Benevolent tough guy James Garner has made a bunch of stellar movies over his 83 years: The Great Escape, The Americanization of Emily, Murphy's Romance. Even today's teen girls know his Rushmore chin and here-we-go-again eyes as those of grown-up Noah in The Notebook.
But for all his celluloid success, Garner is, and always will be, one of our great TV stars, Tom Selleck without the Marlboro Man looks, Jack Lord with a sense of humor. As a Wild West antihero in Maverick and a bad-luck P.I. in The Rockford Files, Garner redefined pop culture's notions of manhood and TV cool: unique but universal, slick but prone to misfortune, handsome but not a threat to the 9-to-5er. He was a blue-collar guy who'd buy you a beer — then help you slug your way out of the bar.
They don't make 'em like Jim anymore, that's for sure. And they don't write 'em like his new memoir much anymore, either.
With equal parts old-school machismo and ageless charm — not to mention fisticuffs, including his pummeling of a heckler at a 1981 golf tourney ("I only wanted to beat the crap out of him") — The Garner Files is so blunt in its assessment of Hollywood old and new, it's often laugh-out-loud funny. "I hate everything about show business but acting," he grumps — and you have to wonder how much he loves even that.
About making 1996's My Fellow Americans with Jack Lemmon: "[Director Peter Segal] was a self-appointed genius who didn't know his ass from second base and Jack and I both knew it. He had no idea where to put the camera, he didn't know what he wanted, and he was a whiner."
About working with Steve McQueen in 1963's The Great Escape: "Someone once asked me if Steve was 'trouble.' Steve was trouble if you invited him in for breakfast. He didn't like anything. Like Brando, he could be a pain in the ass on the set."
About having anything to do with Charles Bronson: "Charlie Bronson was a pain the ass, too."
And the curmudgeon just keeps on coming!
Julie Andrews, who made both Americanization and Victor/Victoria with Garner, contributes the foreword, carefully calling him "captivating, enigmatic, complicated." She eventually labels him a "sweetheart," too, and therein lies Garner's appeal, the salty old cuss . . . with a wink.
Born James Scott Bumgarner in hardscrabble Oklahoma during "the depths of the Great Depression," he would be his state's first draftee in the Korean War, a conflict in which he shattered his knees during 1951's First Spring Offensive, earning a Purple Heart and, more importantly, a safe trip home.
After heading to California to find his roaming father, with whom he had a complex but loving relationship, he stumbled into the acting profession on a dull-day whim. As a relative unknown, he soon wound up making 52 episodes of Maverick (1957-62) for Warner Bros. before battling studio bosses for a better contract. WB got him for dirt cheap. He wanted to be paid according to the show's success. Friends said he'd be blackballed forever if he fought authority. Yeah, you can guess the rest.
As an author, Garner knows what the reader wants, and he's too cranky and impatient himself to keep you waiting. You get stories from Maverick. You get tremendous access to such movies as Support Your Local Sheriff and Space Cowboys and The Great Escape. About McQueen's famous motorcycle finale: "Steve did most of the driving, including the part of the German soldier chasing him, but not the now famous leap over the barricade at the Swiss border."
For the ladies, he dishes on the beauty of The Notebook and Murphy's Romance with Sally Field ("The studio wanted Marlon Brando for the part of Murphy Jones. . . . Sally told them, 'If Garner doesn't do the picture, I don't do the picture.'")
He even reminisces about those late-'70s Polaroid commercials with Mariette Hartley, which was one of the first times this child of divorce remembers seeing a couple, imaginary or not, having such a flirty, funny bond. ("The chemistry was so great, in fact, a lot of people thought we were married in real life. . . . It got so bad that Mariette had a T-shirt made that said, 'I am NOT Mrs. James Garner.'")
But the biggest chunk of this fast, devourable memoir is devoted, as it should be, to The Rockford Files, which ran from 1974 to 1980 as a hip showcase for killer sport coats, that gold 1977 Pontiac Firebird Esprit and Garner's innate ability to slip into the role of a flat-broke punching-bag private eye. Rockford asked clients for $200 a day plus expenses — and hardly ever got paid. He lived in a dented trailer at the beach that housed an overactive answering machine that never stopped doling out bad, and dryly hilarious, news:
Jim, this is Norma at the market. It bounced. Do you want us to tear it up, send it back, or put it with the others?
It's Lori at the trailer park. A space opened up. Do you want me to save it, or are the cops gonna let you stay where you are?
"I got beat up a minimum of twice per show," Garner reminisces about his iconic role, which softened the image of the action star, opening doors for characters like Selleck's Magnum P.I. "I don't know why, but viewers loved to see me get whipped. Maybe they knew I'd get even later on. In staged fights, the big danger is slipping and hitting something. I hit a dolly once and broke off a piece of my spine."
Not one for navel-gazing, Garner does step back to rather poetically examine the existential nature of Rockford, and darn if he doesn't wind up describing someone else we now know a little better: "He has a problem with authority so he tends to mouth off at the worse possible time . . . Rockford's tricky but he isn't bad. He's an ordinary guy . . . [He] has no ambition beyond being able to pay his bills, go fishing with his dad, and drink a few beers while watching football on TV."
Indeed, Jim. Too bad there aren't more ordinary guys like him.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His blog: tampabay.com/blogs/poplife.