GARNER, JAMES

U.S. Actor

James Garner has been called our finest television actor; he has been compared more than once to Cary Grant, but also deemed dependably folksy. Possessed of a natural gift for humor, a charm that works equally well for romantic comedy and tongue-in-cheek adventure, Garner patented the persona of the reluctant hero as his own early in his career, but also exhibited an understated flair for drama that has deepened with age. Garner began his television career in the fifties, becoming a movie star in short order, and maintains an active presence in both media nearly forty years later.

Transplanted to Hollywood after a knockabout adolescence and stints in the Merchant Marine and Korea, the strapping Oklahoman came to acting almost by chance, at the urging of an old friend-turned-talent agent. Although his first job, in a touring company of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, was a non-speaking role, it enabled the 25-year-old actor to work with--and learn from--Henry Fonda, and led to a bigger part in a second national tour of the play. Spotted by Warners Brothers producers, he was hired for small parts on two episodes of the western series Cheyenne, after which the studio signed him to a contract. After a turn as a con man in an installment of the anthology Conflict and small parts in two Warners features, Garner landed a major role as Marlon Brando's pal in Sayonara. On the heels of this breakthrough, Garner was signed as the lead in Maverick, a new western series created by Roy Huggins. As wandering gambler Bret Maverick, Garner perfected a persona that would remain with him throughout his career: the lovable con-man with a soul of honor and a streak of larceny. Maverick put more emphasis on humor than gunplay, but while Bret and brother Bart (Jack Kelly) were a bit more pragmatic--not to say cowardly--than most TV heroes, the series was not a wholesale satire on westerns, although it did parody the genre--and TV favorites like Bonanza--on occasion.

Immediately upon signing as Maverick, Garner found himself cast in leading roles in Warner Brothers features. He made three routine films for the studio during breaks from the series--but he was still being paid as a television contract player. When Warner's suspended the young star in 1960 during a writer's strike, Garner walked off the series and out of his contract. The studio sued, and lost, and Garner would not return to television--apart from guest shots in comedy-variety shows, or golf tournaments--for a decade.

Garner made a comfortable transition to features, becoming a bankable box-office name in the early 1960s. He made eighteen features during the decade, a mix of adventures (The Great Escape), westerns (Duel at Diablo), and romantic comedies (The Thrill of It All). Garner tested his dramatic muscles in downbeat psychological thrillers like Mister Buddwing, and made a calculated turn against type as a grim, vengeful Wyatt Earp in Hour of the Gun, but his most successful films emphasized his innate charm and flair for irony. Save for a boost from the tongue-in-cheek western Support Your Local Sheriff, by the late 1960s Garner's drawing power as a movie star was in decline.

Garner returned to form, and to television, in 1971 with the turn-of-the-century western Nichols. The series also marked Garner's return to Warner Brothers, this time as a partner and co-producer (through his Cherokee Productions) rather than an employee. Set in Arizona circa 1914, Nichols was an affectionate depiction of the death of the old west, with Garner cast as the motorcycle-bound sheriff of an Arizona town. Nichols was amiably shady a la Maverick, but with a harder edge, more greed, and less honor. An innovative concept peopled with offbeat characters, Nichols premiered with mediocre ratings that were not aided by schedule-juggling. The network, theorizing that Garner's character was too avaricious and unlikable, decreed a change: Sheriff Nichols was murdered in the last episode aired, and replaced by his more stalwart twin brother Jim Nichols. Before the strategy could be tested in additional episodes, or an additional season, the program was canceled. It remains the actor's favorite among his own series.

After returning to the big screen for a few fairly undistinguished features (e.g., They Only Kill Their Masters) in 1974 Garner was cast in what might be called the second defining role of his television career, as laid-back private detective Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files. A product of writer-producers Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell, Rockford was in some ways an updated version of Maverick, infusing its mysteries with a solid dose of humor, and flirting with genre parody. At the same time, however, thanks to fine writing and strong characters, the series worked superbly as a realistic private eye yarn in the Chandler tradition. Garner left Rockford in 1980, in the middle of the series' sixth season, suffering from the rigors of its action-packed production. Soon after, Universal sued the actor for breaching his contract, but in 1983 Garner, ever the maverick off-screen, brought a $22.5 million suit against the studio for creatively accounting him out of his Rockford profits; six years later Universal settled for an undisclosed, reportedly multi-million dollar, sum.

