James Garner is one of the coolest guys to ever strut across a television screen. From the clever card player Maverick to the beach-dwelling, Firebird-driving P.I. Jim Rockford, his characters embodied cool.
Which is why the man behind the scenes remained so fascinating. Garner carried self-doubt and was no stranger to self-deprecation.
That comes through in this interview conducted by Panorama Magazine in 1981. The actor sat down with a journalist to discuss his comeback as Bret Maverick, but the chat turned more into a therapy session. These five moments raised our eyebrows.
Garner grew up in Oklahoma and was certainly no stranger to horses. But he did not have a great relationship with the beasts. “Baaaaaad form of transportation,” Garner complained. “Naw, I’d rather have a car or something. [Laughs.] I’ve ridden horses all my life. We lived out in the country. My dad ran a country store. I rode a horse to school in the first grade. And I’ve had ’em bite me, kick me, stomp on me, throw me, run me into trees, walls, corrals, barns, whatever.”
Six seasons of The Rockford Files took its toll, and we’re not talking about the wear and tear on the Pontiac. Garner took a beating from the stuntwork. “Well, those injuries finally caught up with me a few years ago. And that’s when I quit Rockford. I’d just had it as long as I could take it. I was going downhill, physically, extremely fast,” he admitted. “You know, one injury will bring on another. You start favoring one leg, and the other leg will go, and then the back will go, and you start taking medication, and then that’ll affect your stomach, or whatever, and then you get depression. And it just got so heavy. I’ve had a sinus infection for almost four years now. The bone has kind of grown over one sinus so the medication can’t quite get to it, so I have a constant low-grade infection.”
Bret Maverick certainly met his match in Samantha Crawford (Diane Brewster). Garner himself admitted to having confidence issues. Panorama asked if the handsome Hollywood star was frightened when it came to romance. “Not frightened. Scared,” Garner said. “I don’t know why. I’ve known women I just melt around. I can’t talk… I’m afraid I might do something or say something wrong, that they’ll dislike me. So I don’t do anything… It’s my own fear. It’s within me. I’m not afraid of them. I’m afraid of me.”
Maverick remains one of the great Western classics in television history, full of wit and delicious dialogue. They even rebooted it with Garner in the ’80s and ’90s. But the star was far more critical of his work. He felt the sequel series, Bret Maverick, which he was promoting in this interview, would surpass it. “If you go back and look at the original series, maybe the shows weren’t that good,” Garner opined. “They were fine for what they were at the time, but hardly any were original scripts. A lot were rewritten, cut-down Western movies, and we used a lot of stock footage from those old movies. That saved a lot of money.”
Perhaps the most startling moment in the interview comes when he graphically details a recent traffic accident that turned into a street brawl. The brute in the other vehicle had no qualms about scrapping with a TV star. “He hit me through the window, eight or nine times in the face, then I got out and I grabbed him, and we fell across the street, and I fell on top of him, but he grabbed me by the cajones. And squeeeeezed. And it does smart,” Garner said. “And then he got up and started kickin’ me in the head. And he kicked me about six times in the head, and then six or eight times around the rest of the body. He just started down this side and went all around. I was layin’ on my stomach. I was bleeding, and cut, and busted up and stunned so much that I could hardly see. If I’d had a couple of minutes to recoup, I probably would have hurt him. But I had concussions and a broken tailbone, and a lot of little things broken. But, you know, he wasn’t all that tough.” Yikes!