James Garner: An Appreciation
Movie stars aren’t like you and I. That’s not to say they’re better than us morally and some, believe it or not, are quite normal looking once their make up is taken away and normal lighting is applied. However, they do have a magical quality about them that appears once they’re in front of a camera. Whereas you or I would appear awkward and uncomfortable with each of our physical flaws magnified by a factor of a hundred, they come alive, projecting a sense of confidence and magnetism that can’t be taught but simply is. Since the dawn of cinema, this indefinable “It Factor” has proven to be the thing that draws us to movie stars, causing us to project our hopes and admiration upon them, fooling us into thinking that these screen gods and goddesses were somehow like us, that they would understand our troubles, and would willingly befriend us. They are the embodiment of our best selves; the unattainable made flesh.
James Garner had this quality and something more. Yes, he was ruggedly handsome, was the sort of man any woman would be proud to call her own and any man would be lucky to call a friend. But there was something more to Garner, whether he graced the big screen or small and that was his sense of sincerity. You never caught him acting – there was a natural quality to him that suggested that he was no different on or off the screen, that he was just a regular guy who just happened to be a very successful actor. He was someone we could identity with, whether he was portraying a WW II POW desperate to escape, a beleaguered private investigator or a senior citizen trying to care for the love of his life in her final days. His lack of artifice was perhaps his most endearing quality and this sense of humility is something he seemed to come by naturally.
A child of the Great Depression, Garner was born on April 7, 1928 in Norman, Oklahoma. To say that he knocked around is an understatement as the notion of a transient life was engrained in him early on. When he was four, his mother passed away and Garner was sent away to live with relatives. Though he and his two brothers were reunited soon after when his father remarried, he never felt a sense of belonging as his stepmother proved abusive. The marriage didn’t end until Garner was 14, and while his father moved to Los Angeles to find work, the three brothers stayed in Norman. Eventually, Garner followed his father, enrolled in Hollywood High School and soon dropped out, as his gym teacher recommended him for a modeling job for which he was paid $25 per hour. The actor would later say, ”That’s why I quit school. I was making more money than my teachers. I never finished 9th grade.”
When the modeling dried up, he begin an odyssey that took him through a myriad of odd jobs (Garner estimated he had 75 of them) including a stint in the US Merchant Marine, pumping gas and lumberjacking all before joining the National Guard and serving in the Korean War where he won two Purple Hearts.
In New York City after being discharged, Garner looked up an old acquaintance from his Hollywood High days who had pursued a career in the theater, Paul Gregory. He persuaded his old friend to begin making the rounds, going to any audition he could and he was soon cast as a judge in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial starring Henry Fonda. Though the role mostly consisted of listening to testimony, Garner said it was an invaluable lesson, as he learned the importance of being engaged in the action during every moment.
Handsome, appealing and at ease in front of an audience, it didn’t take long for Garner to find success on television with the western series Maverick (1957-1960), a bona fide hit that he was able to parlay into a successful film career. And while contemporaries such as Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson also made the jump from the boob tube to the big screen, Garner was one of the few stars who was able to effortlessly go back and forth between the mediums, the rare actor whose fans didn’t mind having to pay to see him in his latest movie though they could often see him for free by flipping around the dial.
With a career that lasted from 1956 – 2010, Garner like anyone with any sort of longevity had his highs and lows. It could be argued that he first made an impact in film with the classic WW II prison break movie The Great Escape (1963), co-starring with his neighbor and fellow racecar aficionado Steve McQueen. As Hendley “The Scrounger,” he used his natural charm to distract Nazi guards and find any materials his comrades needed to build the tunnel that led to their freedom. The next year, he appeared in the first of three films he made with Julie Andrews, The Americanization of Emily (1964) as a self-centered naval officer who avoids responsibility at every turn, a roguish character that Garner somehow brought a bit of dignity to.
Other roles of note include Hour of the Gun in which he put a vicious spin on the character of Wyatt Earp; the westerns Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1970) in which he was able to show his comedic side; the classic Blake Edwards’ farce Victor Victoria (1982) in which he somehow made his presence known playing straight man for Robert Preston and Julie Andrews; as a widower who takes one more chance on love in Murphy’s Romance (1985) for which Garner received his only Oscar nomination; Space Cowboys (2000) a comedic lark of an adventure in which it’s a delight to see the actor go toe-to-toe with Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland and as Duke in The Notebook (2004) the anchor of the story who refuses to leave his wife’s side as she disintegrates due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease.
And while Garner may not have regularly been in hit movies, he was a constant presence on television with his wildly successful series, the seminal The Rockford Files, which was envisioned as a modern version of Maverick and turned the TV detective genre on its head. Living in an unkempt mobile home, doing business via an answering machine and often a step behind whomever he was pursuing rather than a step ahead, Jim Rockford was the sort of private eye that you or I would be – earnest, a bit bumbling, often capable and reliant as much on luck as knowhow to get the job done. The series ran from 1974 – 1980 with subsequent TV movies being released from 1994 – 1999. This, along with the many Polaroid Camera commercials he did with Mariette Hartley, his haunting turn in the mini-series The Streets of Laredo (1999) and his recurring role in the John Ritter comedy series 8 Simple Rules (2003-2005) kept Garner a constant, welcome and reassuring presence in our living rooms for over three decades.
About acting, Garner once said, “I'm a Spencer Tracy-type actor. His idea was to be on time, know your words, hit your marks and tell the truth. Most every actor tries to make it something it isn't, looks for the easy way out. I don't think acting is that difficult if you can put yourself aside and do what the writer wrote.” This is the sort of selfless approach that made James Garner not only one of the most natural actors to ever grace the screen but one we could relate to with ease. This quality is rare and will be missed.