Monday, July 21, 2014

Reflecting on Garner’s Life and Career

Two days after James Garner’s death at age 86, accolades continue to roll in for this charismatic actor who seemed to bear the weight of stardom with such grace and humility.

Charles P. Pierce (no relation) writes on the Esquire site:
[W]hat connected Brett [sic] Maverick with Jim Rockford, and what allowed Garner to send convention for a loop was the fact that, while not being cowards, both Brett and Jim were unconvinced that violence was necessarily a part of being either a Western hero or a private eye. They never saw the logic in it. This doesn't make sense. Somebody might get hurt here. And it might be me. QED, let's try to think our way out of this mess. It took a rare actor to turn that trick without appearing either cowardly or unpleasantly conniving.
After acknowledging Garner’s “crucial” role in the 1969 film Marlowe, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel The Little Sister (“The script wasn't vintage noir--there was a martial arts scene--and Garner was not exactly Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, but he was droll and melancholy”), Britain’s Guardian newspaper notes that
His second breakthrough came in 1974, when Huggins still in the business, assigned a pilot script to the writer Stephen J. Cannell, who decided to break as many rules of the TV private-eye genre as he could. The obvious casting was Garner: Jim Rockford, the ex-prisoner hero of The Rockford Files, was a downmarket Marlowe, with no office but his mobile home at the beach, an answering machine instead of a secretary. His gun was stored in the biscuit jar. Rockford had a paunch from tacos and beers; he was lazy; and, except for his retired trucker dad, he knew mostly bums, losers and put-upon LAPD cops.

As
Maverick had done, the series pushed the televisually possible further. Storylines could be serious--Garner was proud of an episode based on a New Yorker investigation into the grand jury system, so acute that it helped change the law. But it was the sense of a weird Los Angeles, sundried as a lizard up canyon roads, that was new and different. Critics panned it, but the first season was a ratings hit; then [co-creator Roy] Huggins was pushed out, and Garner confronted Universal Television over an enforced change in tone. Rockford lost 20% of its audience but continued for five seasons (Garner won his Emmy in 1977); then it ended suddenly in the sixth season, when Garner told the crew on location that he was exhausted and had no intention of dying early, and walked out.
Garner grew up in Oklahoma, so it’s natural that the state’s major newspaper, The Oklahoman, should devote space to celebrating his long career. Its obituary is here, but the paper also offers a more in-depth look at the actor’s life here. Written by entertainment editor Gene Triplett, the article draw heavily on The Garner Files, the 2011 memoir Garner wrote with Jon Winokur, but notes some discoveries Winokur made while collaborating on that book:
“I had no idea how extensive (Garner’s Korean [War] service) was,” Winokur said in a recent phone interview. “He was in a unit that was thrown into the front lines when the Chinese Communists crossed the 38th Parallel in 1951, and his unit was the first thing they ran into, and they were decimated. They had something like 60 percent casualties in a very short time, and (Garner) was wounded a couple of times … and got a Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster, which he never talked about very much.” …

Another revelation for the author, from interviews with Garner’s friends and associates, was “the number of people whose lives he has enhanced through his generosity. … Something that came up again and again was how tremendously generous he is, both financially and in other ways.”
(Click here to see The Oklahoman’s front-page tribute to Garner.)

Eric Deggans writes in National Public Radio’s Monkey See blog:
I didn’t know, watching Isaac Hayes push James Garner around on The Rockford Files, that I was seeing a special character continue an important television legacy.

All I knew, as a devoted fan of Garner’s put-upon private eye, was that Jim Rockford seemed like a kind of hero you never saw anywhere else on television.

Perpetually strapped for cash and working a case that wasn’t likely to change that situation, Rockford was a wrongly imprisoned ex-con who cloaked his heroism in a cynic’s quips and world-weary attitude (Hayes was a physically intimidating fellow ex-con who always mispronounced his name as “Rockfish”).

“Rockfish” rarely pulled a gun or won a fight with his fists--which could be a little frustrating to those of us weaned on more, say, direct TV private eyes like Mannix or Shaft. Instead, he maneuvered among a seedy universe of corrupt cops and crooks, lame hustlers and earnest victims, using his street smarts and an unerring sense of justice to save the day.

He wasn’t an anti-hero as much as an “unhero”; a regular Joe with a sardonic sense of humor who stepped up when he was needed.
CelebStoner mentions Garner’s support of legalizing marijuana:
“I don’t know where I’d be without it,” he wrote in his 2011 memoir, The Garner Files. “It opened my mind to a lot of things, and now its active ingredient, THC, relaxes me and eases my arthritis pain.”
And this story from The Washington Post’s obituary is one that I’ve heard before, but it is worth repeating here:
Mr. Garner said he most valued collegiality on the set, and it tended to bring out his best performances. One case he cited was “Murphy’s Romance.”

Co-star [Sally] Field told a CBS News reporter of the making of that movie, “He’s so profoundly sexy, and maybe the best kiss I ever had in my life, which was on camera, believe it or not.”

Mr. Garner replied, “I think she’s had a very sheltered life. I mean, poor baby, if that’s the best.”

Thinking further, he added, “I’ve had a couple of them say that. I might not be a bad kisser at all.”
UPDATE I: I want to add another voice to this chorus of praise. In A Shroud of Thoughts, Terence Towles Canote writes:
What always appealed to me about James Garner was that while he was incredibly handsome and charming, at the same time he seemed entirely approachable. Unlike many movie stars James Garner came off as “just one of the guys.” I always imagined that if someone met Mr. Garner in a bar that he or she could sit down with him and talk about the weather, sports, television, and all of the other things about which everyday people talk. Indeed, James Garner treated acting as if it was simply another job. In his memoir, The Garner Files he wrote of acting, “Be on time, know your words, hit your marks, and tell the truth. I don’t have any theories abut acting, and I don’t think about how to do it, except that an actor shouldn’t take himself too seriously, and shouldn’t try to make acting something it isn’t.”

