Monday, July 21, 2014

RIP James Garner

So sorry to hear of the passing of James Garner Saturday night. He was 86. I never met him but never heard one bad thing from anyone who did. And you know this town – ten people will tell you Mother Teresa was a nightmare.

But James Garner was the actor every comedy writer coveted. A handsome fella who was charming, could play comedy with ease, was self-deprecating, smart, and could act. Every TV sitcom pilot has that guy. I’m looking for that guy for my play. And there are sadly, very few. They’re harder to find than white truffles. And they make all the difference in the world.

Imagine CHEERS without Ted Danson. Imagine MASH without Alan Alda. Imagine any Cary Grant movie without Cary Grant.

And Jim's talent extended to commercials too. You have to be of a certain age, but in the late ‘70s he was the pitchman for Polaroid cameras. He had such warmth and sincerity that those cameras were flying off the shelf. He did the same as the spokesman for beef but was dropped from the campaign after he needed open heart surgery.

James Garner made it all look effortless. Probably because he was that guy. He was well-intentioned, supported causes for the public good, and was awarded two Purple Hearts in the Korean War.

He is best known, of course, for his roles in THE ROCKFORD FILES and MAVERICK. But he also appeared in quite a few movies. Since comedy is never taken seriously, Garner was only nominated once for an Academy Award – for the 1985 movie, MURPHY’S ROMANCE. Some of his movies worth seeing are THE GREAT ESCAPE, DUEL AT DIABLO, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERRIF, and VICTOR/VICTORIA.

But there’s one movie he starred in I’d like to recommend. If you haven’t seen this movie, rent it or stream it tonight. THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY from 1964. He gives the performance of a lifetime as a wheeler-dealer in the Navy just before D-Day. The screenplay is by the great Paddy Chayefsky. He delivers a powerful speech on the idiocy of glorifying war that says in three minutes what we took eleven years to say in MASH. Here it is:

James Garner was very self-effacing. On acting he once said: “I’m a Methodist, but not as an actor.” In his memoir he wrote: “I’m from the Spencer Tracy school: be on time, know your words, hit your marks, and tell the truth. I don’t have any theories abut acting, and I don’t think about how to do it, except that an actor shouldn’t take himself too seriously, and shouldn’t try to make acting something that it isn’t. Acting is just common sense. It isn’t hard if you put yourself aside and just do what the writer wrote.”

From that last line alone you can see why I loved him.

The legacy of James Garner will live on. At least in my writing. I generally create two types of characters – one who is similar to who I am and the other is someone I wish I were. That’s James Garner.


Lara said...

Ken, My guilty pleasure movie is, "MOVE OVER, DARLING." Don't tell anyone... :) xo

ODJennings said...

I'll repeat what I read in a comments section this weekend:

You could do a lot worse than going through life asking yourself "What would Jim Rockford do?"

Jim S said...

The late, great Stephen J. Cannell tells a great story, actually two, about James Garner. One is about dialogue. Apparently in the six years of The Rockford Files, Garner never once asked that a line of dialogue be changed. He said what was written. (When you have guys like David Chase of the Sopranos and Cannell writing, that helps). One day Cannell is called to the set because Garner is having trouble with the dialogue. Cannell understands that this happens and offers to simplify it so Garner can get the scene done. Garner says no, the dialogue is great, but Garner just can't get it done. He says he's sorry for holding everyone up and he'll get the scene in the can. That amazes Cannell. He would have been happy to rewrite the scene, but the actor is actually protecting the writer.

The second story is about a season wrap party. Because Garner never complained or made suggestions, Cannell thought he that maybe he didn't care. They were talking about a particular episode and Garner chides Cannell, saying it wasn't one of his best efforts. Cannell asked Garner if Garner felt that way, why didn't he insist that Cannell fix the script.

Garner said because he understood that taking the time to fix one episode meant that taking time away from the three episodes that they were working on for the future. It didn't make sense to save one episode at the cost of three. Better to take one for the team. Again, Cannell is blown away. Garner understood the problems of television production and didn't make the producers' problems worse.

Truly, a team player.

VincentS said...

Saw THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY for the first time a few weeks ago and couldn't believe how good it was.

chuckcd said...

I loved the "Support Your Local Sheriff" and "Support Your Local Gunfighter" films.

One of my favorite actors.

Deuce Hendley said...

A-men. Was always a favorite of my family beginning w/Maverick. Always had the feeling that James Garner and Jim Rockford were one in the same, maybe I just wanted it to be that way. A classy guy. Gonna read his autobiography in the coming weeks.

