According to various media reports, police were called to the Los Angeles home of James Garner Saturday night where the television and screen legend was found dead of natural causes. He was 86. The Emmy winner and 1986 Oscar nominee (Best Actor in “Murphy’s Romance”) is survived by Lois, his wife of 56 years, and daughters Kimberly and Gigi.
Before trying acting on a whim, the Oklahoma-born Garner worked as a roughneck in the oilfields, as a telephone installer, and as a lifeguard and janitor. He served his country honorably in the Korean War and earned two Purple Hearts.
Like many screen legends who made the mistake of making it look way too easy (the Oscar-less Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson, for example), there are not enough words or awards to do justice to The Mighty James Garner’s brilliance as an actor. In his terrific memoir “The Garner Files,” Garner reveals that he learned the technique through listening.
Garner’s first role was as one of six judges in a stage production of Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.” He had no lines. His job night after night was to sit silently for two hours and watch the other actors act. Luckily for Garner, two of those actors were Lloyd Nolan and Henry Fonda.
The qualities Garner and Fonda shared are unmistakable. Simply by showing up, both (who became lifelong friends) epitomized the confident non-conformist who is uncommonly comfortable in his own skin; American can-do masculinity, common decency, and a formidable sly streak that made crossing them a bad idea.
By all accounts, Garner was very close to that man in real life — he certainly was his own man. Although a pacifist (Garner said he held the exact same anti-war views as the “proud coward” he played in 1964’s “The Americanization of Emily”), he was a pacifist with two Purple Hearts and a reputation for punching out anyone he found deserving.
During the Korean War, Garner was a scrounger (a vocation he would go on to immortalize in 1963’s “The Great Escape”).
Both of Garner’s iconic television series — “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files” — ended in bitter lawsuits. In both cases Garner abruptly quit a hit show and then risked his career to sue powerhouse employers Warner Bros. and Universal (twice) because he felt he had been wronged and cheated. Garner prevailed in his lawsuits and his career never lost a step.
Although a proud, lifelong Democrat and liberal, Garner was also a patriotic traditionalist who wanted nothing to do with dirty or violent films. “I’m no do-gooder,” Garner wrote in his memoir, “I just like to do good movies. I consider myself an average American and I think I have a duty to other average Americans. … I prefer clean over dirty.”
He explained why he turned down a role in Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo”: “He had a bad attitude. He killed a bunch of Americans — National Guardsmen and police. … I guess the violence in my early life made me partial to characters who try to avoid it.”
“I like things the old-fashioned way,” Garner added. “Where the language is clean and the sex scenes done tastefully, not graphically. … Now we have formula pictures that appeal to the lowest common denominator. Everybody’s wrong and nobody cares enough to point out what’s right.”
In over 50 feature films and 2 iconic television series, Garner’s characters did a lot of pointing to what was right … and wrong; sometimes cynically, almost always reluctantly. But in the end a selfless and self-effacing hero would emerge even if the white hat made him uncomfortable and a little cranky.
Amiable, broad-shouldered, and handsome, Garner spent a half-century easily moving back and forth between television and film roles, a feat very few lead actors have successfully pulled off. Garner was the rare leading man who could spend countless hours in our living rooms without losing the quality that made him a movie star.
On top of headlining two of the most enduring television series in history, Garner starred in a number of outstanding films that range from timeless crowd pleasers to legitimate classics: “Sayonara” (1957), “The Children’s Hour” (1961), “The Great Escape” (1963), “The Americanization of Emily” (1964), “Grand Prix” (1966), “Support Your Local Sheriff” (1971), “The Skin Game” (1971), “Victor Victoria” (1982), “Murphy’s Romance” (1985), “Maverick” (1994), “Space Cowboys” (2000), and “The Notebook” (2004).
As if that’s not enough, Garner starred in a number of memorable television movies which resulted in numerous award nominations and wins: “Heartsounds” (1984), “Promise” (1986), “My Name Is Bill W.” (1989), “Decoration Day” (1990), “Barbarians at the Gate” (1993), “Breathing Lessons” (1994), and a personal favorite of mine, “The Streets of Laredo” (1999), a miniseries good enough to live up to its predecessor, the 1989 classic “Lonesome Dove.”
And then there was that series of charming Polaroid commercials from the late 1970’s where Garner and Mariette Hartley were so convincing as a couple people believed they were married in real life:
For as long as either they or I have been around, there have been five pop culture constants in my life that are never-ending sources of joy: Classic studio movies, John Wayne’s films, Frank Sinatra’s music, “Married with Children,” and “The Rockford Files.”
When “The Rockford Files” premiered in 1974, I was 8 years old. Ever since, 40 years on, almost non-stop — from late night reruns on a vacuum tube-powered TV to the modern-day miracle of digital streaming — the adventures of Jim, Rocky, Angel, Beth and Dennis have been a part of the playlist and background of my life.
