Sunday, July 20, 2014

JAMES GARNER (1928-2014) - A Tribute
It's an overpraised and too heavily focused on concept in the entertainment industry. If you're a performer, it's the equivalent of a happy ending for a movie - a must-have item.
Well, as a performer, James Garner well and truly had likeability. Though he once said, "I don't think acting is that difficult if you can put yourself aside and do what the writer wrote," there clearly seems to have been some aspect of Garner that still came through in even the best written of his roles - he generally seemed like a decent, likeable guy.
James Garner was one of those people who took a roundabout path to stardom: Coming out of Oklahoma, dropping out of school to join the Merchant Marines, getting wounded (twice) during the Korean War, and eventually ending up in small parts on Broadway, then moving on to Hollywood and fame and fortune. Surely this equal parts earthy and salty background as a person informed his performances as an actor.
After doing time in supporting parts on TV for several years, Garner first hit it big as the star of the TV western Maverick, which aired from 1957-62. From there, he made the jump to starring roles in a wide variety of movies.

One of my favorite of his films is 1962's Boys Night Out, in which Garner co-starred with Kim Novak, Tony Randall, Howard Duff and William Bendix. Though a terribly dated film today in many respects, it still entertains, and Garner has a terrific scene in which he explains that he is drunk because he had "tee many martoonis."
Garner followed this light sex comedy with the classic action film, The Great Escape (1963), co-starring with Steve McQueen. In 1965, he made another of my personal favorites of his films, the World War II thriller, 36 Hours, with Eva Marie Saint and Rod Taylor. Based on a Roald Dahl story, it tells the tale of Major Jefferson Pike (Garner), who is captured by the Nazis, who then try to convince him that the war is over, so that he'll divulge information about an upcoming U.S. military invasion. It's a tight, lightly Hitchcockian film, and Garner is very good as the beleaguered Pike.
In 1967, in Hour of the Gun, Garner played the iconic Wyatt Earp opposite Robert Ryan as Ike Clanton, and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday. A couple of years later, he played Raymond Chandler's iconic detective, Philip Marlowe, in the film Marlowe (1969), a role that had previously been played by Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart and Robert Montgomery. (And that would soon also be played by Robert Mitchum.) Even if Garner's career had ended here, he was obviously already in heady, and very manly, company.
But 1969 also found Garner in lighter fare, starring in the popular comedy, Support Your Local Sheriff! This was followed by a sequel, Support Your Local Gunfighter, in 1971. Both of these films seemed to be in endless rotation on TV when I was a kid, and I would always tune in to watch Garner (and Jack Elam, his sidekick in both films) bumble their way through the Wild West.
Then, beginning in 1974, Garner scored the role that would well and truly define his career for all time - low rent private investigator Jim Rockford on the TV series The Rockford Files (1974-80).
To digress for a moment...The 1970s were an awful, ugly decade. The colorful tie dye swirls of the 60s degraded into what I call the terrible Taco Bell trio of colors - everything seemed to be mustard yellow, orange and the world's worst shade of brown. Energetic psychedelic freak out rock became bloated "progressive" rock. Pop music became disco. Bellbottoms and pet rocks. Culture-wise, it was pretty rough going most of the time. For years I've said that the only two good things to come out of American pop culture during the 1970s were the Ramones and The Rockford Files. That might be an oversimplification, but I'll still stand by that statement.
The Rockford Files took a well established and tired genre - the TV P.I. - and breathed new life into it, and created a show that was greatly entertaining at the time, and still is greatly entertaining today. And at the heart of it all was the infinitely watchable and charming James Garner. (Who was, admittedly, also surrounded by a rock-solid supporting cast that included Noah Beery, Jr. as his father, Joe Santos as the ever put upon Dennis Becker, and Stuart Margolin as the world's greatest weasel, Angel. Other recurring performers included Bo Hopkins, Isaac Hayes, Strother Martin, my friend Mills Watson, and even Lauren Bacall.)

Jim Rockford was a far cry from the often glamorous and/or tough guy private investigators that had populated TV and movies for decades. Rockford seemed to be on the losing end of fights more often than not. He couldn't necessarily run faster than the people he would chase - or who would chase him. He got things wrong. He fell behind on his bills. But his dogged determination (mixed with a healthy dose of self-preservation) and Garner's skill as an actor made almost every episode of the original series a delight. Growing up in the 1970s, I watched a lot of TV shows, but The Rockford Files is the only one that's still vivid in my memory - and is the only one I'd want to watch again as an adult. It's not weighty, it's not meaningful, but as entertainment, it has more than stood the test of time.
John Wayne once called James Garner the best American actor. Well, maybe - or maybe not. But there's no denying his talent and charm. We have literally hundreds of examples of that captured for all time on tape and film. Though I certainly wouldn't say that I like everything he ever did, James Garner created some performances that I will always enjoy, and that I will want to revisit from time to time throughout my life. On a more routine and daily basis, it's hard for me to see an answering machine and not immediately hear him saying, "This is Jim Rockford..."

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