July 21, 2014
James Garner as Bart Maverick and Jack Kelly as Bret Maverick from the television program 'Maverick'.
There are actors. There are icons.
And then there are those rare stars who illuminate what it means to be American at our best. The ones you look at and think, yeah, that's the man I'd like to be. Or be with.
And that's James Garner.
For over 50 years, he was the epitome of the reluctant hero. Smart, funny, handsome, sort of larcenous and uncomfortable around fools — which, considering how many fools there are, could make him a little cranky. Someone who's good in a fight, but would rather not have to prove it. Someone who, when riled, could sue his studio bosses twice, and win both times.
We first saw his on-screen persona full-blown in Maverick, a 1957 Western that stood out from the era's herd of horse dramas by slipping in a satirical tone, overcoming ABC's fear that comedy and the Old West could not mix. Garner was Bret Maverick, card shark and — when absolutely required — gunslinger, tooling around the west looking for ladies and finding trouble. Well, and ladies.
Or at least he did until 1960, when he walked out on the show and on his Warner Bros. contract. The studio sued and Garner fought back — and in a rare victory in those days for actors, won his freedom.
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Soured, perhaps, by his television experience, he spent the next decade in movies. Success followed him to the big screen, with films ranging from comedies like The Thrill of It All and The Art of Love, to action hits like The Great Escape and Grand Prix, to cult favorites like The Americanization of Emily and Marlowe, to an unofficial revival of his Maverick character in Western comedies like
Support Your Local Gunfighter and Skin Game.
Despite a burgeoning film career, he returned to television in 1971 as a scheming, money-hungry, anti-hero sheriff in the offbeat, end-of-the-West Western Nichols. It was a terrific series that would have been a smash hit for HBO, had there been an HBO at the time. On NBC it was a flop — so much so that, in a last-ditch plea for renewal, the producers killed Nichols in the last episode and replaced him with his more upright twin brother, also played by Garner. The show was canceled anyway.
The show was gone, but Garner stayed in TV. He and
Mariette Hartley did a string of commercials for Polaroid that were so popular, and so natural, people thought the pair were married.
Undeterred by his Nichols experience, Garner tried series television again a few years later with 1974's The
Rockford Files. The result was yet another signature role, and the one that perhaps most fully develops and enshrines the persona he created forMaverick. Both performances are essentially, wonderfully comic, but in place of Maverick's roguish youth, Rockford adds the poignancy of Jim Rockford's middle age, from his physical aches to his realization of this unjustly imprisoned ex-con that life did not always turn out as one hoped. It was Garner at his best, and it set a standard for detectives with depth TV has yet to surpass.
Yet as good as Garner was as Rockford and as much as he may have enjoyed it, the physical demands of the role overwhelmed him — and while the sixth season was still going on, Garner walked out. It led to yet another legal battle, with Universal suing Garner and Garner countersuing, claiming the studio cheated him out of his share of the profits. The near eight-year lawsuit eventually settled out of court, with Garner winning an undisclosed amount — making it Garner 2, Studios 0.
While fighting Universal, he entered his most prolific and productive film period. On the big screen, he had two of his biggest and best hits,
Victor Victoria and Murphy's Romance. On TV, he starred in such well-regarded movies as Heartsounds, My Name is Bill W, Space, Decoration Day and Barbarians at the Gate.
Best of all, he was able to show us the extent of his range, exploring the serious and not so lovable side of his customary lovable rogue in the 1986 TV movie Promise. Playing opposite
James Woods, Garner starred as a self-absorbed bachelor forced to fulfill his promise to care for his mentally ill brother — and then forced to admit that it was a responsibility he could not fulfill. It remains one of the toughest, most honest TV movie performances ever.
Age slowed him, but did not stop him. He did
Space Cowboys and The Notebook, among other films, for the movies, and Man of the People, Chicago Hope, First Monday and 8 Simple Rules for TV.
His performances have now come to an end, but the work endures — and despite a fine movie career, TV will always be his home in our minds' eye. And it's not just because he was so wonderful in so many wonderful shows. It's because, like all the best TV stars, Garner was able to use the curious intimacy of that smaller screen to make us believe we were seeing both him and the character, and to make us fall in love with both.
With Garner, you have to think that love will endure.