Sunday, July 20, 2014

Obituary: James Garner

Although he had been in poor health in recent years, it was still a shock that one of my favorite actors of all time, James Garner, 86, has passed away. This was a man who had such a hard life growing up as an abused child--one of his stepmothers was a child abuser who should have been locked up in prison--but he somehow overcame that and "lucked" into acting after holding a variety of odd jobs following military service in Korea. Garner was blessed with great looks, but he was more than just a pretty face. He could ACT, or, as he would say in his memoirs, REACT, as well or better than any actor in the history of television or in motion pictures.

When Garner got into acting in the mid-1950s, he (later) said he "stole" his acting technique from his great friend Henry Fonda. However, I think he was influenced as much by Cary Grant, another great "reacting" star, as he was with Fonda. Garner started on the stage with minor roles in plays like The Caine Mutiny, but stage acting always terrified him. Along the way he met and married Lois Fleischman Clarke, a divorcee with a young daughter, after a courtship of a mere two weeks. She talked in his memoirs about how they first met, when she saw him in the swimming pool at a friend's house. She liked what she saw, and who could blame her? She thought he was too good to be true, but after they got acquainted later on at an Adlai Stevenson fundraiser at another place, they hit it off. They were married in 1956 and stayed together (apart from an 18-month separation initiated by James or "Jim," as he was called, following his physical and emotional exhaustion when he had to leave The Rockford Files in 1979) ever since. He adopted her daughter Kimberly and in 1958 had a second daughter, Greta, also known as "Gigi."

Eventually Garner got his big break in the television industry working for Warner Brothers starring in the great 1950s comic western, Maverick. To many of us who are baby boomers and older, this is the role for which he is best remembered. He played card sharp Bret Maverick with a great comic flair. When the series began in the fall of 1957, it started out as a "straight" western, but legend has it one of the series' stable of writers inserted a direction to the effect that Bret/Jim use his "beady eyes" to play a scene. Garner DID have those "beady eyes," and he played that scene for comic relief. The series at that point moved in a satirical direction. When production fell behind schedule after a few episodes, actor Jack Kelly was brought in along with a second production crew to alternate with Garner in episodes and at times the two appeared together. As an aside, the episodes with Kelly, an underrated actor if there ever was one, were just as good as those with Garner because the strength of the show was in the writing more than just any one actor.

Maverick was a huge hit for ABC and Warner Brothers and was one of a group of great western series from that studio during that era. Garner became a household name, but despite his success, he was paid relatively little for the part. By 1960 he was looking to get out of his contract, and after a well-publicized dispute with the studio, he was released from his contract. Maverick continued on for two more seasons, or rather a season-and-a-half (the last season had new Kelly episodes alternating with the older Garner ones), but many fans thought the series had passed its peak with the departure of Garner.

James Garner then moved on to the big screen starring in many well-known films including The Great Escape, co-starring with his friend and neighbor Steve McQueen; The Thrill of It All co-starring with a great friend of his, Doris Day; and his favorite of his films, The Americanization of Emily, co-starring with another close friend of his, Julie Andrews. When he wasn't making films or television series, he pursued hobbies like race car driving, golf, and political activism (he was a lifelong Democrat who had attended the March on Washington in 1963).

In the early 1970s, Garner once again tried his hand in television. He appeared in an oddball series called Nichols, which like his other series is on DVD. Much to his disappointment, it was canceled after just one season, I believe, but it enjoys a cult following today like Maverick and his even bigger television hit, The Rockford Files.

In 1974, Maverick creator Roy Huggins, along with writer Stephen J. Cannell, came up with yet another series with a Bret Maverick-type leading character. This time, though, it would be put in a contemporary setting with the leading character a PI. They approached Garner, who took the job, and The Rockford Files was the result. It was an even bigger success than Maverick, and it remained popular for several seasons. Garner had much more creative and financial control over this show, but unfortunately, he had no control over his health, which started deteriorating over the course of the series' run. Garner, in his memoirs, talked about how absolutely punishing doing a weekly action series was. He didn't just have joint problems, but he was suffering from ulcers causing rectal bleeding. His doctor or doctors told him he HAD to quit the series, so midway through the sixth season, I think it was, he quit. The network and the studio thought he was "malingering," and eventually Garner found himself in court. He sued Universal Studios in 1983. Eventually it was settled in 1989, and although Garner wouldn't say in his book for how much (gag orders and all that), it was rumored to be in the many millions of dollars.

Garner continued to star in movies including earning an Oscar nomination for Murphy's Romance with Sally Field, and appearing on television series including 8 Simple Rules (taking on a leading role after star John Ritter had died) and various television remakes of Maverick. He was active in movies and television up through 2010. He also, with Jon Winokur, penned his memoirs. The most shocking revelation in that book was the fact Garner was a regular marijuana smoker, and he had been one for over 50 years.

Although Garner was not actually a star during the great Hollywood "golden age," he reminded many viewers like myself he was in the same league with those great stars.

He will be missed.

This classic Maverick episode, "Gun-Shy," is in multiple parts, but that's probably why Warner Brothers hasn't issued a takedown notice and is available for free on YouTube. I thought I'd post this great episode, arguably the best of the entire series, as a tribute to this great star. It was a great parody of Gunsmoke:

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

Part Four:

Part Five:

Part Six:

According to this report, Garner died last night of natural causes.

From this article:

His quick-witted avoidance of conflict provided a refreshingly new take on the American hero, contrasting with the steely heroics of John Wayne and the fast trigger of Clint Eastwood.

Well into his 70s, the handsome Oklahoman remained active in both TV and film. In 2002, he was Sandra Bullock's father in the film "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood." The following year, he joined the cast of "8 Simple Rules ... For Dating My Teenage Daughter," playing the grandfather on the sitcom after star John Ritter, who played the father, died during the show's second season.

The New York Times can always be counted on to have a great obituary:

Mr. Garner was a genuine star but as an actor something of a paradox: a lantern-jawed, brawny athlete whose physical appeal was both enhanced and undercut by a disarming wit. He appeared in more than 50 films, many of them dramas, but as he established in one of his notable early performances, as a battle-shy naval officer in “The Americanization of Emily” (1964) — and had shown before that in “Maverick” — he was most at home as an iconoclast, a flawed or unlikely hero.

An understated comic actor, he was especially adept at conveying life’s tiny bedevilments. One of his most memorable roles was as a perpetually flummoxed pitchman for Polaroid cameras in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in droll commercials in which he played a vexed husband and Mariette Hartley played his needling wife. They were so persuasive that Ms. Hartley had a shirt printed with the declaration “I am NOT Mrs. James Garner.”

On that last incident, Garner recalled in his memoirs he had a shirt printed for wife Lois which said to the effect "I AM Mrs. James Garner." She wasn't too happy about it.

According to this obituary in the Los Angeles Times, James Garner had over 80 television and movie credits over the course of his career.

"I have long thought that Jim Garner was one of the best actors around," filmmaker Robert Altman, who directed him in the 1980 comedy "Health," told Esquire magazine in 1979.

"He is often overlooked because he makes it look so easy, and that is not easy to do," Altman said. "I don't know anyone in the business with his charm and charisma who can act so well."

How true.

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