The characters that the marvelous actor James Garner played, who died yesterday, were always great talkers. And their silver tongues always got them out of conflicts. It was a pretty good way to be, using one’s brains instead of brawn. And Garner not only showed movie and TV fans how to be a leading man, he also showed the nation how to be a modern male.
Garner was indeed a one-of-a-kind leading man. He was not only a good talker, but he projected morals, smarts, and savvy about the world around him. He looked good in jeans, and a suit, and especially in a plaid blazer. He charmed women by actually talking to them. No strong, silent bull crap from Garner. No, this man knew what he wanted and wasn’t afraid to say it, to a lady, to anybody.
That was especially novel at a time, in the late 50’s and early 60’s, when most leading men coming out of the Actors Studio were mumbling introverts who bottled up their feelings. Or they were working class blokes, raging through England, drinking hard and raising hell. But Garner chose a path counter to those trends. He was tall and built without having to brawl. He was clever and verbally dexterous and could articulate how he felt. And he was a gentleman, respectful of women and more often than not, the kind of man who treated them as equals. What man wouldn’t want to be like that?
It’s telling that in most of his roles, whether on the big or small screen, from “The Great Escape” (1963) to “The Rockford Files” (1974-1980), he played heroes who proved their mettle while rarely having to press the metal to the floor or raise a firearm. Thus, Garner was a maverick really, in more than just the name of his most famous character. He was a man who made better choices, more civilized ones, a man who was strong enough to be humble, courageous enough to hold his fists at his side.
And at a time when westerns like “Wanted: Dead or Alive” and “Gunsmoke” were reigning on TV, Garner established his prevailing screen persona as Bret Maverick in the series “Maverick” (1957-1962), a man of the west who loathed conflict, despised violence, and tried to get his way through dialogue. It is interesting how little gunplay there was on the show. It was a thinking man’s western really, and Garner was the perfect brain to lead it.
Garner could’ve been another Clint Eastwood or James Arness or Steve McQueen. He was tall, rugged, with a square jaw and dark hair. He easily could have stood for an all-American machismo. But when he opened up his mouth, that twangy drawl of his came out and it was unique. Funny, likable, manly without being thuggish. He was the new American male, no matter what the period was that he was playing in. And he knew how to be old school masculine along with new age sensitive.
And no matter what role he played, he made audiences relate to his characters. He didn’t want to fight. Who did? He could romance Julie Andrews and pal around with Steve McQueen. Who wouldn’t want to do that? And he suggested decency even if he was playing con artists. Even in something like “The Skin Game” (1971), he may have been using Lou Gossett as a fake slave to bilk people out of their money, but when push came to shove, he took the whipping in place of his charge. Garner may have played slippery here and there, but he was almost always the most moral and grounded person in the room.
And he turned other clichés on their head too. When he played Jim Rockford in the groundbreaking TV series “The Rockford Files”, he turned the private dick role into something wholly modern as well. Rockford wasn’t a great cop, or hot with the ladies. He was as far away from James Bond or Perry Mason or Sam Spade as a law enforcer could be. Rockford struggled to make ends meet. He lived in a trailer, with his aging dad. And when a bad guy punched him, it hurt. And it hurt for days.
Garner showed how dangerous the procedural job was at a time when law enforcement on TV was presented as unimpeachable. Rockford was another maverick show, and it was a huge hit. Again, it proved that Garner had a way of making an audience relate to his modern take on the American male.
One of his greatest screen roles was where he was asked to combine his modern persona with the clichés of Hollywood macho in Blake Edwards’ musical masterpiece “Victor/Victoria” (1982). As King Marchand, the knowing and wily gangster from Chicago, he falls hard for Victoria (Julie Andrews) the seductive songstress in a Parisian cabaret. When Victoria ‘reveals’ herself to be a man, it throws King because a guy like him isn’t supposed to fall for a guy.
As the man who would be King, Garner is really the heart of the show as it is his character that has the largest character arc. He goes from being someone who knows exactly who he is to a flounderer who isn’t certain who he’s in love with, or the kind of guy he himself could or should be. As King accepts that his crush could be male, he softens. And as he dates Victoria, established finally as a woman, but still determined to keep up her ruse as a man for the public, Garner was comically brilliant as he struggled to fit into society’s version of what defines a couple. It's as timely today as it was then.
His list of wonderful credits of men dealing with such vulnerabilities are too long to list here, but suffice it to say in TV-movies like “My Name Is Bill W. (1989), and “Barbarians at the Gate” (1993), as well as big screen vehicles like “Murphy’s Romance” (1985), and “The Notebook” (2004), Garner presented a complex take on what it means to be a man. Time and time again. Brilliantly.
The contemporary American man learned to walk and talk with a lot of help from James Garner. He died a legend at 86 on July 19, 2014. And he left a fascinating legacy behind that will be talked about forever. And that’s really saying something, especially considering the silver-tongued guy that Jim was.