Sunday, July 20, 2014

Remembering James Garner, a maverick on and off screen

Sometimes, an interview just clicks. James Garner and I communicated directly only once, during an extended conversation for a 2004 cover-story profile I wrote for Cowboys & Indians Magazine. But right from the start, I felt like I was conversing with an old friend who was forthcoming and unfiltered.

Maybe it was because we discovered we had something in common – each of us lost his mother at an early age, dealt with an abusive stepmother, and remained forever shaped by those tragedies. Or maybe, just maybe, Garner turned on his irresistible charm for anyone and everyone he ever met. Whatever the reason, he was an exceptionally gracious gentleman, and an absolute dream of an interview subject, while we chatted.

It my custom to celebrate lives, not mourn deaths. On the occasion of James Garner’s passing at age 86, I would like to recall the man and his work by sharing an extended version of that 2004 interview.

James Garner would have you believe that he simply lucked into acting more than 50 years ago, and has been coasting along ever since. Which, he insists, is perfectly all right by him. The work isn’t terribly demanding – well, except for the busted knees, sprained legs and other on-the-set injuries – and the pay is great. Better still, there’s no mandatory retirement age.

“Back when I turned 55,” he says during a leisurely lunch, “somebody told me I was middle-aged. I said, ‘Fifty-five ain’t the middle of nothing. That’s getting on with it.’

“And now,” he adds with a wry chuckle, “I’m 76. So I’m not middle. I’m late.”

But that doesn’t mean the man still known to millions of fans as Bret Maverick or Jim Rockford is ready to ride off into the sunset. Even now, a half-century after his acting debut in the premiere Broadway production of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, Garner is too busy adding credits to his lengthy resume to think much about moseying off to The Old Actors' Home.

Consider this: He recently joined the cast of  8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teen-Age Daughter, his seventh TV series gig. (His eighth, really, if you count his temporary employment in the final episodes of Chicago Hope.) And he’s currently visible in megaplexes as a prominently-billed co-star of The Notebook, a sentimental drama which he unstintingly praises as an old-fashioned tear-jerker. (“When you see it,” he says, “bring a box of Kleenex. That’s my only advice.”) The years have taken their toll: He required a quintuple-bypass in 1988, and endured knee-replacement surgery in 2000 to repair damage dating back to The RockfordFiles (1974-80). And yet, despite his best efforts to affect an image of nonchalance,  Garner’s can-do determination and rigorous work ethic remain undiminished. “I just hope,” he says, “that I keep finding good material.”

Almost in the same breath, however, he insists that he has never thought of himself as a workaholic, or even as especially ambitious. To hear him talk, he has never – repeat, never – been stressed for success.

“Actually,” Garner says, “I don’t take success very well, because I know it’s fleeting. And the next day, it can all fall apart. I know that, too. So I don’t get too high – and I don’t get too low. You get through the world a lot easier that way.

“I’m never that disappointed when something bad happens. Naturally, I don’t like it. But I don’t get seriously disappointed. Because I don’t expect that much. I’m sure some psychiatrist would jump all over that. But that’s their job. I have mine. And I do mine the best I can.”

A hard-scrabble childhood during the Depression Era and a close brush with death during the Korean War did much to shape James Garner’s sense of perspective. Born James Scott Bumgarner on April 7, 1928 in Norman, Oklahoma, he was four years old when his mother passed away. Her death, he admits, profoundly influenced his view of this world as a place where nothing can be taken for granted. “I’ve always put women on pedestals,” he says. “But I’ve also known that they can leave you in a heartbeat. I learned that a little early, I think.”

By the age of eight, he already was working at odd jobs -- mowing lawns, mopping floors – to provide his share of income for his Depression-strapped family. Later, as the Bumgarners moved West, young Jim toiled in the oil fields of Texas, then laid carpet with his father in Los Angeles. In the ’40s, he says, “I met this guy,  Paul Gregory, who was a soda jerk at the Gotham Drug Store on Hollywood Boulevard while I was working in a Shell service station a block away. I used to eat my lunches over at the drug store, and he always thought I should be an actor. But I didn’t want to have any part of it. At any rate, he said he was going to be a producer, and blah, blah, blah, blah.

“Well, we go ten years down the line, and the next thing you know, he is a producer. And I ran into him just before I was going to Korea. He’s driving a big Cadillac convertible, and he’s all dressed to the nines. And he said, ‘Jim, I still think you should be an actor.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s fine, but I got to fight a war now.’”

