix (1966), Hour of the Gun (1967), Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969), Marlowe (1969), Support Your Local Gunfighter! (1971), Skin Game (1971), Victor Victoria (1982), Murphy’s Romance (1985), Sunset (1988), Maverick (1994), and Twilight (1998). The same James Garner whose works over the last six decades make up about half of all the DVDs I own.

A couple of months ago, when I received an advance copy of the actor’s first-ever memoir, The Garner Files, I sent a note to one of the publicity contacts at his publisher, Simon & Schuster. I wanted to know from her whether--despite Garner’s previously voiced antipathy toward press Q&As (“I’d rather dig a ditch than do an interview”)--he’d be willing to talk with me about his book for Kirkus Reviews. She didn’t know the answer to that--it seems nobody had yet asked about such things--but said she’d find out. The next thing I knew, I was hooked up with The Garner Files’ co-author, quote collector Jon Winokur (The Portable Curmudgeon), who explained that he would be willing to field my questions via e-mail and obtain responses from Garner.

In the end, I put together two dozen queries about Garner’s boyhood, his acting career, his political views, and his health. Many of his answers can be found in a piece posted today on the Kirkus Web site.

* * *

However, I had far too much interesting material for Kirkus Reviews alone. So I’m going to go ahead and post the remainder of it--much of which covers The Rockford Files--below.

But first, let me say a few words about The Garner Files.

This is not your typical memoir or autobiography. Garner didn’t pen it all by himself in some garret. As he explains in my Kirkus post, the book is the product of extensive interviewing: “Jon Winokur and I met twice a week over a period of about 18 months. We’d spend a few hours, with Jon asking questions, making notes, and recording everything.”

Winokur has known James Garner since 1988. In that year, the performer was given a copy of The Portable Curmudgeon to read while recovering from heart surgery, and he liked it so much that he plugged the book during an appearance with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. The author and actor subsequently got to know each other pretty well, and over a lunch in November 2009, Winokur suggested they work together on what would become The Garner Files. “He was reluctant at first,” Winokur tells me, “because he didn’t think anyone would be interested in his life, but he was eventually convinced to do it.”

The memoir is generally chronological, beginning with Garner’s distinctly trying childhood in Norman, Oklahoma. He was the youngest of three boys and was born on April 7, 1928, as James Scott Bumgarner. (Only much later, after they moved to the West Coast, did he and his middle brother, Jack, shorten their last name.) His mother died from a “botched abortion” when he was only 4 years old, and afterward his store-owning father--who “couldn’t handle the responsibility of raising three young boys”--parceled those sons out to relatives of uneven merits. Fortunately, in his mid-60s and after marrying several more times, Garner’s dad finally swapped rings with a “sweet woman named Grace,” whom the actor
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now says was “the closest I ever came to having a mother.”

(Left) James Garner appears on the October 25, 1964, episode of What’s My Line?

Garner’s voice--wry, witty, country-fied, and frequently self-critical--comes through clearly in these pages as he looks back over more than eight decades’ worth of experiences, many of which took place under public scrutiny. He remembers being “the first Oklahoman drafted for the Korean War.” He remembers the serendipity involved in his becoming a Hollywood performer (“The only reason I’m an actor is that a lady pulled out of a parking space in front of a producer’s office”). He remembers meeting and falling in love with his wife-to-be, Lois Clarke, in 1956 during an Adlai Stevenson for President rally. (They’ve been together ever since, save for an 18-month separation in the late 1970s that he attributes to his own physical and mental exhaustion.) He talks about the other film stars he’s admired (especially Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman), his occasional battles to get a fair deal from entertainment studios, the health problems he’s endured as a result of on-screen stunts and years of racing cars, his love/hate relationship with the game of golf, his dislike of the glitzy Hollywood lifestyle, the constant pain from arthritis he’s lived with since the 1960s, his attendance at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (Garner was seated in the third row at the Lincoln Memorial, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech), his political maturation (“the first time I voted, in 1952, it was for [Dwight] Eisenhower. ... Never voted for a Republican again”), and--last but certainly not least--his careful choice of screen roles over the decades (“A reporter asked once if I would ever do a nude scene. I told him I don’t do horror films”).

Garner also admits to being unlike the easygoing, lighthearted, self-confident, and sometimes self-interested characters he’s played on screens large and small. He says in the book that he’s “scared of public speaking”; that he’s no kind of macho guy (“I don’t like macho guys”); that he’s “not temperamental, but I do have a temper”; that he can be loyal to a fault, and that he’s “a pessimist by nature.” He insists he’s “really an old curmudgeon.” But then, some of his characters have been too, and viewers have found them no less watchable because of it.

