London Telegraph James Garner: an actor of gentle gallantry The star of The Rockford Files and The Great Escape was a reminder of a bygone age.
James Garner, who died on Saturday at the age of 86, had a career that shuffled from TV to film to TV and back to film with the relaxed, unflappable gait of a cowboy – the type of role he was initially and really always associated with, from his first successes in the series Cheyenne (1955-7) and Maverick (1957-62). As a standalone film star, he caught some good breaks early on – starring opposite Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn in William Wyler’s terrific second adaptation of The Children’s Hour (1961), and as part of the whopping alpha-male line-up in The Great Escape (1963). There, his part as Flight Lt Hendley, the American in the RAF able to procure everything from cameras to ID cards, even threatened to steal the movie away from Steve McQueen. (McQueen was allegedly envious of his strapping co-star’s screen time, and “that goddamn white turtleneck” he was always wearing.)
Garner was almost too good-looking for his own good, a throwback to the Rock Hudson age when square jaws were bankable. He was a natural co-star for a specifically wholesome brand of leading lady – it’s telling that he worked twice with Doris Day (in the 1963 double bill of Move Over, Darling and The Thrill of it All) and three times with Julie Andrew
A lifelong smoker — he even continued after undergoing open-heart surgery in 1988 — Garner had suffered a stroke six years ago. Over a six-decade career that included more than 50 films, he had made acting look so natural and effortless. As tributes were made to him last night — particularly in praise of his under-stated style — perhaps the veteran arts critic Clive James put it best, describing the super-articulate Garner as ‘every sane person’s favorite movie star… though tall and handsome, he was never remote: he had an air of belonging down here with us’.
Permanently harassed and frequently roughed up by villains — especially as private eye Jim Rockford — Garner played flawed heroes with whom audiences could relate. And he was a refreshingly different kind of star off-screen, too. Shy and self-effacing, Garner was the classic plain-speaking Midwesterner who moved to Hollywood but never fell for its puffed up, underhand ways.
Garner’s love life was very different from most of his libidinous co-stars, too. Married only once, he remained with Lois, his wife of 58 years, until the day he died — and never once attracted any accusations of infidelity. The couple had one child, daughter Greta.
In his 2011 autobiography — which the typically modest actor waited until he was 83 to produce — he revealed a deeply troubled childhood in Depression era Oklahoma.His father, Weldon Bumgarner, ran a hardware store-cum-post-office on a country road. The family — including James and his two older brothers — lived in the back of the shop, which didn’t have indoor plumbing. His half-Cherokee mother died when he was four, probably during a botched abortion, Garner believed.
Then the family shop burned down and Garner’s father, a feckless alcoholic, became a carpet layer. Often arriving home drunk, he would expect his three young sons to join him in rousing sing-songs. If they refused — literally — to sing for their supper, they were beaten.
Finding it increasingly hard to cope without a mother figure, he split up his children and sent them to live with various relatives, eventually reuniting them when he remarried six years later. His NEW wife, a redhead named Wilma, terrorised the boys. She would hit them with willow switches she had made them cut down. James was treated the worst. ‘Whenever I did anything wrong she’d put me in a dress and make everyone call me “Louise”,’ he recalled. At 14, he finally snapped after years of violence. Throwing his stepmother to the ground during one of the beatings, he began to throttle her — convinced she would kill him if he didn’t kill her first.
Garner won two Purple Hearts (America’s oldest military medal) when he was wounded twice, first in the face and hand by shrapnel from a mortar round, and later in the buttocks from ‘friendly fire’ from a U.S. fighter jet.
Back in the U.S., he eked out a living helping his father lay carpets. Having never considered acting, he might not have got into the profession but for a complete accident At one point, he had worked as a petrol station attendant with a man called Paul Gregory, an aspiring theatrical agent, who observed that Garner’s rugged good looks could work well for him in Hollywood. Some years later, Garner was driving through LA when he spotted a sign for ‘Paul Gregory & Associates’. On impulse, he went inside.
Sure enough, his old colleague was now a theatrical producer and got Garner a non-speaking part in a 1954 Broadway production of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, a play based on a novel, The Caine Mutiny (the story of shipboard conflict aboard a World War II naval vessel). ‘I had no lines and I had trouble staying awake,’ Garner said. But he claimed he learned to act from running through lines with fellow cast members and watching them — in particular Henry Fonda — perform each night. ‘I swiped practically all my acting style from him,’ said Garner, as self-effacing as ever.
Randy Barnett remembers Remembering Maverick: The Garner Files – A MemoirPosted by Jill Fallon at July 20, 2014 1:08 PM | Permalink