I believe the first time I encountered James Garner on screen was when I saw him in Blake Edwards’s cross-dressing romantic comedy Victor/Victoria (based on the German Viktor Und Viktoria) as a child in the 1980s. It’s a film that certainly made an impression on me as I retain memories of it lo, these decades later. There’s Julie Andrews in what is my favorite performance of hers outside Mary Poppins (I adore her as Mary, perhaps it has something to do with how she looks and acts in that dark wig and outfit! Ahem. “Spit spot!”), Lesley Ann Warren, and Robert Preston, all of whom are marvelous with the last two becoming performers it was always a pleasure to see. And then there was Jim Garner. It probably says something about Garner that he had no problem taking a role in which he spends much of the time falling confusedly in love with a woman who pretends to be a man dressing as a woman. It’s hard to see, say Steve MacQueen or Clint Eastwood or, later, Bruce Willis doing the same. Part of what made Garner such an engaging presence is that many of his roles guyed or critiqued machismo; Bret Maverick was as likely to run away from danger or connive a way out of it as he was to meet it head on, something which made him more entertaining and likeable than “heroes” who were basically bullet proof. I enjoyed Victor/Victoria not simply
because of the farce and romance but because there was a Humanity to it, Garner’s character was far from perfect but that lent him real appeal, part and parcel of the unconventionality of that movie alongside Ms Andrews’s Victoria finding herself in a peculiar situation that is amusingly difficult to extricate herself from and Mr Preston’s wise, charismatic old Queen.
I think it was a some years before this that I was watching television when the announcer stated that next up on BBC 2 was The Rockford Files, as I was a child and the series had finished airing as a first-run series in 1980 (possibly 1981 in Britain) I had no idea what it was, I didn’t watch it for some reason – possibly because I thought it was an “adult” program – but the name stuck in my mind; it is pretty odd that those few seconds stayed with me over thirty-ish years while my memory for other things ain’t so hot, but I only remember the important things, I guess! The years rolled by as the years tend to though time seemed different then, I must have seen Garner in various movies such as The Great Escape and Marlowe but I suppose it was in the early Nineties that I finally saw The Rockford Files. From the answering machine gag running under the credits (JAMES ROCKFORD IN/THE ROCKFORD FILES) cutting to the memorable opening sequence accompanied by the funky country synth blast of Mike Post’s unforgettable theme I was hooked, this was obviously the Good Stuff! As soon as I entered the body of an episode and met the sarcastic, witty, endlessly put-upon, reluctant hero Jim Rockford so perfectly embodied by Garner I knew that this was Better than the Good Stuff! The scripts, by the likes of co-creator Stephen J. Cannell, Juanita Bartlett, and David Chase (later to create The Sopranos) came at the private detective mystery sub-genre from an oblique angle that was almost but not quite spoof and were, a their best, skilful mixtures of the neo-Chandlerian and meta-fictive comedic/satiric modern takes on the material. Such characters as Rockford’s decent but not-overly-quick-on-the-uptake Dad, Rocky (Noah Beery, Jr.), hilariously untrustworthy “friend” Angel (Stuart Margolin), loyal-despite-himself cop chum Dennis Becker (Joe Santos), and lovely lawyer and sometime-girlfriend Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett), who was virtually certain to sucker ol’ Jimbo into taking whatever hard-luck case she was involved with, helped make watching Rockford such a pleasurable experience but it was Jim Garner as Jim Rockford, the perfect ’70s hero who wasn’t interested in being one but was anyway who provided the center. There was something about both character and actor that made him much more believable and likeable
than any of the more macho heroes. Rockford kept his gun in a cookie jar!
Garner’s own experiences of combat in Korea likely influenced his distaste for machismo and his liking for playing ironic, fallible people. The Rockford Files may have had its parodic and ironic elements (just how hard *was* Jim’s head? He got knocked out every other episode!) but Garner brought a strange kind of integrity to the character, an integrity whose truth came from his real life self, just as did the wry, self-mocking humor and the hatred for bullies and corruption. It would surely be ill-advised to try to push James Garner around. As Universal found when it tried to pretend that the series had never gone into the black despite making over $100 million in profit by the mid-Eighties; despite dragging the legal case on for years in the hope that Garner would eventually be exhausted (comparing corporations to psychopaths is, of course, entirely fair!) they were finally capitulated and settled out of court. I liked and continue to like The Rockford Files so much that a part of me still wants to grow up to be Jim Rockford! And that’s very much down to how he was played as well as to the writing (Garner was pretty unusual for a star in that he gave deserved credit to his writers, knowing that without them he would be left like a ventriloquist’s dummy bereft of its ventriloquist no matter his talent).
Of course, a decade and a half before Rockford Garner’s career had been launched by Maverick, Jim Rockford being very much a less rascally, late 20th Century Bret Maverick as private detective. Like Rockford, Maverick was a subversive spin on the Western hero (Maverick was created by Rockford Files co-creator, Roy Huggins), while Steve McQueen was a boringly tough and “cool” hero in Wanted Dead Or Alive, Garner was a laconic wild card more than willing to cut and run whilst employing employing any number of dubious sayings supposedly learned from his Pappy (who when he appeared was also limned by Garner). Viewed over fifty years later, Garner’s Bret remains a classic performance and the series, at its best, extremely amusing and entertaining. There may have been something about Garner’s personality that worked best on the small screen, something intimate about his charm.
Although Maverick and The Rockford Files remain what he is best remembered for there was a run of excellent TV movies that Garner made from the Eighties and into the Nineties that showed both his range and how underrated he was as an actor, his performances in the likes of My Name Is Bill W. (about Alcoholics Anonymous), Barbarians at the Gate (brilliant as a villain – a real person at that! – on this drama about the takeover of RJR Nabisco), and Breathing Lessons. There was much more to him than the roles he was most famous for, and it’s to his credit that he strove to prove it. It is worth stating that though, yes, Television was where he thrived there are more than a few features that saw him give engaging performances, not just in the aforementioned Victor/Victoria or as the Scounger in The Great Escape or even as Doris Day’s co-star in Move Over, Darling but in The Americanization of Emily (opposite Julie Andrews for the first time), Hour of the Gun (as a hard Wyatt Earp in this revisionist sort-of sequel to Gunfight at the OK Corral), Support Your Local Sheriff, Skin Game and – in an Academy Award-nominated role – Murphy’s Romance. And that’s without mentioning scene-stealing supporting roles in the likes of Richard Donner’s movie version of Maverick and – the best thing in it – Space Cowboys for Clint Eastwood.
Just as no one else could do what Cary Grant could do, no one else could “do” James Garner. He will remain one of my favorites, as basically good, self-deprecating, and witty a man off-screen as he often was on.
Rest well, Mr Garner.