20 July 2014
James Garner, who died on Saturday at the age of 86, had a career that shuffled from TV to film to TV and back to film with the relaxed, unflappable gait of a cowboy – the type of role he was initially and really always associated with, from his first successes in the series Cheyenne (1955-7) and Maverick (1957-62). As a standalone film star, he caught some good breaks early on – starring opposite Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn in William Wyler’s terrific second adaptation of The Children’s Hour (1961), and as part of the whopping alpha-male line-up in The Great Escape (1963). There, his part as Flight Lt Hendley, the American in the RAF able to procure everything from cameras to ID cards, even threatened to steal the movie away from Steve McQueen. (McQueen was allegedly envious of his strapping co-star’s screen time, and “that goddamn white turtleneck” he was always wearing.)
Though you wouldn’t have guessed it at that moment, Hendley was Garner’s definitive film turn. At 6ft 2, and with his lady-killer looks and bushy eyebrows, Garner certainly wasn’t short of movie-star charisma or sex appeal. But the 1970s were encroaching, and this was a time when male stardom in Hollywood was starting to change: we were entering the era of the craggy (Gene Hackman), sardonic (Jack Nicholson), dangerous (Pacino, De Niro) and downright scrawny (Dustin Hoffman). Garner was almost too good-looking for his own good, a throwback to the Rock Hudson age when square jaws were bankable. He was a natural co-star for a specifically wholesome brand of leading lady – it’s telling that he worked twice with Doris Day (in the 1963 double bill of Move Over, Darling and The Thrill of it All) and three times with Julie Andrews.
The first of these pairings with Andrews, 1964’s cheeky, Paddy Chayefsky-scripted war satire The Americanisation of Emily, he regularly called his favourite film. John Frankenheimer’s expensive racing flick Grand Prix (1966), in which he was the biggest draw, was enough of a hit that stardom still looked like a rosy prospect. But gunfighter roles kept sticking to him. His persona was raffish and easygoing – the bluff, manly flipside to Clint Eastwood’s squinty iconoclasm – at a time when American film viewers were gravitating towards the latter.
TV viewers, not so much. It was natural, then, that Garner slipped back onto the small screen for the bulk of the 1970s, with his six-year stint as the rugged but oddly danger-averse hero of The Rockford Files (1974-80). Re-emerging as a film star was no cinch, despite the success of Victor/Victoria (1982), where the gender-bending let him send up his hetero credentials, moustache and all. Martin Ritt and Sally Field had to fight Columbia Pictures to get him cast in the horse-ranch dramedy Murphy’s Romance (1985) – the studio’s preference was to drag Marlon Brando out of retirement to do it, arguing that Garner was too squarely associated with TV stardom by this point. But the director and leading lady got their way, and the Academy duly awarded Garner with his one and only Oscar nomination for that part.
The film was a significant sleeper hit, but still didn’t quite usher in the major afterlife as a movie star that, say, Bryan Cranston is currently enjoying after Breaking Bad. A lot of Garner’s subsequent work, like his good supporting role in Mel Gibson’s spin-off of Maverick (1994), was very obviously a nod back to his TV roots, but fondly and enjoyably done, like donning a favourite hat for the first time in decades. His old pal Eastwood – they’d had an epic fistfight together in an episode of the show called “Duel at Sundown” (1959) – threw him a nice opportunity as one of the grizzled astronauts in Space Cowboys (2000). And though his role in Robert Benton’s noirish old-timers’ mystery Twilight (1998) was fourth-ranked below Paul Newman, Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon – he didn’t even make the poster – it was the most interesting part in a neglected movie, and might even have bagged him some supporting-actor kudos had the film been more of a hit.
To a new generation of viewers, he had one last renaissance waiting, as Ryan Gosling’s older self in The Notebook (2004): a very touching performance that serves as a capstone to his career now. It had his stolid affability, his Clark Gable-like charm, and a touch of the rogue, without transgressing civil boundaries. He tipped us a wink with his old devil’s smoothness, but it was also exactly as sentimental as it needed to be. It was a reminder, behind the hearty frame of this Oklahoma jock and ex-soldier, that Garner’s best gift to us was something a little out of fashion – a gentle gallantry.