1. Terry Teachout put it so well in his obituary this morning, that Garner had died at “the magnificent age of 86.” I’m not privy to insider information, but I’d bet that Garner lived those 86 years as well as anyone. He worked steadily for most of his career, combining successful television series with a big screen career that was modest in terms of quantity but oversize when it came to quality, with Grand Prix, The Great Escape, Support Your Local Sheriff, and an Oscar-nominated turn in Murphy’s Romance more than enough to qualify him as a movie star.x
2. As an adjunct to #1, he was married to the same woman since 1956. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!
3. He was a rebel. In the waning days of the studio system, he took on Warner Brothers, producers of his hit series Maverick. Now, he wasn’t the only actor to do that – Clint Walker walked off Cheyenne in a similar dispute – but Garner made it stick. He won his legal battle with WB, and never returned to the original series. (He had a number of legal disputes with Universal, producers of The Rockford Files, as well.)
4. Speaking of The Rockford Files, I watched the show regularly when it was on in first-run, primarily because, living in the world’s worst town, NBC was the only network we could get. I always had fond memories of it, but when I watched it years later, I found it dated. I couldn’t get past the big cars, bad clothes, overteased women, and constant smoking. A couple of months ago, I revisited Rockford while I had the flu – I was a captive audience, so to speak. And I came to the conclusion that it was Garner who kept Rockford from being dated. His acting style – well, was it really a style? He was so natural, so effortless, the way he played not only Garner, but most roles. He had an easy self-confidence that was probably the result of a lot of hard work, but still. The ability to project yourself that way can only be called a gift.
5. I’d also compare him to Paul Newman in the sense that Garner was an actor who could give gravitas even to projects that didn’t deserve it. Excepting Space Cowboys, of course.
6. And, as Teachout notes, didn’t Garner steal the show from Newman, et. al in Twilight? You probably didn’t see that – it was one of those rare movies, a drama for grown-ups that didn’t rely on special effects, comic book tie-ins, loud music, car chases, and the like.
7. Garner was really something behind the wheel, wasn’t he? I mean, he, Newman, and Steve McQueen could have started their own race team. They would have won a few, too. Don’t know about the clash of egos, though. Not to mention team orders.
8. He wasn’t perfect, though. I recall years ago when he starred as a U.S. Senator in Space, the disappointing miniseries of James Michener’s equally disappointing novel. In the book, Garner’s character had been a Republican, but Garner insisted on changing him to a Democrat for the series. The character wasn’t that political, but Garner was a big-time Democrat, and perhaps he just didn’t have the acting chops to put himself into the role of a Republican. That’s one thing I’ve always admired about Martin Sheen, by the way – I’ve seen him play a Republican before, and he did it with as much conviction and acting integrity as he did later on in The West Wing.
9. A last word about Maverick – it wasn’t originally intended to be a light-hearted Western spoof, but according to Brooks and Marsh in their Complete Directory, the change happened early in the series’ run, when a bored scriptwriter (later ID’d as Marion Hargrove) added a stage direction referring to Maverick looking at someone “with his beady little eyes.” Garner thought the direction hilarious, and played the scene for laughs. The rest is history.
10. We shouldn’t mourn James Garner too much. His life was full, his days as an actor were principally behind him, and he left a great body of work that will continue to please audiences for a long time. We may miss the fact that we won’t be able to turn on the TV and see an interview with him, or read another volume of memoirs, or see him in a cameo appearance – but he’s given us more than enough pleasure to make up for it.
11. If you want to read more, The Guardian – typical of Brit newspapers – has a wonderful write-up here.