James Garner, the affable native Oklahoman and war veteran, was that rare actor who moved comfortably between television and film. At that time, television actors were lower on the pecking order and didn’t cross over to the more respected film world. Garner, would move back and forth between the mediums throughout his career.
Garner’ career spanned 50-years and only a stroke in his later years slowed him down.
Is he best remembered as Bret Maverick or Jim Rockford? Doesn’t matter, Garner wore these and other roles like a glove.
Stephen J. Cannell, who wrote and produced The Rockford Files once told me that Garner always came to the set prepared and expected everyone else to be too. Garner’s company co-produced the series so he had a financial stake in keeping on budget. But he also called Garner the most generous actor he ever worked with; he didn’t always need or want the spotlight, it was a team effort.
Garner did share the spotlight with many big stars in his career: Doris Day, Julie Andrews, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Sally Field, Clint Eastwood, Jack Lemmon, Mel Gibson, James Coburn, Bruce Willis, Lauren Bacall, Glenda Jackson, Debbie Reynolds, Jason Robards, Sidney Poitier, Randolph Scott, Natalie Wood, Joanne Woodward, Marlon Brando and many others.
There was no denying Garner’s status, he had earned it; but Garner wasn’t always the first lead, sometimes he shared the lead, other times he was just part of the cast. He took supporting roles when there was a good character or he got to be part of a quality production.
Some of Garner’s best work was in television, not series, but made for television films. He won a Golden Globe award for Barbarians at the Gates; he won another Golden Globe for Decoration Day, a Hallmark Hall of Fame production; he was nominated for an Emmy for My Name is Bill W; won a producing Emmy for Promise; and was an Emmy and Golden Globe nominee for Heartsound.
Maverick and Rockford were the two characters that Garner kept coming back to. He re-visited Maverick in two more television series and a feature film. After The Rockford Files was cancelled, Garner reprised the role in numerous made-for-television films.
Garner’s career had its peaks and valleys. He tried several television series playing variations of his easygoing, slightly mischievous Maverick persona. Nichols and Man of the People both failed to last more than a season. Garner would show up as a regular or in an extended role in other television series: Chicago Hope, First Monday and 8 Simple Rules (after John Ritter’s death), and in mini-series like Streets of Laredo and Space.
In the 1960s, after he extricated himself from his Maverick contract with Warner Bros., Garner became an A-List film star, alternately between his easy-going light comedy roles to harder edge dramatic roles, usually in Westerns or war films.
On the comedy front, Garner co-starred in two romantic comedies with Doris Day; the comedy-drama The Americanization of Emily (with Julie Andrews); The Art of Love with Dick Van Dyke; How Sweet It Is with Debby Reynolds; the Western satires Support Your Local Sheriff and Support Your Local Gunfighter; the Western comedy-drama The Skin Game; The Wheeler Dealers; and Boys Night Out with Kim Novak.
Dramatically, he co-starred in the adaption of Lillian Helman’s The Children’s Hour; the adventure film The Pink Jungle; the racing film Grand Prix; and war films The Great Escape, Up Periscope and Darby’s Rangers and 36 Hours. His Western films included Hour of the Gun (as Wyatt Earp), Duel at Diablo and A Man Called Sledge. He also starred at detective Phillip Marlowe in Marlowe.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Garner’s film career had a resurgence, as he shared the lead with Julie Andrew in the very popular Victor/Victoria, and in Murphy’s Romance with Sally Field, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Both earned Garner some of his best reviews.
Garner reprised his role of an older Wyatt Earp in Blake Edwards’ Sunset. Garner also revisited Maverick as Bret Maverick’s father, Marshal Zane Cooper in the big screen film. Garner took one of his few villainous roles in Robert Benton’s all-star cast of Twilight. He also co-starred as one of the original astronauts in Eastwood’s Space Cowboys. And he co-starred with Jack Lemmon as former Presidents in My Fellow Americans, a rather farcical story of two political opposites thrown together on the run.
In my opinion, Garner started doing his best work after age forty. His earlier work, particularly his light comedy had a broadness that he dialed down as he got older. He also embraced characters who were imperfect and who sometimes struggled to do the right thing. Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter and The Skin Game all have Garner’s charm as much as his gift for comedy. He was 46 when he slipped into his Jim Rockford sportcoat. Rockford was fast-talking and always about to land in jail; he was as much a victim as many of his clients.
Even when Garner played a tobacco industry power-broker (Barbarians at the Gate), he brought charisma and empathy to his character that made the television movie a big success. In Promise, his self-centered character is unprepared to deal with his younger brother’s mental illness, but rises to the occasion to be his brother’s guardian. In My Name is Bill W., he co-stars as a doctor treating alcoholics who deals with addiction problems of his own.
Murphy’s Romance gave him a chance to play a 60-year old who falls in love with a much younger woman, who is struggling to establish her own life with a young son, an ex-husband, and a business she is trying to get off the ground. This role allowed Garner to portray a man very comfortable in his own skin, but set in his ways, as the ground beneath his feet begins to shift the more he gets involved with Emma, the Sally Field character. If you viewed Garner’s career through three aligned characters it would be Maverick, Rockford and Murphy.
Garner picked his projects carefully. Later in life he chose men with very significant backstories, hidden by successful careers, and behind a quiet sense of grieving. Murphy was one such character. Retired judge Albert Sidney Finch, of Decoration Day, was another wounded man who had to be coaxed out of his shell. A widower, like Murphy, Judge Finch begins to transform when two related events begin to change his life. He is asked to file a legal brief which opens up his past to a man he has had no contact with since his boyhood. The person asked to help Judge Finch prepare the brief is a legal secretary which begins to thaw the ice around his heart. Garner plays this character in a very low emotional gear but by the end of the third act, you see a man whose dormant heart is full and ready to share.
Garner was often dismissed as playing the same type of nice guy character. His nice guys often disguised men with deeper issues, flaws and having to confront events changing around them. Bret Maverick formed the basis for many Garner characters that followed. Maverick relied on his wits, convincing smile and confident attitude, more than his brawn. These qualities might have described James Garner.