King of comedy: film star who made TV respectable
Misunderstood by Hollywood, James Garner found his natural home on television, writes Paul Whitington
In a way James Garner, who died last weekend, was born in the wrong time. Tall, square-jawed and almost unfeasibly handsome, he came of age in an era when Hollywood was being overtaken by edgy and unconventional leading men. Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman didn't exactly fit the old Clark Gable/Gary Cooper studio mould, and by comparison with them Garner seemed old-fashioned, a throwback to a brighter, hokier, more wholesome age.
His speciality was light comedy, and he would have been perfect for all those screwball romances Cary Grant made in the 1930s and 40s, but by the time Garner came along everyone had forgotten how to make them. As a result, Hollywood never really knew what to do with him, but Garner did all right, and in the late 50s became one of prime time television's first, best and most enduring stars.
A tough kid from smalltown Oklahoma, Garner was a twice-decorated Korean War veteran by the time he turned up in Los Angles in 1954 with vague ideas of becoming an actor. He looked up an old friend, who'd become an agent, and landed a non-speaking part in a play called The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. It toured America before arriving on Broadway, and Garner later admitted he learnt to act by running lines with his co-star, Henry Fonda. "I swiped practically all my acting style from him," he once said.
TV commercials and movie bit-parts followed, but Garner looked and sounded like a dozen other young leading men. His secret weapon was comedy, and it was discovered by accident when he was cast in a pilot for a western TV show called Maverick.
Written by Roy Huggins, Maverick was a mildly subversive comic drama that lampooned the conventions of the Hollywood western. Garner's character, Bret Maverick, was an anti-hero to put it mildly, a sly and devious professional gambler who dodged fights and juggled ladies with admirable dexterity. He was a rogue, but in Garner's hands a beguilingly charming one, and you always rooted for him because he was the most fun.
No one else would have had the lightness of touch to make Maverick work, but Garner did and the show became a huge hit when premiered in 1957. The series ran for three years before Garner left in a dispute over money, but by then he was a household name and had a film career to fall back on.
His movie career peaked in the 1960s, when he was mainly cast in action films and comedies. He seemed awkward and ill-at-ease in more serious dramas, like The Children's Hour (1962), and much more at home in romcoms like the 1963 Doris Day vehicle Move Over, Darling. But comedies of that calibre were thin on the ground in the 1960s, and so were westerns, a genre in which he naturally excelled.
Garner's most famous film role was probably that of Lieutenant 'Scrounger' Hendley in The Great Escape (1963), a movie he almost stole from its legendarily paranoid star Steve McQueen, who muttered darkly about "that goddamn white turtleneck" sweater Garner's character was always wearing.
Garner worked solidly in films through the 60s without ever scoring a huge hit, and by the early 70s the movie offers had started to dry up. Undeterred, he returned to the small screen and resumed his partnership with writer Roy Huggins.
The Rockford Files, which Huggins co-created with Stephen J Cannell, was a detective show with a difference. While contemporaneous series like Kojak and Starsky and Hutch dealt in cosy, glamorous stereotypes, The Rockford Files was a more drab, downbeat and believable drama. Jim Rockford was a cynical ex-con who lived in a shabby mobile home in Malibu and eked a living as a private eye. He had a weakness for pretty women and loud check jackets, and owed money to just about everyone.
Rockford moaned and griped and got beat up and didn't always win, and quickly became a much loved character all over the world. James Garner underplayed him beautifully and in the 90s, American weekly TV Guide voted him the greatest television actor of all time.
After The Rockford Files ended in 1980, Garner did return to films, most notably opposite Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria (1982), playing a man who falls in love with a woman who masquerades as a boy. But television was now his comfort zone and Americans of a certain age still remember the droll TV ads he did for Polaroid cameras in the late 70s, playing the put upon husband of actress Mariette Hartley.
Garner had little time for showbiz nonsense, or precious actors. "I'm from the Spencer Tracy school," he wrote in his 2011 memoir The Garner Files. "Be on time, know your words, hit your marks and tell the truth. Acting is just common sense. It isn't hard if you put yourself aside and just do what the writer wrote."
He made it sound so simple, and ordinary, but James Garner's subtle and underused comic talent was anything but. He had a kind of naturalness on screen that no one can teach you and when Rockford or Maverick sighed into your living room, you felt they shared your pain.
In fact, Garner was arguably the star who did the most to make TV acting respectable and break down the snobbery that existed between Hollywood and the small screen. Brad Pitt, Liev Schreiber, Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and all the other stars who are now moving profitably between the two mediums owe him a considerable debt.