While James Garner may have treated acting as just another job, there can be no doubt that he was great at it. While he will forever be remembered as Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford, he played a wide variety of roles throughout his career. Many of them were similar to his two best-known roles, men who preferred to use their wits instead of their fists. There is a marked similarity between Bret Maverick, Jim Rockford, Lt. Hendley of The Great Escape, and Jason McCullough of Support Your Local Sheriff. And while Mr. Garner played such charming rogues well, he was equally adept at the sometimes very different roles he played. He played tough as nails lawman Wyatt Earp not once, but twice, and did so convincingly (once in Hour of the Gun and once in Sunset). And while most of the characters James Garner played were nice guys, he was capable of playing characters who were not so nice. In the television movie Barbarians at the Gate he played real-life millionaire F. Ross Johnson. Like many of James Garner’s characters, real-life F. Ross Johnson is charming, but at the same time he had no problems with thousands of Nabisco employees losing jobs if it made him millions of dollars.
UPDATE II: Meanwhile, author Max Allan Collins remembers the influence Garner had on both his life and work:
Garner’s comic touch was present in much of his work, and of course Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford were essentially the same character. And no matter what literary influences they may cite, my generation of private-eye writers and the next one, too, were as influenced by The Rockford Files as by Hammett, Chandler or Spillane. The off-kilter private eye writing of Huggins and Stephen Cannell made a perfect fit for Garner’s exasperated everyman approach, but it was just notes on a page without the actor’s musicianship.

Not that Garner couldn’t play it straight--he was, in my opinion, the screen’s best Wyatt Earp in
Hour of the Gun, and as early as The Children’s Hour and as late as The Notebook he did a fine job minus his humorous touch. But it’s Maverick and Rockford--and the scrounger in The Great Escape, the less-than-brave hero of [The] Americanization of Emily, and his underrated Marlowe--that we will think of when Garner’s name is mentioned or his face appears like a friendly ghost in our popular culture. …

Like all of us, Garner was a flawed guy, though I would say mildly flawed. Provoked, his easygoing ways flared into a temper and he even punched people out (not frequently) in a way Bret Maverick wouldn’t. He never quite came to terms with how important Roy Huggins had been to the creation of his persona, and essentially fired him off
Rockford after one season. The lack of Huggins and/or Cannell on Bret Maverick was probably why it somehow didn’t feel like real Maverick.

Garner had great loyalty to his friends, however, and as a Depression-era blue collar guy who kind of stumbled into acting, he never lost a sense of his luck or seemed to get too big a head. He resented being taken advantage of and took on the Hollywood bigwigs over money numerous times, with no appreciable negative impact on his career. He was that good, and that popular.

When he gave a rare interview, Garner displayed intelligence but no particular wit, and it could be disconcerting to see that famed wry delivery wrapped around bland words. Yet no one could convey humor--from a script--with more wry ease than Jim Garner. Perhaps he was funny at home and on the golf course and so on. Or maybe he was just a great musician who couldn’t write a note of music to save his life.

It doesn’t matter. Not to me. He influenced my work--particularly Nate Heller--as much as any writer or any film director. He was a strong, handsome hero with a twist of humor and a mildly exasperated take on life’s absurdities. I can’t imagine navigating my way through those absurdities, either in life or on the page, without having encountered Bret Maverick at an impressionable age.
READ MORE: James Garner: 1928-2014,” by Ronald Tierney (Life, Death, and Fog); “James Garner, 1928-2014: Remembering Rockford,” by Craig McDonald; “Remembering James Garner and The Rockford Files,” by Julia Buckley (Mysterious Musings); “James Garner, R.I.P.,” by Mitchell Hadley (It’s About TV); “Tribute: James Garner, 1928-2014,” by Christopher Lyons (The Westlake Review); “James Garner: Cowboy, Soldier, Detective, Astronaut, Race Car Driver,” by Susan King (Los Angeles Times); “Yeah, Look, Jimmy: 7 Reasons We Loved James Garner in The Rockford Files,” by Gael Fashingbauer Cooper (Today); “James Garner: R.I.P. Rockford, You Maverick” (The Scott Rollins Film and TV Trivial Blog); “James Garner Was the Perfect Fit in Rockford Files,” by Robert Lloyd (Los Angeles Times); “An Ode to Jim Rockford’s Answering Machine,” by Helen A.S. Popkin (ReadWrite); “So Long, Jimbo: James Garner 1928-2014,” by Kevin Burton Smith (The Thrilling Detective Web Site).

3 comments:

Gary Phillips said...

Funny, when Rockford was first on I wasn't much of a fan -- though enjoyed it when Isaac Hayes was on as a fellow ex-con and called him Rockfish. Though if my memory is right, this might be before I stumble on Ross Macdonald in my teen years. Anyway, watching those Rockford Files now, older and no more wiser, and seeing Garner handle the character -- a real, flawed cat who didn't rush into danger but stood up for the little guy -- I've come to appreciate them much more.

Ed Gorman said...

Thank you for these posts, Jeff. Really definitive points about Garner's life and career.. I can still remember the Sunday night when my family, not quite knowing what to expect--and after a month or so of ABC ballyhoo--watched the first Maverick with true delight. We gathered every Sunday night thereafter and James Garner became a legend in our house. Thanks for your tremendous posts.

david hartzog said...

They just don't make actors like this guy anymore. I miss him already.