Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Late Great James Garner: A True Maverick

For most classic film and television buffs there are those actors that they have admired all their lives. These are the actors they remember from the earliest days of their childhood. These are the actors whose films of which they have seen every one without really trying. These are the actors that many classic film and TV buffs have admired for so long that it seems as if they know them personally. When one of these actors die, then, it is as if an acquaintance or even a friend has died. James Garner is one of those actors for me. Sadly, James Garner died last night at the age of 86.

James Garner was born James Scott Bumgarner on 7 April 1928 in Norman, Oklahoma. His earliest years were spent in the small community of Denver, Oklahoma, living with his family in the back of the store that his father Weldon owned. When he was only four years old his mother Mildred died. When he was seven years old his father's store burned down. His father then sent young James and his two older brothers to live with relatives. His father remarried in 1934 and young James and his brothers returned to live with him. Unfortunately his stepmother was an abusive woman who regularly beat the boys. Eventually his father and stepmother divorced.

It was not long after his divorce that young James's father Weldon moved to Los Angeles. Young James and his brothers remained in Norman. He worked a number of odd jobs and then joined the Merchant Marine when he was sixteen, lying about his age to do so. He afterwards joined his father in Los Angeles, attending Hollywood High School, and even finding a job modelling  Janzen bathing suits. Despite this Los Angeles was not particularly to his liking and young James soon returned to Norman. At Norman High School he played football and basketball, and was on the school's track team as well. It was in 1950, with the Korean War, that he was drafted into the United States Army. He earned two Purple Hearts during his service.

It was in 1954 that a friend who was a talent agent suggested that Mr. Garner take a non-speaking role in the Broadway play The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. He played one of the members of the court. It was in 1955 that television director Richard L Bare, then working on the television show Cheyenne, cast him in the role of Lt. Brad Forsythe of the U.S. Calvary in the episode "Mountain Fortress". Besides being Mr. Garner's television debut, it was also the first episode of the historic series. Not only did this start James Garner's long television career, but it also led to a contract with Warner Bros.

James Garner would appear in different roles a few more times on Cheyenne, as well as make guest appearances on Warner Brothers Presents, Zane Gray Theatre, and Conflict. It was in 1957 that he was cast as gambler Brett Maverick on the TV show Maverick. Maverick proved to be a hit and made James Garner a household name. He made guest a appearance on another Warner Bros. Western, Sugarfoot, in the role of Bret Maverick and even had a cameo as Bret in the Bob Hope movie Alias Jesse James. Unfortunately the success of Maverick would not last.

Like many of the studio's talent (including Maverick creator Roy Huggins) James Garner found himself in conflict with Warner Bros. Despite the popularity of the show and the at times gruelling pace of shooting an episodic television series, James Garner did not share in the show's profits. It would be the Writers Guild strike of 1960 that would be the straw that broke the camel's back. Warner Bros. refused to pay James Garner his salary on the grounds that they had no scripts and could shoot no new episodes during the strike. They pointed to a clause in his contract that said that they did not have to pay him if production was halted for any reason. James Garner then sued Warner Bros for breach of contract. Among other things the lawsuit uncovered that Warner Bros.was recycling scripts for its other shows and as a result continued production on those shows even as the strike was under way. Ultimately Warner Bros. lost the lawsuit and lost their appeal as well. James Garner then left Warner Bros. and, of course, Maverick. Without James Garner the show lasted another two years.

During the Sixties James Garner had a busy movie career and, as a result, he made no appearances on television beyond a few talk shows and variety shows. He returned to the medium in 1971 in the short lived Western Nichols. Nichols was set in Arizona in 1914 and starred James Garner as the title character, a pacifist who finds himself appointed the sheriff of a small town. Unfortunately, the series did poorly in the ratings and was cancelled after only one season. It was in 1974 that Mr. Garner starred in his next television show The Rockford Files. Created by Roy Huggins (who had also created Maverick) and Stephen J. Cannell, The Rockford Files centred on down and out private eye Jim Rockford, who preferred to talk his way out of situations than resorting to violence. The Rockford Files proved to be a hit, lasting six seasons and an additional eight TV movies. During the Seventies James Garner also reprised his role of Bret Maverick in the pilot for Young Maverick, The New Maverick, as well as the episode "Clancy" of the TV show itself.

In the Eighties James Garner once more played Bret Maverick in the TV show of the same name. Bret Maverick only lasted one season, from 1981 to 1982. He also appeared in the mini-series Space as well as on The Hallmark Hall of Fame and in the television movies Heartsounds and The Glitter Dome. In the Nineties he was the star of the short lived series Man of the People. He appeared in several Rockford Files TV movies, as well as the mini-series Streets of Laredo. He had a recurring role on the show Chicago Hope and provided the voice of God in the animated series God, The Devil, & Bob.