Garner was wounded in action, and earned a Purple Heart. All of which, he says only half-jokingly, fully prepared him for the rough-and-tumble world of showbiz. He didn’t flinch during the high-stakes legal wrangling when, in 1960, he walked away from his Maverick TV series over a salary dispute. And he didn’t back down when, years later, he waged a more protracted legal battle to free himself from the debilitating wear and tear of The Rockford Files.

“I always have been very independent. I’m not going to let anybody intimidate me. Because they can’t. Some of the toughest have tried. But, look, in Korea, they were shooting at me. They even hit me a couple of times. After that – what else can do they do to me?

“It’s the same way now, too. I’m not worried about anything. Hey, I’m not going to make it that much longer anyway.”

After returning to Los Angeles from Korea, Garner sought work with an oil company hiring for new enterprises in Saudi Arabia. “But they didn’t want roughnecks, they wanted geologists. I thought, ‘Well, I got to stick with laying carpets,’ which I didn’t want to do.

“So I was driving up La Cienega Boulevard, and I went past this building that I’d already passed a couple of times. And that’s when I saw his name – ‘Paul Gregory and Associates’ – up on the building. And you know what? Just while I was driving there, a lady pulled out of a parking place right in front of the building. So I pulled in. Why? I don’t know. But I sat there for a couple of minutes, thinking, ‘Maybe I can talk to him and see if I can give that acting thing a try.’”

Gregory, a talent agent as well as a producer, signed his friend to a contract on the spot. After a couple of false starts – “He got me an audition over at Columbia, which I was just awful at!” – and a professional name change, James Garner got an enormous break by being cast in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which Herman Wouk himself adapted from a portion of his own novel.

Mind you, Garner had a non-speaking role, as one six attentive members of a Court of Inquiry. But that placed him in the perfect position to closely observe Henry Fonda and Lloyd Nolan in lead roles during months of performances in Los Angeles and New York.  “I learned a lot about acting just sitting there night after night,” Garner says. He proved to be such an apt pupil that director Charles Laughton – yes, that Charles Laughton, the infamous Capt. Bligh of 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty – cast Garner as the defense counsel, one of the play’s key roles, in the national touring company. The earning-while-learning process continued apace.

“One day during rehearsals,” Garner recalls, “Laughton told me, ‘James, I wish you’d come to lunch with me. I need to talk with you.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, boy, I’m going to get it here.’ Because I knew I was terrible.

“But to boil it all down, he said to me, ‘James, your problem is, you are afraid to be bad.’ And he was absolutely correct. I didn’t care if you liked me – just don’t dislike me. Therefore, there was nothing in the performance but what was there. What was obvious, I did. I didn’t put anything else into it. And it was very dull. So he said, ‘Just let it go, let it all out. Let the director bring you down. It’s hard to bring an actor up. But you can bring him down.’ So I learned a valuable lesson from him. Probably the best lesson I ever had as far as acting goes.”

By the time he was offered Maverick in 1957, Garner felt ready to handle the challenge of sustaining a colorful character – Bret Maverick, rogue extraordinaire -- in a weekly TV series. There remained some doubt, however, as to whether TV viewers were ready for a Western in which the central character was a smooth-talking, self-absorbed gambler who went out of his way to avoid gunfights, fisticuffs and other heroic pursuits

“The thing to remember,” Garner says, “is that when I did the original Maverick series, there were already 16 or 17 Westerns on television. Now that’s a lot of Westerns. They were the whole basis for television at the time. But we came along and put our tongues in our cheeks and laughed at them. Everything on these other shows were clich├ęs – they’d already done it all – so they were easy to make fun of.

“And if you look at it, after the Westerns came the detective shows. So we went in with The Rockford Files  years later, and did the same thing with them we did with Maverick.”

Garner looks back on Maverick with a reasonable degree of pride, but relatively little nostalgia. In subsequent years, he would reprise the raffish gambler in Bret Maverick (1981-82), a short-lived series revival. And he eventually played a smartly-conceived supporting part in a 1994 movie spin-off starring Mel Gibson. But for a long time after he departed the original series -- co-star Jack Kelly continued on as the equally devious Bart Maverick for the show’s final season – Garner took great pains to distance himself from the role that had made him famous.

“I thought – I hoped – I was going to have a longer career than that. So I didn’t want to ride on Maverick. As a matter of fact, the first thing I was offered was the role of a gambler in the West, in The Comancheros. And I turned it down, so Stuart Whitman got the part.”

No big deal: Garner has found steady employment ever since in scads of other films, ranging from playful satires (The Thrill of It All, Support Your Local Sheriff) and romantic comedies (How Sweet It Is, Murphy’s Romance) to gritty action dramas (Duel at Diablo, Hour of the Gun) to brawny adventure epics (The Great Escape, Grand Prix). And while the majority of his roles have been modern-day characters – in The Notebook, he plays a World War II vet with close ties to a nursing home resident (Gena Rowlands) who’s stricken with Alzheimer’s Disease -- he continues to be closely identified with the Western genre.

Indeed, he enjoyed the best of both worlds when Clint Eastwood – who appeared in a long-ago episode of Maverick before riding taller in Rawhide – cast Garner as an aging astronaut in Space Cowboys (2000). “I had only a small guest shot on his show,” Eastwood remembers, “and he was very gracious and down to earth, and we got along right away. He's a great guy and a wonderful actor. And even though it took a few decades, I’m glad we were finally able to work together again.”

To be sure, Garner doesn’t have nice things to say about every Western on his resume. Mention A Man Called Sledge, a 1970 Spaghetti Western in which he co-starred with Dennis Weaver and Claude Akins, and he’ll admit that, even during production, he and others already were calling it A Man Called Sludge.

And then there was Sunset, the 1988 Blake Edwards film in which he played an aging Wyatt Earp to Bruce Willis’ Hollywood cowboy Tom Mix.

“I hated that movie,” Garner bluntly admits. “Let me tell you something: Blake Edwards wanted to do that picture with Robert Duvall and I. Now just think about that – wouldn’t that have been a whole different picture?

“But Bruce Willis was not my idea of a Western star by any means. He didn’t even know how to wear a hat. He’d pull it way down over his ears. I told him, ‘Bruce, no cowboy does that unless he’s riding a bronco.’ But he didn’t listen. He’d just pull the hat down even more, until his ears stuck out on the sides. And I figured, ‘OK, I’m only going to tell him once…’

“Bruce really didn’t take his work that seriously at the time. He thought he was a better writer ad-libbing off the top of his head than the writers were. He didn’t pay that much attention to the script.”

Despite that unpleasant experience, Garner sounds wistful as he bemoans the current scarcity of Western movies and TV shows. “I hate that they’re as rare as hen’s teeth,” he says. “They don’t have many of them on television, I suppose, because they appeal to older viewers. And the networks aren’t interested in the older viewers – even though we’ve got more of them than we have younger ones.

“I did watch this thing they have on now called Deadwood. But I was embarrassed. I never heard such foul language in all my life in the movies. I mean, not since Joe Pesci in GoodFellas. Nobody in the West talked like that.”

What are the values that of a true Western hero? Garner pauses to consider the question, then thoughtfully replies: “Well, there’s good and evil. Right and wrong. You know the difference. And your word is your bond.”

And that, James Garner concedes, is why most of the rascals he has played in Westerns and contemporary dramas qualify as anti-heroes. He has no problem with that. “The anti-hero is the best character to play, I think. That’s what Bret Maverick was, and that’s what Jim Rockford was. And look how popular they’ve been.”

In the view of many critics and fans, Garner gave his greatest performance as an anti-hero in The Americanization of Emily, the acclaimed 1964 dramedy – written by Paddy Chayefsky, directed by Arthur Hiller – about a cynical Navy lieutenant commander who’s exploited as an extremely reluctant hero during World War II. Despite the marque allure of Garner and co-star Julie Andrews, Emily was something less than a boffo box-office success in its time. During the decades since its theatrical release, however, it has gained legions of admirers.

The Americanization of Emily actually made money – though not much,” Garner says. “But that’s my favorite film. In fact, it’s mine, it’s Julie’s -- and I think it’s the favorite of more than a few other people who were involved with it.

“If you look at it, it’s very much like stuff that’s in the news today. But it was very daring back then. I mean, you start talking anti-war when they’re already involved in Vietnam and everything like that – you’re daring. But there were a lot of people out there who thought our way.

“[Producer] Marty Ransohoff was a little concerned about it. In fact, that’s how I got to star in it. Bill Holden was originally going to star in it, and I was going to do the role Jim Coburn did. And Holden was doing his banking in Hong Kong at the time. And there was a lot of press about it. You know, ‘He’s un-American, blah, blah, blah.’ Mind you, he wasn’t breaking any laws. He just saw it as a better deal for him financially. But people were getting all over him for being ‘un-American.’ Well, if he comes out and does an anti-war movie at that time, there’s going to be a lot more of that talk. And Marty Ransohoff got scared. So he bought Holden out, and put me in it. And he probably saved money, because my salary wasn’t all that great.”

Does Garner consider this another example of the good luck he claims has guided his career? Maybe. He chuckles as he considers the question, then replies:

“Some things are just meant to be. We think we have total control over them. Well, not necessarily...”

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