Despite all the great television released over the last decade or so, I still think “Rockford” is the best written and acted one-hour drama television has ever seen. Over 4 years ago I explained why in an article that explained why Hollywood can’t remake “The Rockford Files”:
You can’t remake “The Rockford Files.” You can call a television show “The Rockford Files.” Hell, you can call your parakeet “The Rockford Files,” but that doesn’t mean it’s “The Rockford Files.”
That show was James Garner, and if you’ve recently watched any of the episodes you know that the thirty-years that have passed since the program went off the air in 1980 have only served to cement its timelessness and status as a true classic. Sure, the sports coats might be a little loud and the sideburns too long, but Mike Post’s iconic theme, that awesome gold Pontiac Firebird and some of the best writing ever seen on television have kept the series as entertaining, compelling and fresh as anything produced today. …
The original “Rockford Files,” which ran on NBC from 1974 to 1980, was not just another hour-long detective/crime/mystery show. It was lightning in a bottle, the perfect mix of smart producers and talented writers who understood the unique quality of their star, James Garner, a man who could take an off-beat line of dialogue and make magic from it like no other.
Jim Rockford was also a character Garner had been perfecting for over a decade in films like “The Great Escape, “The Americanization of Emily,” and under-appreciated classics such as “Skin Game” and “Support Your Local Sheriff[.]”
And what a delightfully interesting and endlessly fascinating character he was. On the surface, Jim Rockford was cheap (“I have expenses.”), always looking out for number one, ready to quit whenever threatened, rarely carried a gun (“Because I don’t want to shoot anyone!”), demanded his civil rights at the drop of a hat, and had no ambition beyond covering his monthly nut and going fishing with his dad, Rocky (Beery).
If the former con man and jailbird (for a crime he was innocent of) was ever the hero in any of the 122 mostly self-contained episodes, he was a reluctant one due to a complicated code of honor that somehow managed to remain consistent even as it kept surprising. Unlike his 1970s contemporaries such as Mannix, McCloud, Cannon, and Barnaby Jones, Rockford frequently failed to come out on top (his clients had a way of stiffing him), hated hitting people (it hurt the hand) and most of all, despised The Man: anyone in authority from police captains who forever threatened his license to lazy government bureaucrats who gave off attitude.
Rockford was cynical, glib, petty, a dirty fighter, had a temper, a smart mouth, a non-TV star waistline (tacos and Oreo cookies were a weakness), and chose to retain his fierce independence even though it meant barely scraping together a living in a rusty house trailer that uglied up a beachside Malibu parking lot. Rockford could also be intimidated (temporarily) and though he was always the smartest person in the room, it was surprisingly easy to catch him off guard.
But beneath those flaws and quirks was James Garner, a one-of-a-kind talent who gave this character what he gave all his characters, an unmistakable undercurrent of warmth and competence that kept us on his side. Boiled down to essentials, Jim Rockford was — unless he was running a game on some deserving scoundrel — an honest man who couldn’t help but offer the world a running verbal commentary on life as he saw it. Nothing was sacred, either. Government bureaucracy, pious hypocrites, and Hollywood celebrity would all come away with blisters after any confrontation with the working class PI.
We loved Rockford because he hated stupidity, insecurity, laziness and phonies as much as we did. And we loved him because even though he had led a life that had time and again made clear that there was no profit in doing the right thing, by the time the credits rolled — though he bitched and moaned the whole way there — Jim Rockford always did the right thing. He was also loyal to his friends, sometimes to a fault, and would risk his livelihood and even his life to get them out of a jam. …
Over six seasons a caustic, complicated, paunchy, middle-aged Los Angeles PI managed to give almost as good as he got as he eked out a living filled with betrayals, disappointments, reversals, beatings and many a trip to jail. Through it all, though, James Rockford persevered, never once giving up an inch of his dignity or sharply observant sense of humor. This premise brought to life by geniuses and a creative alchemy even they had difficult recreating in a series of “Rockford” television films in the 90s, gave us one of the best one-hour dramas ever created.
So to those involved in this coming remake, I wish you nothing but success and a long run and the vast wealth that comes with syndication. May your show meet with critical acclaim and a shower of Emmys.
Whatever that show is.
Because no matter what you call it, it won’t be “The Rockford Files.”
I want to express my personal condolences James Garner’s daughter, Gigi Garner, who for years, through her Twitter account and other social media platforms, has been paying tribute to her dad befriending his many fans (like myself).
Knowing how tough this loss is on those of us who for so long admired him from afar, it is impossible to imagine what she and all of James Garner’s loved ones are going through.
Let me leave you with the finest hour of television ever produced:
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC