The hard sell isn’t usually my style, but 7 discs, 27 episodes, and all 1333 minutes of season one of “Maverick” for $28.94 is about as good of a deal as it gets. But as is the case with most things, this hard sell is also all about me. I need these units to move so the studio releases season two. Incredibly, this is the first ever DVD release of the classic series.
In my opinion, there are a lot of misconceptions about “Maverick,” the first being that The Mighty James Garner’s Bret Maverick was an anti-hero, the second being that this popular late-50’s television Western was “Rockford Files On the Prairie,” the final being that the episodes starring Jack Kelly as Bret’s brother, Bart, are letdowns.
Bret Maverick was certainly a different kind of hero, but he was no anti-hero. True, Bret is a rounder, a gambler who goes from town to town looking for a game and to stay out of trouble (he’s much more skilled at poker than he is at staying out of trouble). But Bret is also unwaveringly honest in his work and life, and in just about every episode, selflessly risks his own life for people he hardly knows. He hates bullies, stands up for what is right, and rights injustice.
The only thing that separates Maverick from his contemporaries in the genre are his methods. Slow to violence and a brilliantly fast thinker, Maverick would much prefer to con the villain than shoot him. Distill Bret Maverick down to his essence, though, and what you have is an idealistic, selfless, full-blown hero brimming with integrity and honor. What especially makes him a hero is that he holds onto these characteristics while making a living in a world where such things do not enhance your resume’.
And this, I think, is where the whole idea of “Rockford Files On the Prairie” comes from. Roy Huggins, a brilliant television producer, was behind both “Maverick and “Rockford” and might have even sold the idea of “Rockford” as an update of his earlier success. But Los Angeles P.I. Jim Rockford is no Bret Maverick. Older, cynical, a little more selfish, and very reluctant to heroism — Rockford is much closer to the anti-hero. Maverick and Rockford are both exceptionally gifted smart mouths and con men to be sure, but the similarities end there.
Well, there is one more thing both characters share and that’s the extraordinary honor of having James Garner bring them to life.
Garner is a national treasure, an actor so unique and so talented that if you merely read the scripts he was handed for both “Maverick” and “Rockford,” you would think them filled with flat dialogue and non sequiturs. No one can deliver a line like Garner, no one can make so much from so little. Listening to Garner talk is like watching Garbo walk, Astaire dance, and Crawford vamp. With tailor-made material and writers who understood his instrument, there is nothing better than something starring James Garner, and “Maverick” certainly fits that bill.
The formula, at least for the first dozen or so episodes I’ve seen, is pretty much the same. Bret rolls into town, usually broke, looking for a card game that will return him to the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed. It’s usually during the game where the episode’s real plot develops and from there Maverick will be forced — sometimes through circumstance but usually through principle — to save the day.
The saving of the day generally means an elaborate con game, though if violence is required Maverick will commit it.
Other the Garner, the next major plus is the density of the plots. 55 years later, there is nothing at all creaky about the writing. Thanks to varied subplots, fascinating characters, and plenty of character and relationship development — the 50-odd minute stories zip by, all of it anchored by the charm of the title character.
And this includes Kelly as Brother Bart, who’s introduced in episode eight and from there alternates episodes with Garner. It helps that both characters are virtually identical (which was probably no accident) and there’s no question Garner is the star of the show, but Kelly has his own charisma and the production values –writing, acting, photography — all remain.
And that’s another thing, this is a beautifully photographed black and white series — a pleasure to watch with plenty of atmosphere and the kind of attention to detail that allows you to focus your attention on story and character. The quality is near cinematic and that’s in large part due to the standard and tone set in the first three episodes, which are directed by The Great Budd Boetticher, the genius who helmed some of the greatest feature Westerns ever produced.
By the time Boetticher got behind the camera for “Maverick,” he had already directed a number of his greatest Westerns, and it shows.
Because of all the skill, talent and effort behind the scenes, “Maverick” would’ve likely been a hit series without Garner. But it’s his extraordinary presence, charm, and second-to-none skill at making the difficulty of great acting look so easy that makes “Maverick” a legitimate classic.
Maverick: The Complete First Season (2012) is available at the link.
For my sake, buy two.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC