Friday 24 October 2014

Rockford files star was a leading man of the people

Great Escape actor had an easy wit and relaxed persona to go with his movie-star looks

By Lynn Elber and Bob Thomas

Published 21/07/2014 | 07:33

Actor James Garner
Actor James Garner

Few actors could register disbelief, exasperation or annoyance with more comic subtlety.

James Garner had a way of widening his eyes while the corner of his mouth sagged ever so slightly. Maybe he would swallow once to make his point.This portrait of fleeting disquiet could be understood, and identified with, by every member of the audience.

Never mind Garner was tall, brawny and, well, movie-star handsome. The persona he perfected was never less than manly, good with his dukes and charming to the ladies, but his heroics were kept human-scale thanks to his gift for the comic turn. He was one of the people.He burst on the scene with this disarming style in the 1950s TV Western Maverick, which led to a stellar career in TV and films such as The Rockford Files and his Oscar-nominated Murphy's Romance.The 86-year-old Garner, who was found dead of natural causes at his Los Angeles home on Saturday, was adept at drama and action. But he was best known for his low-key, wisecracking style.

His quick-witted avoidance of conflict offered a refreshing new take on the American hero, contrasting with the blunt toughness of John Wayne and the laconic trigger-happiness of Clint Eastwood.

There's no better display of Garner's everyman majesty than the NBC series The Rockford Files (1974-80). He played an LA private eye and wrongly incarcerated ex-con who seemed to rarely get paid, or even get thanks, for the cases he took. He lived in a trailer with an answering machine that, in the show's opening titles, always took a message that had nothing to do with a paying job, but more often was a complaining call from a cranky creditor.

Through it all, Jim Rockford, however down on his luck, persevered hopefully. He wore the veneer of a cynic, but led with his heart. Putting all that on screen was Garner's magic.Well into his 70s, the handsome Oklahoman remained active in both TV and film. In 2002, he was Sandra Bullock's father in the      film Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. When Garner received the Screen Actors Guild's lifetime achievement award in 2005, he quipped: "I'm not at all sure how I got here."

But in his 2011 memoir, The Garner Files, he provided some amusing and enlightening clues, including his penchant for bluntly expressed opinions and a practice for decking people who said something nasty to his face - including an obnoxious fan and an abusive stepmother. And when he suspected his studio of cheating him on residual payments - a not-unheard-of condition in Hollywood - Garner spoke out loudly and fought back with lawsuits. They all deserved it, Garner declared in his book.

It was in 1957 when the ABC network, desperate to compete on ratings-rich Sunday night, scheduled Maverick against CBS's powerhouse The Ed Sullivan Show. To everyone's surprise - except Garner's - Maverick was soon top dog.At a time when the networks were awash with hard-eyed, traditional Western heroes, Bret Maverick provided a breath of fresh air.

With his sardonic tone and his eagerness to talk his way out of a squabble rather than pull out his six-shooter, the con-artist Westerner seemed to scoff at the genre's values.After a couple of years, Garner felt the series was losing its creative edge, and he found a legal loophole to escape his contract in 1960.His first film after Maverick established him as a movie actor. It was The Children's Hour, William Wyler's remake of Lillian Hellman's lesbian drama that co-starred Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.

He followed in a successful comedy with Kim Novak, Boys Night Out, and then established his box-office appeal with the 1963 blockbuster war drama The Great Escape and two smash comedies with Doris Day - The Thrill of It All and Move Over Darling.In the 1980s and 1990s, when most stars his age were considered over the hill, Garner's career remained strong. He played a supporting role as a marshal in the 1994 Maverick, a big-screen return to the TV series with Mel Gibson in Garner's old title role.

His only Oscar nomination came for the 1985 Murphy's Romance, a comedy about a small-town love relationship in which he co-starred with Sally Field.Garner was born James Scott Bumgarner in Norman, Oklahoma. His mother died when he was 5, and friends and relatives cared for him and his two brothers for a time while his father was in California.In 1957, Garner married TV actress Lois Clarke, who survives him. She had a daughter Kimberly from a previous marriage, and the Garners had another daughter, Gretta Scott.

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