James Garner, best known as the amiable gambler Bret Maverick in the 1950s western “Maverick” and the cranky sleuth Jim Rockford in the 1970s series “The Rockford Files,” died on Saturday night at his home in Los Angeles. He was 86 and had had a major stroke years ago.
the Polaroid commercials
One of his most memorable roles was as a perpetually flummoxed pitchman for Polaroid cameras in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in droll commercials in which he played a vexed husband and Mariette Hartley played his needling wife. They were so persuasive that Ms. Hartley had a shirt printed with the declaration “I am not Mrs. James Garner.”
In his 2011 autobiography, “The Garner Files,” written with Jon Winokur, Mr. Garner confessed to having a live-and-let-live attitude with the caveat that when he was pushed, he shoved back. What distinguished his performance as Rockford was how well that more-put-upon-than-macho persona came across. Rockford’s reactions — startled, nonplused and annoyed being his specialties — appeared native to him.
The acting life
Mr. Garner came to acting late, and by accident. On his own after the age of 14 and a bit of a drifter, he had been working an endless series of jobs: telephone installer, oil field roughneck, chauffeur, dishwasher, janitor, lifeguard, grocery clerk, salesman and, fatefully, gas station attendant. While pumping gas in Los Angeles, he met a young man named Paul Gregory, who was working nearby as a soda jerk but wanted to be an agent.
Years later, after Mr. Garner had served in the Army during the Korean War — he was wounded in action twice, earning two Purple Hearts — he was working as a carpet layer in Los Angeles for a business run by his father. One afternoon he was driving on La Cienega Boulevard and saw a sign: Paul Gregory & Associates. Just then a car pulled out of a space in front of the building, and Mr. Garner, on a whim, pulled in. He was 25.
Mr. Gregory, by then an agent and a theatrical producer, hired him for a nonspeaking part in his production of Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” which starred Henry Fonda, John Hodiak and Lloyd Nolan. It opened in Santa Barbara and toured the country before going to Broadway, where it opened in January 1954 and ran for 415 performances.
Mr. Garner said he learned to act from running lines with the stars and watching them perform, especially Henry Fonda, another good-looking mid-western actor (Fonda was from Nebraska) with a sly streak.“I swiped practically all my acting style from him,” he once said. “I watched his movies, followed his moves and learned how to act”.
James Scott Bumgarner was born in Norman, Okla., on April 7, 1928. His paternal grandfather had participated in the Oklahoma land rush of 1889 and was later shot to death by the son of a widow with whom he’d been having an affair. His maternal grandfather was a full-blooded Cherokee. (Mr. Garner would later name his production company Cherokee Productions.)
His first home was the back of a small store that his father, Weldon, known as Bill, ran in the nearby hamlet of Denver. His mother, Mildred, died when he was 4. When he was 7, the store burned down and his father left James and his two older brothers to be raised by relatives; when his father remarried, the family reunited, but James’s stepmother was abusive, he said in his memoir, and after a violent episode at home, he left. He traveled about, working in Oklahoma, Texas and Los Angeles, where his father and his family finally resettled. He went briefly to Hollywood High School but returned to Norman, where he played football and basketball, to finish. In 1950, when the Korean War broke out, he was drafted.
Mr. Garner’s first Hollywood break came when he met Richard L. Bare, a director of the television western “Cheyenne,” who cast him in a small part— and sliced the first syllable from his last name.Mr. Garner as a western gambler in the TV series “Maverick,” which ran from 1957 to 1962
“If you look at Maverick and Rockford, they’re pretty much the same guy,” Mr. Garner wrote. “One is a gambler and the other a detective, but their attitudes are identical. .” Garner’s comment is right. The Maverick-Rockford tie-in was part of the great support for Rockford, people like my mother felt they were picking up Brett years later in contemporary L.A. As he aged, Garner returned in the movie version of “Maverick” (1994) as Marshal Zane Cooper, a foil to the title character, played by Mel Gibson. Jodie Foster plays the romantic lead here and really is out of her league, she has no charm, but the two men carry the movie and so no one notices. They get along well and film is plausible segue to the Maverick-Rockford ouveure.
Mr. Garner with Gena Rowlands (she was married to my father’s favorite director, John Casavetes. This scene with the two is from “The Notebook” (2004) Credit New Line Cinema, via Photofest
Not a method actor
Mr. Garner disdained the pretentiousness of the acting profession. “I’m a Methodist but not as an actor,” he said about the Method style of acting.
“I’m from the Spencer Tracy (also a Midwesterner, this time from Wisconsin) school: Be on time, know your words, hit your marks, and tell the truth. I don’t have any theories about 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 it isn’t. Acting is just common sense. It isn’t hard if you put yourself aside and just do what the writer wrote.”Jim Garner
Persuasively ambivalent in the hero role Garner’s performances may have reflected his feelings about his profession.“I was never enamored of the business, never even wanted to be an actor, really,” he told The New York Times in 1984. “It’s always been a means to an end, which is to make a living.”
and as a postnote…my Mum loved him. She watched the Rockford Files when it ran originally and then later as re-runs. She always said it was his “style”. But now reading his obit, I see they were also born six month apart so I think that style was that “era”. Still with Mum dead just 5 years, Jim going is really like the old camp making way for the next group…it is so hard to believe that these people are dead, they were so much a part of our lives.