Winokur, who’s come to know this actor better than most of us ever will, has nothing but fond words for him. “They say no man is a hero to his valet, or to his biographer,” Winokur tells me, “but I learned that James Garner is just who you think he is. Only better.”

Garner may be “a very private person,” as actress (and onetime Rockford Files guest star) Lauren Bacall describes him in her tribute--one of many from his family and friends--at the back of The Garner Files. But he chose to live his life in the most public of professions. It took him only six decades in Hollywood before he was willing to step out from behind the characters he’s brought to vivid life on-screen and show himself, in print, to be a character worth knowing in his own right. I’m thrilled to have been around to ask him a few questions when that happened.

J. Kingston Pierce: Is there anything about Jim Rockford, who you played in The Rockford Files, that you wish was true of you, as well?

James Garner: I wish I could have quit smoking as easily as Rockford did: During the first season he smoked, but we decided it was a bad example so we had him quit. Aside from getting beat up by thugs and stiffed by clients every week, Rockford didn’t have a care in the world. That’s the difference between television and real life.

JKP: You say in your book how much you loved the relationship between Jim Rockford and his father, Rocky, played by Noah Beery Jr. What was so special about that relationship?

JG: Our head writer, the late Steve Cannell, based it on the loving relationship he’d had with his own dad, Joseph Cannell. “Pidge,” as everyone called [Berry], was perfect in the role of Jim Rockford’s dad because he was not only
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a fine actor, he was also a gentle man. I think the relationship between them was the emotional core of the show.

(Right) Garner being interviewed by Bob Costas

JKP: You write that when Rockford was cancelled in the middle of its sixth season, there were 10 episodes still unfinished. Does that mean there are 10 never-used Rockford scripts still kicking around someplace, or were those scripts used in other ways?

JG: Not that I know of. There may have been one or two new scripts, and maybe a few new stories lying around, but I doubt if the number would be 10. There may also have been two or three abandoned scripts that were never shot for one reason or another.

JKP: You made a succession of Rockford Files reunion movies for CBS-TV between 1994 to 1999. Why did you give up making those?

JG: We’d contracted to do eight two-hour shows and the studio didn’t order any more. I have to admit that I was relieved, because the physical demands became too great.

JKP: One of the funny things about Rockford was that, in its first year at least, your private-eye character only handled ostensibly “closed cases,” those in which the cops no longer took an active interest. Yet that story point seemed to vanish after the introductory season. Was the concept no longer considered necessary or viable?

JG: I don’t remember specifically, but I think the writers just ran out of cold-case plots.

JKP: Let’s talk about a couple of your earlier TV series, beginning with Nichols (1971-1972), a modern-style western. In that show, set in 1914, you played the motorcycle-riding sheriff of a small Arizona town who didn’t like using violence to solve his problems. I’m surprised that after the then-recent successes you’d had with Marlowe, Support Your Local Sheriff!, and Support Your Local Gunfighter!, television audiences didn’t flock to Nichols.
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Was that really your favorite TV series? And why did it fail to catch on?

(Left) The main title sequence from Nichols

JG: I have a special place in my heart for Nichols. But I wouldn’t put it in the same category with the Support Your Local movies, which were broad comedies. Nichols was more subtle, more character driven. I don’t know why it didn’t catch on. Maybe it needed more time to find its audience: We were preempted eight out of 24 shows by the 1972 presidential election campaign. Plus, NBC put us up against Marcus Welby, M.D., the top-rated show on television at the time. And it didn’t help that our sponsor, Chevrolet, wasn’t behind the show: When we screened the pilot for them in Detroit, the wife of one of the executives said, “It’s not Maverick!” I should have known we were finished then and there. They thought they were getting Maverick and they were disappointed.

I think Nichols was ahead of its time. I put it right up there with Maverick and Rockford, even though it ran less than a year. It wasn’t like anything else on the air at the time.

JKP: You write at one point that your efforts to recapture the magic of Maverick only “beat it to death.” This leads me to ask what you thought of Bret Maverick. That 1981 revival--which I loved, by the way--seemed to be honoring the brand. Yet it didn’t succeed. Do you think you shouldn’t have done Bret Maverick, after all?

JG: Bret Maverick was a well-produced show, with great writing and a fine cast that included Stuart Margolin, Ed Bruce, and Darleen Carr. Young Maverick [the CBS-TV series spawned from 1978’s The New Maverick] was the disaster. It only lasted a few episodes.

