James Garner: An appreciation

5 minute read
Like father, like son: Noah Beery Jr. and James Garner in "The Rockford Files." (Photo by Gene Trindl - © 1978 Gene Trindl - Image courtesy
Like father, like son: Noah Beery Jr. and James Garner in "The Rockford Files." (Photo by Gene Trindl - © 1978 Gene Trindl - Image courtesy

"This is Betty Frinell. I don't know who to call, but I can't reach my Food-Aholics partner. I'm at Vito's on my second pizza with sausage and mushroom. Jim, come and get me."

That was one of the phone messages that opened every episode of James Garner's legendary antihero detective show, The Rockford Files. Those quotes are what many of us remember about the show; they're the essence of why fans loved both the Rockford character and James Garner himself. They reveal Garner's persona : a sucker with a heart of gold — the guy you could always call on, have fun with, but who you also knew would only return your call if you were really sincere.

James Garner seemed to like everyone, but he especially had a soft heart for salt-of-the-earth types like his dad, Rocky, played by Noah Beery Jr. Their bond — the heart of the show — was similar to the one I had with my dad. The Rockford Files began in 1974, the year I began law school, in Washington, DC. Sunday morning phone calls began with the Tom Paxton line "What did you learn in school today?" and ended with "Did you enjoy Friday's Rockford Files?"

My dad loved to say the best thing about having kids is they take you places you never thought you'd go, while secretly wishing I'd settle down in one place and stop driving him crazy. This was just like the way Rocky felt — he loved seeing his son catch crooked businessmen or consort with princesses, but secretly wished he'd take a job in construction and settle down with Mariette Hartley, Lauren Bacall, or Gretchen Corbett.

Rita Moreno played an ex-prostitute, now a graduate of the neighborhood school of hair design, who was sure she could be the fashion designer for the Hollywood stars. Rockford/Garner knew she was in over her head, that a job in a local mall salon was the logical first step — but he helped her all the same. It was a role Garner loved to play in many of his movies and fans sensed was part of his real identity. He liked the people with false dreams more than the people who had already made their successes. He liked people who were real but flawed. It's why he could play one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous in My Name is Bill W. so well.

The art of the con

Angel Martin, played to perfection by Stuart Margolin, was well, what else could you call him but a two-bit sleeze? He only helped out if there were a few bucks in it, yet Rockford always put up with him — Rockford just loved the art of the con.

Garner rose to fame playing the con man himself, in TV's Maverick, and as Maverick's father in the movie remake. Part of it was that he just didn't like self-important people (gonstermachers, Yiddish for big shots). He wanted to put these phonies in their place. But another part was that he really enjoyed the sport of the con game. Sometimes the con was obvious, as in Maverick, but it's visible in other Garner roles as well: In The Great Escape, he played a scrounger helping out in the all-time con — building a tunnel to escape the horrors of a German WWII prison camp. In Support Your Local Sheriff! and Support Your Local Gunfighter, the con was to convince both the local community and the bad guys that he was going to play by tough-guy/shoot 'em up rules when he never had the intention of doing any such thing. When threatened, he stuck his finger in Walter Brennan's gun-barrel to throw Brennan off his game.

Victor Victoria turned the tables on the con-game, with the Robert Preston and Julie Andrews's characters pulling the cons (a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman) and Garner's character being conned — only to fall in love with the con woman. Even the short-lived TV series, First Monday, about the Supreme Court, focused on the one aspect of law I think Garner really liked: He played the chief justice who had to use his wits to con(vince) other members of the court to vote his way.

Garner also didn't like being duped in real life. When he thought he wasn't getting his fair share of profits from The Rockford Files, he spent his own money to fight Universal Studios and forced a settlement.

One of Garner's really smart traits was to work with great writers. He often said that The Americanization of Emily (an antiwar comedy before MASH starring Julie Andrews) was his favorite movie. Garner credits Paddy Chayefsky with writing a wonderful script. He played Woodrow Call in the TV movie of Larry McMurtry's Streets of Laredo, Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler's Marlowe, and the ultimate American writer, Mark Twain, in Roughing It. He insisted that Stephen J. Cannell be the lead on the writing team for the Rockford Files. Cannell wrote scripts for over 40 television series. The dialogue on Rockford was first-rate as evidenced by the title to one of my favorite episodes — "Rosendahl and Gilda Stern are Dead."

Brains, not brawn

Garner's antihero wasn't like many of the antiheroes of yesterday or even today's TV shows. He played against the John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Have Gun — Will Travel, Rifleman problem solvers who used force to get results and always solved the crime. He found practical ways to solve crimes by relying on his wit and imagination more than brass knuckles. He probably lost more fights than he won. But he was truly likeable because he wasn't anti-the world or anti-himself like many of today's TV antiheroes either.

Movies and TV connect generations. One of the things I miss about my dad and, to be fair my mom, is the connection to the old movies, the ones Garner learned from, starring Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracey, Marlon Brando, and others. With the loss of James Garner, a link to the past is lost. It's hard to think of a living performer (maybe Doris Day) who takes me that far back. Which reminds me:

"Hey, am I too late for those African goats? Haven't got the whole three hundred cash, but, like I've got a whole lot of homemade cheese. Maybe we could work something out."

Above right: Garner, Julie Andrews, and Robert Preston in Victor Victoria. (Photo by Artista Management - © 1982)

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