Scooter Schechtman said...

Jim Rockford still blows away all the current competition. I try to catch episodes on MeTV. He made some movies I love like "Support Your Local Sheriff" though the sequel with Pleshette was kind of a dud. I never saw "Maverick" so here's what should be on his stone:
"Aw, come on, Dennis!"
Plus the show's writers never hid that Rockford was totally nailing Beth Davenport.

Michael said...

To add to Jim S, the great Russell Baker of The New York Times once told an editor who said he wanted his "best" column, "If you are going to print the best of Russell Baker, you also have to print the worst of Russell Baker." We tend to forget that over the long haul, not everything can be golden.

On Garner: apparently, he liked to play golf at Bel-Air in the old days with two guys: Vin Scully and Jim Murray. Wouldn't it have been great to be the last member of THAT foursome?

Mike Barer said...

It's hard to put into words, but James Garner was more than an actor, he was part of the fabric of our culture.

Rockgolf said...

Here's a question that only a comedy writer could answer. I'm binge-watching the old Dick Van Dyke show and in one episode, Buddy gets fired. Rob & Sally get Buddy his job back by hiring Jackie, a nightclub comedian who insults Mel, the producer, ever worse than Buddy did.

But Rob & Sally are terrified that Mel will find out that Jackie is a nightclub comedian. Why would that be so critical? Were there rules or guidelines that would make it harder or impossible for a nightclub comedian to get a job writing for TV in those days?

Anonymous said...

I love just about everything James Garner ever did. I'm a sucker for Doris Day movies so I really, really LOVED Move Over Darling w/Polly Bergen (as an absolute knockout in that negligee) and The Thrill of it All. His face when he drove that car into the pool was priceless.

Here is a link to the polaroid commercials.

To lose Elaine Stritch & James Garner in just a couple of days is just cruel.

Pam St. Louis

404 said...

Showing my age here, but when I think of James Garner the first thing I always think of is TANK. It was a rather mediocre comedy, true, but Garner was great in it, I always thought.

Dave Logan said...

"SPACE COWBOYS" was a very enjoyable movie due in large part to the ensemble acting of Clint Eastwood (who also directed), Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner. I think Garner just played himself but like always, his performance was pitch perfect for the role he played.

Liggie said...

Along with his underrated versatility were his continued appearances in touchstone films/shows for virtually every generation. Romcom fans will note his key role in "The Notebook", and TV watchers too young to remember ROCKFORD and MAVERICK recall his joining 8 SIMPLE RULES after John Ritter's untimely passing.

IIRC, in a GQ profile several years ago, the writer witnessed him playing poker with friends/cast/crew ... and giving the money they lost back at the end of the day. Garner explained that he just played poker for fun.

One of the few celebrities I wish I had met *after* reading about what he was really like.

Anonymous said...

James Garner is wonderful in that scene, but so is Joyce Grenfell. She is brilliant:

Dan Ball said...

I've been watching ROCKFORD FILES a bit the past couple of years. In fact, I just watched some on Thursday before we went out of town for the weekend, so I feel like I killed him. I've done this to several celebrities. Ricardo Montalban was another one.

But yeah, Ken. I definitely agree that James Garner is that guy you want in your script. I'm always so inspired by that Bret Maverick/Jim Rockford archetype. There's just something about it that feels old-fashioned and so far-removed from the characters we see today.

I watched MARLOWE on Warner Instant a while back and it was a pretty fun romp that blended Chandler and Huggins/Cannell. It could've used more oomph, but it was still entertaining.

Steve Z. said...

Garner is one of my all-time favorite actors. I own every episode of The Rockford Files (the series, not the subsequent TV movies). While they can feel dated because of the pacing, and certainly because of the cars and fashions, James Garner's acting is still a breath of fresh air. I was very sorry to hear of his death, but he'll live on with all the great work he committed to the screen. (Don't overlook Sunset with Bruce Willis... not a great movie, but lots of fun and Willis and Garner have great buddy chemistry.)

Aaron Sheckley said...

There are very few actors/public figures whose death struck me in a personal way. Isaac Asimov was one, and now James Garner has joined that list. Even as a 10 year old kid watching The Rockford Files, his charm and authenticity came across so strongly that you just felt he was someone you wanted to know. No movie or TV show could be totally bad if he was in it. I'm sorry we lost him, but I'm sure glad we had him for as long as we did.

Tim W. said...

I never really watched the Rockford Files, but loved the Maverick episodes with James Garner (in syndication). He had this coolness that a young kid like I was was just in awe of.