Garner had dusted off his gambler's duds in 1978 for two appearances as Bret Maverick in the pilot and first episode of a short-lived series Young Maverick (same concept, now featuring a young cousin as the wandering hero). A year after exiting Rockford, Garner revived his original roguish alter-ego once more in a new series, Bret Maverick, with the dapper cardsharp now older and more settled as a rancher and saloon owner in an increasingly modern west. Despite good ratings, the show was canceled after one season, ostensibly because its demographics skewed too old.

Garner took on the occasional movie role throughout the eighties, in hits like Victor, Victoria (1982), and Murphy's Romance (1985)--which earned him an Oscar nomination--and misses like Tank (1984) and Sunset (1988). But feature work became almost a sidelight for the actor as he entered a new phase of his career, cultivating his dramatic side in a succession of made-for-television movies and miniseries. Apart from a fairly pedestrian role in the soap-epic miniseries Space, Garner's performances in The Long Summer of George Adams, The Glitter Dome, My Name is Bill W., and Decoration Day allowed him to explore and expand his palette as a character actor. He earned some of the best notices of his career (and two Emmy nominations) for his performances in Heartsounds, as a physician facing his own mortality, and Promise, as a self-involved bachelor faced with the responsibility of caring for his schizophrenic brother. More recently Garner won praise as Joanne Woodward's curmudgeonly husband in Breathing Lessons, and for his portrayal of the taciturn Woodrow Call in Streets of Laredo, a mini-series sequel to Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove.

Garner the affable charmer did not completely abandon the light touch, however. In 1991 he returned to series television in a half-hour comedy Man of the People, as a gambler and con-man appointed by corrupt politicos to fill the city council seat of his late ex-wife. Independent and honorable (in his way), Councilman Jim Doyle managed to confound his patrons and do some good for the community while lining his own pockets. (Shades of Nichols, low ratings prompted producers to try to make the character "warmer" after a few months, but the tinkering didn't help and the show was canceled at mid-season.) Two years later Garner was cast as RJR-Nabisco executive Ross Johnson in HBO's Barbarians at the Gate, in large part to ensure that at least one character in the cast of corporate cutthroats would have some likability. When Maverick was reincarnated as a theatrical film in 1993 (with Mel Gibson as Bret), Garner was there as an aging lawman who turns out to have more than a passing connection to the Maverick legend. And P.I. Jim Rockford was revived in a series of Rockford Files made-for-television reunion movies beginning in 1994, his relaxed attitude and wry anti-heroics intact. With three Rockford movies aired, three more projected, and other television and feature projects in the pipeline, James Garner has never been busier--or better. As he approaches the end of his fourth decade as an actor, Garner demonstrates true maturity at his craft (he would undoubtedly call it a "job").

Described as "amiable" and "lovable" in countless career profiles, Garner's warmth and likability were best suited, perhaps, to the intimacy of television's small screen and serial storytelling forms. And yet from the very beginning his career constituted a unique exception in the hierarchy of Hollywood stardom, as he passed back and forth with relative ease between television and feature work, and--although that boundary remains distinct, and crossover rare--still does. Like many of Hollywood's greatest actors, he tends to play an extension of himself--a la Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, and his mentor Henry Fonda. Like them, Garner is affecting not because of his ability to obliterate himself and become a character, but because of his ability to exploit his own personality in creating a part. Admittedly, it is a different sort of talent than that of a DeNiro or Duvall. Yet, as Jean Vallely wrote in Esquire, DeNiro is probably unsuited to television stardom--he may not be the kind of star we want to see our living room. "On the other hand," Vallely wrote, "you love having Garner around. He becomes part of the fabric of the family. You really care about him." Where DeNiro impresses us with his skill, Garner welcomes us with his humanity. Which is why he may indeed be the quintessential TV actor, and why he surely will be remembered by television audiences as he has said he wishes to be: "with a smile."

-Mark Alvey


James Garner

JAMES GARNER. Born James Scott Bumgarner in Norman, Oklahoma, U.S.A., 7 April 1928. Attended University of Oklahoma; studied acting at Herbert Bergof Studios, New York. Served with U.S. Merchant Marines in Korean War (awarded Purple Heart). Married: Lois Clark, 1956; children: Greta, Kimberly, and Scott. Began career with stage production The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, early 1950s; offered contract with Warner Brothers, 1956; film debut, Toward the Unknown, 1956; title role in Maverick, 1957-62; title role in The Rockford Files, NBC-TV, 1974-79. Recipient: Emmy Awards, 1977 and 1986.

