I can’t imagine a worse way to wake up this morning than with the news that James Garner had died.
Sure, the actor’s death is not a shock. Although he’ll always be young and handsome and wily if a bit careworn to all of us, he was, after all, 86. He had open heart surgery years ago and suffered a stroke in 2008.
The New York Times noted that Garner was something of a paradox, and that’s true. He was as handsome as could be but his leading men were smart, funny and self-deprecating. Most fans didn’t know, I bet, that he won two Purple Hearts in the Army during the Korean War. They probably also didn’t know he was active in the civil rights movement.
So many great roles mark his long career, from big-screen parts in “The Americanization of Emily” to “Support Your Local Sheriff” to “Victor/Victoria.”
But he’s no doubt best remembered for his roles in “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files,” two TV series separated by two decades but distinguished by Garner’s charm.
I matured during “The Rockford Files” – the show ran for six years beginning in 1974, when I was in my mid-teens – and wished I could have been half as affable and charming – even when exasperated – as Garner’s Jim Rockford.
A private eye who lived in a trailer in Malibu, California, Rockford had seen some tough times, including a prison sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. His private investigations practice was far from glamorous and more often than not involved dealing with liars and cheats – even when they were his clients, and sometimes even when they were attractive women who played him until he got wise – as well as con men, hapless marks and hostile cops.
Through it all, Rockford would roll with the punches – literally – taking his lumps and coming out ahead in the end. All the while, he would grump and growl and roll his eyes and sarcastically sound off at the idiots and jerks who stood between him and closing a case. He got into more than once case reluctantly but always solved problems – even if it meant taking a few lumps.
What made Garner so good and such a great personality was that he seemed so genuine. If what we saw on the screen wasn’t the real Jim Garner … well, I would be shocked.
In an appearance on Johnny Carson’s show after an infamous incident in which Garner got into a fight in real life – and I will never forget this – Garner shrugged off the incident, saying, “The guy said shut up and I thought he said stand up.”
“The Rockford Files” had great writers but I have to believe that much of Jim Rockford’s heart and wit and tenacity and no-nonsense attitude came from Garner himself.
Maybe more than any other star of his era, Garner was the guy I wished I could meet, just once. I imagined him as cool without trying, funny without effort and a stand-up guy without question.