Awoke this past Sunday morning to the sad, but long-expected news that actor James Garner had passed away. Mr. Garner was 86 years old and had been mostly out of the public eye since suffering a stroke in 2008. It’s difficult to find another performer whose work appealed to “the greatest generation” (his work in “Maverick“), the maturing flower power generation (“The Rockford Files“) and Gen X and Y (The Notebook).
Born in that state just north of Texas, Garner dropped out of high school to join the Merchant Marines … a career cut short by his sea-sickness. He later joined the Army and served 14 months in the Korean War, earning two Purple Hearts. His acting career really took off with the 1957 series “Maverick“, where Garner played a card shark whose quick wit often got him out of the trouble that the same quick wit had gotten him into. Garner then made the transition to movies, and during his career starred with such female leads as Doris Day (Move Over, Darling; The Thrill of it All), Julie Andrews (The Americanization of Emily, Victor Victoria) and Sally Field (Murphy’s Romance) … culminating in his teaming with Gena Rowlands to play the elder characters of Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams in The Notebook (2004). Scattered in between were other memorable films such as The Great Escape (1963), Grand Prix (1966), and Space Cowboys (2000), as well as TV movies Heartsounds (1984), My Name is Bill W (1989), and Barbarians at the Gate (HBO, 1992).
Obviously the role Garner is most identified with is Private Investigator Jim Rockford in the TV series “The Rockford Files” from 1974-80. He was the reluctant hero who was always in hot water with the police, but managed to save the day in his patented clumsy style by the end of the hour. Garner stacked the cast with his friends Joe Santos, Stuart Margolin and Noah Beery, Jr. This group would work together again in the 1990′s on the Rockford TV movies. Who among us didn’t want to be Rockford … living in a trailer on Malibu beach, zipping around L.A. in a Firebird and solving criminal cases for the cops! When I spoke briefly with Mr. Margolin last year at the Little Rock Film Festival, he had nothing but fond memories of working with Garner on the show.
As if conquering TV and Movies wasn’t enough, James Garner and Mariette Hartley teamed to make more than 300 Polaroid commercials in the late 1970′s through the early 1980′s. Their sprited banter led many to believe the two were real life spouses, and had retail customers requesting “the James Garner camera”. Garner and Hartley were of course not married. In fact, Garner and his (surviving) wife Lois had been married for 56 years at the time of his death … a long term marriage being yet another thing setting Garner apart from most others in the Hollywood world.
The words most often used to describe James Garner are amiable, likable, handsome, witty and charming. Mostly, he was a very talented guy who made it all look pretty easy on whatever screen he happened to appear … he was a guy we could relate to and felt like we knew – or could know. There is not another actor who found success in the rare Western Comedy genre, as well as Rom-Coms, a POW film, Race Cars, Police series, and Business drama. With his Oakland Raiders fanatacisim and his stake in the expansion NBA Dallas Mavericks (1980), he was connected to the real world without making tabloid headlines. James Garner is to be most admired as a professional who entertained us on screen while not embarrassing himself off. Perhaps he was so likable on screen because he brought so much of himself to his roles.