TELEVISION SERIES

1957-60 Maverick
1971-72 Nichols
1974-79 Rockford Files
1981-82, 1990 Bret Maverick
1991      Man of the People

TELEVISION MINISERIES

1985 Space
1993 Barbarians at the Gate
1995 Larry McMurtry's Streets of Laredo

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES

1974 The Rockford Files
1978 The New Maverick
1982 The Long Summer of George Adams
1984 Heartsounds
1986 Promise (also producer)
1989 My Name is Bill W. (also producer)
1990 Decorations Day
1993 Barbarians at the Gate
1994 Rockford Files: I Still Love L.A.
1994 Breathing Lessons
1995 Rockford Files: A Blessing In Disguise
1996 Rockford Files: If the Frame Fits
1996 Rockford Files: Friends and Foul Play

FILMS

Toward the Unknown, 1956; The Girl He Left Behind, 1956; Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend, 1957; Sayonara, 1957; Darby's Rangers, 1959; Up Periscope, 1959; Cash McCall, 1960; The Children's Hour, 1962; Boy's Night Out, 1962; The Great Escape, 1963; The Thrill of It All, 1963; The Wheeler Dealers, 1963; Move Over Darling, 1963; The Americanization of Emily, 1964; 36 Hours, 1965; The Art of Love, 1965; A Man Could Get Killed, 1966; Duel at Diablo, 1966; Mister Buddwing, 1966; Grand Prix, 1966; Hour of the Gun, 1967; How Sweet It Is, 1968; The Pink Jungle, 1968; Marlowe, 1969; Support Your Local Sheriff, 1969; A Man Called Sledge, 1970; Support Your Local Gunfighter, 1971; Skin Game, 1971; They Kill Their Masters, 1972; One Little Indian, 1973; The Castaway Cowboys, 1974; Health, 1979; The Fan, 1981; Victor/Victoria, 1982; Tank, 1984; Murphy's Romance, 1985; Sunset, 1988; Fire in the Sky, 1993; Maverick, 1994

FURTHER READING

Anderson, Christopher. Hollywood TV: The Studio System in the Fifties. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Beck, Marilyn. "James Garner Makes a Decision to Act His Age." Austin (Texas) American-Statesman, 2 March 1986.

Cameron, Julia. "James Garner Regards Acting as Just a Job." Austin (Texas) American-Statesman, 9 February 1986.

Collins, Max, and John Javna. The Best of Crime and Detective TV. New York: Harmony, 1988.

Green, Tom. "Garner Grows into Deeper Roles." USA Today (New York), 12 December 1986.

Grillo, Jean B. "A Man's Man and a Woman's Too." New York Daily News--TV Week, 10 June 1979.

Hall, Jane. "The Man is Back." People (New York), 22 April 1985.

Harwell, Jenny Andrews. "James Garner: A Softhearted Maverick." The Saturday Evening Post (Indianapolis, Indiana), November 1981.

Hawkes, Ellen. "Gentle Heart, Tough Guy." Parade (New York), 12 July 1992.

"James Garner." People Weekly/Extra (New York), Summer 1989.

Martindale, David. The Rockford Phile. Las Vegas: Pioneer, 1991.

Murphy, Mary. "Meet a James Garner You'll Hardly Recognize." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 13 December 1986.

"Playboy Interview: James Garner." Playboy (Chicago, Illinois), March 1981.

Robertson, Ed. Maverick: Legend of the West. Beverly Hills, California: Pomegranate, 1994.

_____________. "This is Jim Rockford . . .": The Rockford Files. Beverly Hills, California: Pomegranate, 1995.

Strait, Raymond. James Garner: A Biography. New York: St. Martin's, 1985.

Torgerson, Ellen. "James Garner Believes in Good Coffee--and a Mean Punch." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 2 June 1979.

Vallely, Jean. "The James Garner Files." Esquire (Chicago, Illinois), July 1979.

Ward, Robert. "Never Play Poker with James Garner." GQ (New York), March 1984.

Willens, Michelle. "James Garner: On Being a Barbarian." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 20 March 1993.

 

See also Maverick; Rockford Files