And by the way, apparently Mother Teresa was no Mother Teresa, herself. Not by a long shot....

Canda said...

36 HOURS is a fun thriller, where Garner is a Major in the Army, who knows the plans to D-Day, and is drugged by German agents, and when he awakens he is in a military hospital (created by the Nazis to look just like an American military hospital). He is told he has been in a coma for 5 years, and as therapy they want him to tell them everything he remembers before he went into the coma, which includes the D-Day plans.

There are also great performances from Eva Marie Saint, who is brought in from a concentration camp to be a nurse, and told her family will be punished if she doesn't help extract the information from Garner, and Rod Taylor as the German Intelligence Officer who came up with the plan.

benson said...

How great was James Garner? My Fellow Americans is a truly awful movie, but James Garner and Jack Lemmon were great in it.

Read this yesterday. The Dallas Mavericks of the NBA were named so because James Garner was a small original investor in the ownership group.

Unknown said...

Wonderful tribute, Ken. I was a huge fan of Garner's 1071/1972 series "Nichols" (aka "James Garner as Nichols"), which Garner said was his favorite of all the series he did. I'm glad the show is available on DVD so people will get a chance to see what an enjoyable show it was. Rest in Peace.

James Van Hise said...

Garner stars in the 1970s film SKIN GAME, which I'm not sure could be made today because it is basically a comedy about slavery.

MARLOWE is fun for a number of reasons, including for the extended cameo by Bruce Lee before before he became BRUCE LEE! Bruce Lee steals every scene he's in but he had to go to Hong Kong to become a star because American producers wouldn't give him the lead in movies here, or even in a TV series.

Sharon said...

AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY is one of my favorite movies. I've been pleasantly surprised at the mentions of it in the media and amongst my friends and acquaintances. It's really James Garner at his best. I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but he seems to have done things the 'right' way -- never got too caught up in the fame thing and married to the same woman for almost 60 years. Seems like he was quite a guy.

Kosmo13 said...

James Garner was equally effective when playing a dastardly villain. For example: the Cheyenne episode where he menaces Clint Walker. Garner was so convincingly despicable, by the mid-point of the story, you're booing and hissing him just as much as you root for him when he's playing the good guy.

He was good in character roles, too, such as when he played "Pappy" on Maverick.

Garner's talents as an actor were greater than most people realized and could handle just about any type of role.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I wrote something on my blog, about the day I kissed Bret Maverick. Judging by the comments, it seems back in the day -- and that would be the late 50s and early 60s -- families fell into two camps: those who watched Bonanza [yawn], and those who watched Maverick [uber-cool]. But we did share some common ground. Boys, girls, parents -- we all dreamed of being a TV cowboy.

jcs said...

THE ROCKFORD FILES was on German public TV in the 80s and I was probably 12 to 16 years old. I could not get enough of this show. A funny Californian PI who never took himself too seriously and disliked violence. Garner was just perfect in this role. I still like the opening sequence: the answering machine, the music, the stills.

THE GREAT ESCAPE also made good use of Garner's talents, putting him into the role of a cunning but caring US Air Force officer.

Rochdalian said...

More than any other actor you can think of, James Garner was the guy I'd want to hang with for a while. Of course, I'd have to stop humming the theme song to "The Rockford Files" out loud.

And I completely agree with Scooter Schechtman about Jim Rocford and Beth Davenport.

Johnny Richards said...

Mr. Garner has that amazing ability to make acting look easy. When I heard the news I wondered how Kaley Cuoco was taking it. From what I understand, after John Ritter passed away she really took comfort in Mr Garner on the set.

Brian Doan said...

I want to mention one more late-period Garner performance, in the HBO adaptation of BARBARIANS AT THE GATE. Larry Gelbart writing the words, Garner saying the words, and the whole thing such a brilliantly satiric, hilarious concoction that you don't even realize how many dark places and deep messages they've slipped in-between the jokes. Absolutely fantastic.

Gary said...

Didn't see it mentioned in the comments, but James Garner was also terrific in Murphy's Romance, an amiable comedy with Sally Field. I have a feeling he worked very hard to make it all look so effortless.

There was a great inside joke in one episode of 8 Simple Rules, where the family went to a play one night, and when returning home Garner says, "Well, that was worth missing The Rockford Files for." The audience screamed.

XJill said...

@Johnny Richards - Kaley on her instagram today (along with pics of her and Garner): "I woke up with a broken heart today. The world has lost a legend. James Garner was a gift to our business and an example of honesty and pure class. It was an honor to work beside him and receive his bear hugs every day. I love you gramps."

Barry Traylor said...