In the Naughts James Garner starred in the short lived drama First Monday as well as the sitcom 8 Simple Rules. He provided the voice of Shazam in the straight to video animated DC Showcase: Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam.

While most actors specialise in one medium or another, James Garner was as much a movie star as he was a television star. In fact, he achieved movie stardom even as he was playing Bret Maverick on Maverick. James Garner made his film debut in a small part in Toward the Unknown in 1956. Warner Bros. then used him in small parts in The Girl He Left Behind (1956), Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend (1957), and Sayonara (1957). He received his first starring role in a motion picture when Charlton Heston had a disagreement with Warner Bros. over money. Mr. Heston walked out on the film Darby's Rangers (1958) and as a result James Garner was cast in the lead role of World War II hero Col. William Darby.While still starring on Maverick James Garner went onto play the lead in the films Up Periscope (1959) and Cash McCall (1960).

The Sixties would be James Garner's most prolific period as a movie star. In fact, he made some of his most popular films during the era. He appeared alongside several other big name stars in The Great Escape (1963), playing Lt. Hendley "The Scrounger". He appeared in some of the notable sex comedies of the Sixties, including Boys' Night Out (1962), The Thrill of It All (1963), and Move Over, Darling (1964). He also starred in other notable comedies, including The Americanization of Emily (1964) and the Western parody Support Your Local Sheriff (1969). While Mr. Garner made many notable comedies during the decade, he did star in dramas and action films as well. He played obstetrician Joe Cardin in The Children's Hour, Wyatt Earp in Hour of the Gun (1967), and Philip Marlowe in Marlowe (1969).  During the Sixties he also appeared in such films as The Wheeler Dealers (1963), 36 Hours (1965), A Man Could Get Killed (1966), Duel at Diablo (1966), Grand Prix (1966), How Sweet It Is! (1968), and A Man Called Sledge (1970).

While James Garner returned to television in the Seventies, he still made several films during the decade. He made several Western comedies during the decade, including Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), Skin Game (1971), One Little Indian (1973), and The Castaway Cowboy (1974). He also appeared in the films They Only Kill Their Masters (1972) and HealtH (1980).  The Eighties saw James Garner make fewer movies, although arguably his films during the decade were bigger than those he had made in the Seventies. He played shady club owner King Marchand in Victor Victoria (1982) and Murphy Jones in Murphy's Romance (1985). He also appeared in the films The Fan (1981), Tank (1984), and Sunset (1988).

From the Nineties into the Naughts James Garner appeared in such films as The Distinguished Gentleman (1992), Fire in the Sky (1993), Maverick (1994), Twilight (1998), Space Cowboys (2000), The Notebook (2004), The Ultimate Gift (2006), and First Night (2007). He provided the voice for Commander Rourke in Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and Doron in Battle for Terra (2007).

James Garner has always been one of my all time favourite actors. In fact, given he was already an established television and movie star well before I was born, I cannot remember a time when I did not know who James Garner was. I could not even say where I first saw him. It could have been one of his many movies (perhaps Support Your Local Sheriff or The Great Escape) or a rerun of Maverick. I only know that James Garner starred in two of my all time favourite TV shows (Maverick and The Rockford Files) and an inordinately large number of my favourite films (Boys' Night Out, The Great Escape, The Thrill of It All, Support Your Local Gunfighter, and so on).

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.

Over the years Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford have been described as anti-heroes, although I don't think this is quite accurate. While both Maverick and Rockford preferred words to weapons, they did not alway act in their own self interest and would actually help those in need. If anything this made them even more heroic than more traditional heroes, given they could not fall back on force if their lives were in danger. The interest of many of his characters in the welfare of his fellow man was shared by James Garner in real life. On 28 August 1963 he was one of the celebrities to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Mr. Garner was quite active in both the civil rights movement and the environmental movement. It must also be pointed out that it took considerable bravery on his part to stand up to Warner Bros. Indeed, his lawsuit would be one of the earliest instances of a television star taking on a major Hollywood studio and winning.

Ultimately it would seem that James Garner was not only a great actor, but a truly good man. He was married to the same woman, his wife Lois (who survives him) for 58 years. And if anyone has had anything bad to say about James Garner as a person, I do not think I have ever read it. Indeed, even after James Garner accidentally cracked two of Doris Day's ribs during the shooting of a scene for Move Over, Darling, Miss Day still had nothing but good to say bout him. From James Woods to Tom Selleck, Mr. Garner's co-stars all seemed to respect him for his honesty, generosity, kindness, and professionalism. It seems that James Garner was not simply a great actor, but a true gentleman as well.

1 comment:

Toby O'B said...

Thank you for that tribute. Nearly a day later and I'm still finding it hard to believe.......