Not long ago someone asked if I could recall a perfect moment. Not a universal, deep-in-your-bones, milestone moment, like cradling a newborn or falling in love. No, the question implied a moment that might, from the outside, seem ordinary, but to you is anything but. A moment in which you experience, for a fleeting particle of time, that oceanic feeling of bliss usually reserved for artists and poets.
Mine was on a late summer evening while traveling for work. Returning to my hotel exhausted, I grab any icy Heineken from the mini-bar and hold it to my forehead. I slip into an almost-too-hot bath and feel the warm breeze from an open window to the Pacific Ocean at dusk. Just within my reach, a TV remote control. The screen on the wall flickers to life with… An answering machine. It’s James Garner’s voice as we begin one of my favorite episodes of The Rockford Files.
“Hello, this is Jim Rockford. At the tone, leave your name and message. I’ll get back to you.”
Indescribable. No words.
While beer and bath salts certainly contributed to my euphoria, it was also Garner’s unmistakably familiar and entertaining presence, one you’ll find in every performance. And a tone that says Nothing is As Big of a Deal as You Think; and Life is Short, Let’s Not Get Our Panties in a Bundle. It’s understated, humble, with gentle humor and an acute sense of irony. And somehow he makes it all look easy.
I’ve written previously on my affection for Garner’s films. Recently I happened across and rewatched one of his better ones, The Great Escape, as well as what is likely his very best movie, The Americanization of Emily. That drew me to his memoir – just released in paperback – where I learned the surprising and sometimes traumatic journey of the boy James Scott Bumgarner in becoming the Movie Star James Garner. In its own way, it’s a story, and a life, as admirable and heroic as any role he has played.
It’s also refreshing in that we’ve become accustomed to actors and other celebrities exaggerating the dark corners of their lives. With Garner, one has the sense that his childhood was even worse than the abuse and abandonment he shows us. And he shows us a lot. The favorite son of Norman, Oklahoma was four when his mother died. He and his brothers were shuffled among various relatives. For a time, they were reunited with their dad and one of his wives – “Red” she was called, an explosive woman who dealt severe and frequent beatings. Little James Bumgarner, the youngest and most vulnerable, became her preferred victim. By the age of 14, Garner was gone and on his own.
The whole account is served up as matter-of-fact reporting. He does not dwell on this period, nor does he ask your sympathy. Just as later in our story, when Garner’s infantry unit of 130 men dwindles to 30 under punishing enemy fire in Korea. The next morning, during an airstrike by U.S. Navy Panther jets, white phosphorous rockets rain down on Garner and few stragglers who are misidentified as the enemy.
Again showing his talent for understatement, he notes that being caught in such an incendiary blast “smarts,” because “that stuff really burns.”
Not surprisingly, the rest of the memoir, and his life, carry a thread of intolerance for bullies. No matter who is doing the bullying, up to and including powerful studio bosses who learn from Garner what a lowly actor can accomplish with righteous determination, nerve and a scrappy lawyer.
Read the book – there’s lots of cool stuff in there: He once broke Doris Day’s ribs – accidentally, of course. He detests turkey and Charles Bronson, loves Henry Fonda. He’s an Adlai Stevenson Democrat and was part of the March on Washington.
There is modesty, humility, and a sensibility of live and let live – up to a point. Garner is not to be pushed around. Just ask him. When pushed, he shoves.
Which all sounds remarkably like Jim Rockford, Bret Maverick, or any of a couple of dozen of Garner’s film or TV characters. It is a persona so firmly established that over a 50-plus-year career, he has never been cast as what he calls “an out-and-out villain.”
As a kid growing up in the 60s, I loved Garner’s TV western Maverick, then in broad syndication. No disrespect meant to the late Jack Kelly, who was Bart Maverick, but I watched only the episodes that featured Garner’s suave and witty Bret Maverick.
t was well written, the relationships and characters were realistic, and it successfully navigated the rocky shoal of subtle humor. Everything about it was different, even the theme song and opening credits. The show has aged b
eautifully, and thanks to our modern networking technology, every episode is streaming on Netflix.
Garner demanded consistently good writing and had strong feelings about story and tone. But I’ve never heard an actor so candidly and bluntly assess the grueling nature of a weekly action show for television. Years performing his own stunts very nearly killed him; in six seasons of Rockford, Garner had seven knee operations, finally needing both replaced.
He was the rare actor who moved freely between television and films in an era when a strict hierarchy separated the two.
Among his many films, The Americanization of Emily stands apart, and may be his best. It was written by Paddy Chayefsky, who also penned Network, The Hospital, and Marty. Throughout the film, Garner delivers long paragraphs of intricate, thoughtful dialogue as if its coming into his head just a he speaks it, something most of his contemporaries could not have done half as well.
It has a controversial message, that war will no longer exist when we all stop thinking that fighting is noble. “So long as valor is a virtue, we will have soldiers,” Garner’s character Charlie says. Dead heroes, he argues, are merely dead men.