“Never cry over spilt milk. It could have been whiskey.” ~ Bret Maverick, Maverick
“Colin’s not a blind man as long as he’s with me. And he’s going with me.” ~ Robert Hendley, The Great Escape
“I don’t care much about the rules anymore. I’m not that much of a hypocrite.” ~ Wyatt Earp, The Hour Of The Gun
"You don't mouth off to anything that big. He looks like 190 pounds of gristle." ~ Jim Rockford, The Rockford Files
"Well now you know. I enjoy spending time with dead men. You don't believe me? Go ahead and die. It'll perk me right up." ~ President Matt Douglas, My Fellow Americans
“I never committed a cold blooded murder in my life. And I won’t… not til I find Maverick.” ~ Zane Cooper, Maverick
James Garner passed away last weekend at the age of 86 after a long career in film and television. The actor had a history of playing charmers, scoundrels, and good natured anti-heroes. In television, he was best known for two roles, the gambler Bret Maverick in Maverick and the down on his luck private investigator Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files. On the big screen, he enjoyed much success throughout his career in films like The Great Escape, Murphy’s Romance, Victor/ Victoria, Support Your Local Sheriff, The Notebook, Space Cowboys, My Fellow Americans, and the film adaptation of Maverick. His characters often had that affable, smooth talking quality to them, the sort of persona entirely willing to get out of a scrape by their wits.
Garner was a veteran of the Korean War, and spent time in the 1950s in a variety of jobs before moving into acting. The part of Bret Maverick came his way, one of a torrent of westerns in that decade. The gambler and all around ladies man character was the anti-John Wayne (this is a good thing) in that he’d have no problem ducking out of a fight or talking his way out of a jam. The series proved popular with audiences, and Garner’s career took off.
In 1960, he walked away from the series after a dispute with the studio and producers. Film was waiting for him, and he moved from part to part, gathering acclaim and playing the sort of people you might get along with very well, though you’d feel inclined to watch your wallet. He played characters who could express exasperation with just a look, while smiling in a way that made you think he was laughing at the world. Garner brought a light, comic take to his work that made him stand out. Some of his other roles in this era included The Americanization of Emily, The Children’s Hour, Grand Prix, The Thrill Of It All, Marlowe, and as Wyatt Earp in The Hour Of The Gun.
In the 1970s he returned to television to play Jim Rockford, a role that would win him an Emmy along the six year run of the series (and would be reprised later on in television movies). The character was an ex-con who worked cases as a private eye, all while seemingly never getting paid. He’d find himself regularly in trouble helping out a friend (or passing acquaintance). And Garner’s easy going screen persona made it popular once again with audiences.
Garner would receive an Oscar nomination for his lead role opposite Sally Field in Murphy’s Romance, playing a widower starting a new relationship with a young divorced mother. Film and television work would continue to come his way through the years, like Mark Twain in the television movie Roughing It, or parts that came along in established shows such as Chicago Hope or 8 Simple Rules. The film roles kept coming along too, including Maverick, which saw him opposite Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster as Marshal Zane Cooper, father of Bret Maverick. Comedic timing was, as to be expected of Garner, exactly on cue in his bickering with Gibson and his flirtations with Foster.
That same comic timing would play into My Fellow Americans, where he played a one term former president alongside Jack Lemmon, also playing a one termer. The two characters can’t stand each other, and yet find themselves having to work together when they’re cast into danger. Garner’s President Douglas is a charmer, of course, and the dynamic between the two actors works better for me than the dynamic Lemmon often played with Walter Matthau, who was slated to play Douglas.
In 2004, Garner got yet another big role in a film I personally dislike- but that’s the source novel that’s the problem, not the cast. He played an older man in The Notebook, the Nicholas Sparks adaptation about young love in the form of Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling, and their story being told to a dementia afflicted woman (Gena Rowlands). The story of course was dripping with sentiment- an overwhelming problem with all Sparks books- but it made a big impact at the box office, and captured Garner and Rowlands in a poignant way. The film gave him a second Oscar nomination, for best supporting actor.
James Garner was that rarity in Hollywood. His personal life was quiet. He married Lois Clarke in 1956, and they stayed married. He adopted her daughter, and they went on to have another daughter. I wasn’t aware that he had an interest in racing (beyond his appearance in Grand Prix). He was an owner in an auto racing team in the late Sixties, and maintained an interest in the racing world afterwards.
Some will look back on his career and think of their favourite role. The choice might be as Bret Maverick, or Jim Rockford. Others might look to the movies and recall that role that stood out most of all. For me, it was his role as Robert Hendley in The Great Escape. Garner played one of the few Americans in a POW camp during the Second World War, held in place by Luftwaffe officers. Co-starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and James Donald, the film follows the real-life story of the escape of dozens of prisoners from Stalag Luft III, in what is now Poland. Garner’s character was the Scrounger, the man with the skills to gather whatever’s needed for an escape. That might involve simply finding the raw materials in the camp itself. It might also involve pick pocketing or talking a German guard into providing the required item, like a camera. The character is resourceful and clever, a smooth talker who could do quite well for himself as a con artist.
Yet there’s also another aspect of the character that Garner brings across. He’s bunking in with Donald Pleasence’s character Colin Blyth, a staff officer whose speciality is in forging documents. The two have very little in common, and yet at the story carries on, there’s a friendship between them growing. This makes itself perfectly clear when Colin’s vision problems may doom him to stay behind during the escape. Hendley tells Attenborough’s Roger Bartlett, the head of the escape operation, that he’ll personally take Colin out to freedom, a promise he keeps. It’s a testament to the friendship between the two men, and one of my favourite moments of the film.
It was sad to hear of his passing, and yet he leaves such a rich legacy of film and television work behind him. There are many roles for the audience to treasure long after he’s gone, and he lived a long, productive life. He was one of the greats, and he will be missed.