Saturday, April 07, 2007

Happy Birthday, Jimbo

I’ve been thinking a lot about James Garner lately, not just because he is among my favorite actors, but because one of the characters he’s best known for having portrayed--Jim Rockford of The Rockford Files--is contending in The Rap Sheet’s second online poll for the title of “best TV private eye in history.” It’s Garner’s 79th birthday today, and that got me to thinking about a short tribute to him I penned last year for my other blog, Limbo. I’ve used that post as the basis for this longer panegyric.

Born James Scott Bumgarner in Norman, Oklahoma, on this date in 1928, the man who would be Rockford was the son of a carpet layer. His mother (through whom Garner is one quarter Cherokee--a fact recalled in the name of his film and TV production company, Cherokee Productions) died when young James was just 4 years old, and he and his two older brothers, Jack and Charles, were sent to live with relatives. Only after their father remarried in 1934, was the family reunited--but by no means peacefully. According to Wikipedia, “Garner grew to hate his stepmother, Wilma, who beat all three boys, but especially young James. When he was 14, James finally had enough of his ‘wicked stepmother’ and after a particularly heated battle, she left for good. As James’ brother Jack commented, ‘She was a damn no-good woman.’”

At age 16, James Bumgarner joined the United States Merchant Marine, but he had to leave after a year, due to chronic seasickness. He moved west to Los Angeles, where his dad was living since the breakup of his second marriage. There he attended Hollywood High School and modeled for Portland, Oregon-based swimsuit manufacturer Jantzen (at $25 an hour), but he “hated” modeling and returned to Norman, where he played high school football and basketball (“If there was a ball, I played it”) before joining the U.S. Army as an infantryman during the Korean War. (He would receive two Purple Hearts for his military service.)

As the story goes, his first acting experience came while he was still attending Hollywood High. A friend persuaded him to take a non-speaking role in the Broadway production of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. After that he starred in TV commercials and eventually captured roles on such series as Zane Grey Theater, Conflict, and Cheyenne. His earliest movie appearances were in 1956, when he could be seen in both Toward the Unknown (with William Holden) and The Girl He Left Behind (with Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood). As to why he changed his surname ... the explanation is that one of the film studios he worked for abbreviated “Baumgarner” to “Garner” (without permission), and he eventually went along with it. (He changed his name legally in the late 1950s.)

I was first introduced to Garner’s work during weekend reruns of the renowned Roy Huggins-created TV western, Maverick, one of my father’s favorite programs and also among the inspirations for my continuing interest in the history of the American West. Garner of course played Bret Maverick (1957-1960), a not too rough-and-tumble riverboat gambler who roamed the dusty, sometimes lusty U.S. frontier as much for fast bucks as adventure, becoming--as the theme song goes--“a legend of the West.” After that, I followed his career through a tumbling succession of memorable films--from The Great Escape (1963), The Wheeler Dealers (1963) and The Americanization of Emily (1964), to the better-remembered Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), Marlowe (an underappreciated 1969 film based on one of Raymond Chandler’s private eye novels, The Little Sister), Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971) and Skin Game (1971). Along the way, Garner starred in an unfortunately short-lived NBC-TV series called Nichols, which found him in the comfortable role of a cowardly, apathetic drifter (not so very different from the parts he’d played in Gunfighter and Skin Game) who, in 1914, leaves the army and returns to his small Arizona hometown ... only to be promptly blackmailed into taking the job of sheriff. Garner, who was extremely fond of Nichols, took its cancellation hard; the only good thing about it was that it left him free to take the lead three years later in The Rockford Files, another Huggins-created series.

Rockford cast Garner as a resourceful, smooth-talking, but distinctly unheroic Los Angeles private eye who never seemed to find an easy-paying client, a regular girlfriend, or a decent place to hang his hat (he lived in a dilapidated Nashua trailer in a Malibu parking lot). James Scott Rockford was effectively Bret Maverick for the 1970s, but with all of his horses under a Pontiac Firebird hood and a father who (unlike the philosophizing “Pappy” in Maverick) showed up more often than not, in the kindly person of Noah Beery Jr., the nephew of film legend Wallace Beery. During its six-year run (1974-1980)--which would have been longer, had Garner not been forced to pull out after injuring himself in the course of doing too many of his own stunts--Rockford picked up an impressive five Emmy Awards (including a Best Actor commendation for Garner) and was ranked by TV Guide as one the 50 finest American television shows ever. “When it came to private eyes--at least, the ones on movies and TV--Jim Rockford ... stood out like a slow curve in a world of fast balls,” opines Ed Robertson, who literally wrote the book on Garner’s gumshoe drama (Thirty Years of The Rockford Files, 2005).

After Rockford signed off as a series for the last time (only to spawn a sequence of popular TV movies during the Clinton era), the then 53-year-old Garner sought to return to his other most familiar small-screen role in NBC’s Bret Maverick (1981), which reimagined the former card sharp and con man semi-retiring to a backwater Arizona town. Sadly, that series--which I thought went a long way toward recapturing the vitality and humor of the original--lasted only a year, after which Garner returned to the silver screen, appearing in Victor, Victoria (1982, along with Julie Andrews), Murphy’s Romance (1985, with Sally Field), Sunset (1988, which had him portraying a crusty-but-romantic Wyatt Earp to Bruce Willis’ cowboy actor Tom Mix), Maverick (1994, in which he played the role of an impatient marshal, while Mel Gibson--in his pre-zealot days--assumed the part of brother Bret), Twilight (1998, with Paul Newman), and Space Cowboys (2000, with Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones). He also signed on for a few TV movies, including Barbarians at the Gate (1993), Breathing Lessons (1994), and Legalese (1998, which included the casually stunning Mary-Louise Parker as Garner’s sexy, thoroughly ambitious junior law partner).

Following The West Wing’s award-winning early success, Garner made another stab at series television, working opposite Joe Mantegna on First Monday (2002), about the U.S. Supreme Court. Garner portrayed a football-loving conservative Chief Justice of the United States (a funny role for Garner, who’s a staunch Democrat, and was briefly courted to run for the 1990 Democratic nomination for governor of California). Unfortunately, audiences didn’t seem to care about earnest debate in the High Court the way they did about political strategizing and character assassination in the White House. First Monday didn’t make it into a second year. Garner went on to play a classically crusty grandfather on 8 Simple Rules ... for Dating My Teenage Daughter, an unremarkable part he took on after the untimely, 2003 death of lead John Ritter. The Internet Movie Database says he’ll be starring in a 2008 film called The Magic Shoe and doing voice work for an animated flick, Terra.

I’ve never met James Garner, and I am sure that he isn’t to be confused with the easygoing, lovable characters he has so often portrayed. But he’s given me four decades of enjoyment on screens large and small, and for that, he earns my best wishes on 79 years down, and many more to come.

SEE IT NOW: In March 1999, Garner was interviewed on-camera for the Archive of American Television. That candid and informative appearance is available here. Not to be missed by any Garner fan.


pattinase (abbott) said...

James Garner is certainly one of the more distinctive actors television produced. The Rockford Files reigns supreme in my mind as a P.I. show and Maverick was such novelty amidst the cowboy shows of the time.

MorganLvr said...

I have met James Garner, and believe me, Jimbo is every bit as charming off camera as he is on.

Thanks for a wonderful birthday tribute for a wonderful actor and human being.