JKP: Two people seem to come off in your book as tragic figures: Harry O star David Janssen and your Maverick co-star, Jack Kelly, both of whom you say drank too much. Do you also think of them as tragic figures?

JG: I don’t think Jack was a tragic figure. He always seemed to be enjoying himself and he had a life beyond acting--after Maverick he became a successful real-estate broker and was elected mayor of Huntington Beach, California.

I think the demands of doing a television series killed David. While he was making The Fugitive, he’d call and say, “Jim, I don’t know if I’m going to make it.” Well, he didn’t, he died in 1980 at the age of 48, and that was a tragedy.

JKP: Reading through The Garner Files, I was reminded that you suffered a stroke a few years back. Did you recover completely from that health scare, or do you still experience some lingering effects?

JG: Fortunately, there was no permanent damage.

(Right) A bronze statue of Garner, unveiled in Norman, Okla., in 2006

JKP: You seem to still love Oklahoma, where you were born in 1928. As a proud, life-long Democrat, are you surprised by that state’s increasing tilt toward right-wing politics?

JG: I’ll always love Oklahoma. I’m surprised by any tilt toward right-wing politics, because I don’t understand that way of thinking. When I was growing up in Norman, everyone I knew was a Democrat.

JKP: Is there one acting job you passed up, but now wish you hadn’t?

JG: I’ve never regretted “passing” on a part, because I always figured another would come along as good or better, and it usually did.

JKP: Are there types of roles you’ve refused to take over the years?

JG: ... [F]or a long time I was reluctant to play heavies. I just didn’t want to be a bad guy on the screen. I didn’t want to be a superhero either--didn’t want to go to either extreme. Maybe I should have been more adventurous.

JKP: Are you still taking on-screen acting jobs?

JG: I’m officially retired, and you can quote me on that. (Unless something really juicy comes along.)

JKP: Where were you last month when you heard that your brother Jack had passed away? It was always fun to spot him on the screen with you. [He played Captain McEnroe in Rockford and Jack the Bartender in Bret Maverick, among other roles.] I hope he had a fine send-off.

JG: I was home in Los Angeles. Jack and I were pals as well as brothers. We always had fun working together--one of the things Jack was proudest of was that he’d earned a SAG [Screen Actors Guild] pension. And we played a lot of golf together over the years--Jack was also a golf professional and a very good player.

There was a wonderful memorial service where people got up and told stories about him, most of them funny, because Jack had a great sense of humor. I miss him.

JKP: Finally, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned in 83 years?

JG: I’m still learning!

READ MORE:Hometown Maverick” by Gene Triplett (NewsOK).

10 comments:

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Great interview!

Thanks so much for posting that.

Rob said...

J. Great interview with Jim. Getting Jim to talk about himself is a huge task and you did a great job.

Suzanne Moore said...

Excellent! And I certainly agree with Rob - getting Jim to talk about himself is a major victory! Congratulations!

le0pard13 said...

Great, great interview, JKP! James Garner remains one of my all-time favorite actors/people. I'm really looking forward to the arrival of my copy of the memoir. Given his private nature, I doubt he'd be doing any joint book signings (but I hope I'm wrong). Heard of any coming up? Thanks so much for this.

Naomi Johnson said...

Great interview with a great actor. I've loved this guy since my childhood. He's never given a bad performance. Thank you for sharing this, Jeff.

Robin at CrimeTimePreview said...

they don't make them like JG anymore. Let's hope a juicy part comes along.

Ali Karim said...

Fascinating with a capital F - wonderful, wonderful enjoyed the feature and interesting nuggets from an icon actor that I knew little about - thanks

Tom Mason said...

Now I gotta get that book. Thanks for the interview - great stuff!

Anonymous said...

Thank you JKP - this is a scooperooney! James Garner's a singular man. And very much beloved here in the UK too. Respect him all the more for guarding his privacy, but interesting to learn a little more about someone who has a special place in many lives.
(Jenna)

Sheri said...

Mr. Pierce--outstanding interview! It was very informative and you asked some really great questions that gave us yet another glimpse of Mr. Garner. I've read the book (twice now) and never want it to end each time. There was another Garner 3 hour interview, done a long time ago, posted on YouTube. It started out with a female interviewer for the first part, then a male for the consecutive parts. It was ok (a lot of questions asked, but not good ones like yours!) It would have been so much more itneresting if YOU wold have been the interviewer. I really like your style. Thanks for such a GREAT read!