Seeing the headlines about James Garner’s death yesterday struck me harder than I would have expected. I have always liked him, but I had not thought of him for years. I immediately began reading the news accounts to see his age (86) and cause of death (not specific yet, but natural). Although his career scanned six decades and he was first known on television as Bret Maverick, I think of him first and foremost as James Rockford from The Rockford Files (1974-1980).
Garner’s portrayal of Rockford, the private detective, seemed so easy and natural. This character was the good guy next door or maybe a favorite uncle. He could take care of himself –and his dad—but preferred to think and talk his way out of problems. He was kind and thoughtful, but could bend the law if needed and get things done. He was funny too, in a down-to-earth sort of way. I can still see him storing his gun in the cookie jar and hear his leave-a-message-at-the tone line from the opening credits.
It seems that the qualities presented in the character were shared by the actor as well. As an actor, Garner did not take himself too seriously, loved his wife, and worked in part to meet his family responsibilities. He was talented and made acting look easy, but stayed humble even though he won various awards. He stood up for himself, successfully taking studios to court a couple times over the years. He excelled both in movies and on television and was equally comfortable in dramatic as well as comedic roles.
Garner himself said he preferred roles that focused on relationships: “Everyone wants blockbusters. I like to see a few pictures now and then that have to do with people and have relationships, and that’s what I want to do films about.” Those relationship films of his are the ones I like the best too. I watched several this weekend! My favorites include Murphy’s Romance (1985), Space Cowboys (2000), Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002), Maverick (1994), and Victor/Victoria (1982). I even liked Tank (1984), an odd little military-dad-protecting-his-son movie. I plan to watch some of his earlier films soon as well: The Children’s Hour (1961), The Great Escape (1963),and The Americanization of Emily (1964). His last major movie role was The Notebook (2004).
Of course, all major news outlets shared the details of his life and career. He was born in Oklahoma in 1928 as James Scott Bumgarner. He was part Cherokee on his mother’s side. She died when he was young, and his home life was not very good after that. He left home at 16 by joining the Merchant Marines and eventually ended up in in the military, earning two purple hearts. One of the times he was injured was from friendly fire, but he just figured he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He worked a wide range of jobs before falling into acting. He met his wife in 1956, and they were married two weeks later. Defying the odds for a Hollywood-couple, they stayed married until his death.
Once he started acting, he stayed with it as long as success kept finding him—and it did. He made acting seem easy, and always stayed professional. Julie Andrews, who starred with him in The Americanization of Emily and Victor/Victoria, described James Garner as “a man’s man, a ladies’ man, a good ol’ boy in the best sense of the word, a curmudgeon (he’ll be the first to tell you).. . and a sweetheart. I don’t know a lady who isn’t a little bit in love with him.” Gretchen Corbett, his co-star on The Rockford Files, described him this way: “He’s also a very appealing human being. Both men and women feel safe with him; they feel like they get him.” In his article in the Times “James Garner: Tribute to a Marvelous Maverick,” Richard Corliss concludes that Garner is an “engaging maverick, that rock of American confidence,” and that seems like an apt description.
Reviewing Garner’s life and films, it is easier to see why his death hit me so hard. He seems such an American anti-hero, the guy who keeps getting up, who works hard even though trouble finds him. Plus he was a constant for me through my college years when I traveled to new locations and set out on my own. He seemed grounded, a family man—even if he did not always have a family. Like his character in The Great Escape, he seems to do what’s needed “to try to get home.” Simply put, James Garner was a nice guy who happened to be a great actor.
He will be missed.
Do you have a favorite James Garner movie or television series?