I'm old enough to have seen THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY in 1964. James Garner was one of a kind in many ways, a good actor and a nice man.

Toronto Blue Jay said...

Ken, you've tackled most media: stage, cinema, television, print. Have you thought of guesting on a comic strip? With your background in the
Reserves, I could imagine you writing a few Beetle

MikeN said...

According to Christopher Hitchens, Mother Teresa WAS a nightmare.

Your line about so few available actors who can be that guy, reminds me of Chris Rock at the Oscars:

"There's only 4 real stars in Hollywood. If you can't get one of them, wait. If you can't get Russell Crowe, wait. Don't hire Colin Farrell.

Rich Arnott said...

2 shows punctuated my childhood

The Rockford Files


One I watched with my parents, the other my Nan.

I hold both dearly to my heart, they both mean the world to me.


kent said...

Years ago I sat next to Mr Garner at a Raider game. He could not have been nicer or more down to earth.

In the second quarter a fan approached and asked him to autograph a piece of paper which had already been signed by OJ Simpson, who was seated nearby.

Mr Garner looked at the paper and said, " What do you know, OJ can write his name, or is that a stamp? ".

That must have been 30 years ago but I'll never forget my afternoon with Mr Garner.

Anonymous said...

I especially enjoyed James Garner in the beautifully photographed Frankenheimer picture, "Grand Prix," which captured a golden era of Formula One in the late 1960's.

Peter A said...

I never got to meet him, but I have a glimpse of what heaven with him looks like. Back when I worked in television, I had an early job as an office P.A. on the Sinatra miniseries. The production office was off the Warner Bros. lot and my job was to, after stopping there in the morning, to go to Burbank and continually get our paperwork (reimbursement checks, etc.) from department to department. I bicycled around the lot and for those six months I knew who was where.
One day, I was near the south side of the lot, and was bicycling past a stage when the doors were opened by the crew. The film version of "Maverick" was shooting, and out came, fresh from one of the riverboat gambling interiors, every cowboy actor still alive at the time, including Gardner.
I did not stop and meet, but slowly cycled and watched. If there is a cowboy Heaven...then I got a glimpse of it that day!

Doug Molitor said...

Garner loved writers, promoted and defended them. They paid him back with the greatest dialogue on TV.

From "White on White, Practically Perfect" by Stephen Cannell, the ep that introduced Tom Selleck as Lance White, impossibly pure detective:

Jim Rockford: [Referring to an unsolicited tip just received] It hasn't occurred to you this is a trap?

Lance White: [laughing] A trap? C'mon Jim, I doubt that.

Jim Rockford: I can't explain why you're still walkin' around. It's not gonna last long. You're naive, Lance, you really are! Ya hafta be cynical, you have to question things. You can't take someone named "Belle LaBelle" on face value! What's her angle, huh? Whose payroll is she on? You find out the answers to those things and then you start moving fast and crooked. You go through door sideways and low, at odd angles. You look for the Big Lie. Question everything!

Lance White: [Blithely] I'm going up to Lake Malibu. Why don't you come with me?

Jim Rockford: [Appealing to heaven] They'll kill 'im!

Bret Rockford said...

If you haven't read his autobiography, The Garner Files, run don't walk to a bookstore or library. It reads as if he was sitting next you to you and telling his story. When you read it, you can hear his voice in your head

Uncle Al said...

James Garner and the Rockford Files have long been
favorites of mine. I keep several episodes on my DVR and watch them when I need a pick me up and enjoyed his recent biography.
My son suggested the reason I like Longmire is because it's a combination of The Rockford Files and Justified.
He's probably right.

William C Bonner said...

The Americanization of Emily has been near the top of my Netflix Queue since I saw 20 minutes of it while on a workout machine. Unfortunately, it's been showing as "Long Wait" for most of the last six months.

I learned more about James Garner from a documentary on the million man march, realizing that he'd been much more than a pretty face when he was young.

Kendall Rivers said...

Of course everyone knows James Garner was a horrible jerk ;) but seriously, Jim Garner wasn't on my radar growing up until 8 Simple Rules but since then I've become one of his biggest fans. The man was one of the rare stars who was good looking but crazy talented, great at playing to his strengths but had a great range when the role called for it, the guy women wanted to sleep with and men wanted to be like as well aa grab a beer and catch a game with. He was that rare beast in Hollywood or true class and immeasurable talent, the old school man's man with warmth, sincerity and all testosterone. The only other male stars like him I can think of is Tom Selleck, Robert Urich, Peter Falk and Denzel Washington. They don't make that class of star anymore.