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James Garner remembered ‘with a smile,’ just the way he wanted

When TVLine announced that James Garner had passed away on Jul. 19, 2014, in Brentwood, California, at the age of 86, so also did an important part of many Baby Boomer’s lives. It’s hard to think of a time in the last five decades when Jim Garner’s work in film and in television was not something searched for, watched, remembered and beloved. His work lives on today as some of the most important lighthearted comedy and serious acting roles accomplished.

From the 1960 film "Cash McCall," based on Cameron Hawley's book of the same name, James Garner and Natalie Wood, including a tremendous supporting cast, made Garner a popular movie actor as well as beloved TV star.
West Communications, personal collection, used with permission
The way James Garner wanted to be remembered was with a smile.
From the Everett Collection to Simon & Schuster, biography cover

Garner was an actor, born James Scott Bumgarner, who started out as a carpenter, a young man from Norman, Oklahoma, who stumbled into the business, succeeded, and stayed there the rest of his life. Perhaps he fell into the business, but as he landed, Jim found solid ground on which to stand. His full listing of a lifetime of acting work is truly impressive.

Every hour of every day on television, somewhere around the world, James Garner is a part of a broadcast. It might be in the daily COZI-TV reruns of “Maverick,” starring Jim, Jack Kelly, and Roger Moore as Bret, Bart, and Beau Maverick, respectively, three gorgeous gambling men with cowboy hats, ruffled shirts, shiny boots, and a $1,000 bill hidden inside their coats “for emergency purposes.”

Roy Huggins created the show that ran from Sept. 22, 1957-July 8, 1962, five seasons and 121 episodes of their lives, which became part of our lives, too. It takes only a few seconds of hearing the beloved theme song by David Buttolph and Paul Francis Webster to propel you back to your Baby Boomer childhood.

“Who is the tall dark stranger there? Maverick is the name. Riding the trail to who knows where; Luck is his companion, gambling is his game…Riverboat ring your bell, fare thee well, Annabelle; luck is the lady that he loved the best, Natchez to New Orleans, living on jacks and queens, Maverick is the legend of the west.” You know you’re humming or singing along right now, don’t you?

From those beginnings Garner used a low-key style, gentle charm and magnificent looks to create an All-American image that stayed with him long past the time he’d worn them out. His award winning career found him the winner of a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer of 1958, an honor he shared with John Saxon and Patrick Wayne that year. Jim was nominated for a total of 12 Golden Globes over the years and won two.

The first win came in 1991, for Best Actor in a Mini-Series or Motion Picture for “Decoration Day” and again in 1994 for Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV for “Barbarians at the Gate.” In “Barbarians,” Garner played F. Ross Johnson, the president of a tobacco company who starts a bidding war to purchase the company himself. That was a subject close to his heart as he said in his biography that he’d begun smoking at the age of eight years old and continued for 60 years until he quit in 2005.

Garner was known and beloved as a leading man for royalty among many of Hollywood’s leading ladies, including Natalie Wood (“Cash McCall” based on Cameron Hawley’s book), wherein Garner most perfectly fit the image of a successful businessman searching for true love, while managing a multimillion dollar empire, flying his own plane, dealing with scheming corporate opponents, and fighting hard to win the heart of Natalie Wood, which he ultimately does (see slide show and video for fun memories of this 1960 classic.

Other actresses whose hearts he won on screen include Doris Day (“Move Over, Darling,” “The Thrill of It All”), Lee Remick (“The Wheeler Dealers”), Kim Novak (“Boys Night Out”), Elke Sommer and Angie Dickinson (“The Art of Love”). That list goes on, and on.

Film roles in Westerns followed easily from his early television days doing battle with the Wild West. These included as “A Man Called Sledge,” “Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend,” “Hour of the Gun,” and the comedic “Support Your Local Gunfighter.”

In the midst of a career that had transitioned from films to television back to films, legendary writer and television producer Stephen J. Cannell created a project to which Garner was born to play the role. You know how the show opens. Telephone rings, and the answering machine message begins to play: “This is Jim Rockford, at the tone leave your name and number. I’ll get back to you.” Next you hear the perfect opening by Cannell’s favorite dynamic duo, Mike Post and Pete Carpenter–two truly gifted musicians, composers, and producers–kicks in, and you’re off and humming “The Rockford Files” theme, aren’t you?

From 1974-1980, Garner played Jim Rockford, a private eye with a soft heart, living on soft money most of the time, because he was forever taking cases from people who couldn’t pay, getting beat up, shot at, and taken advantage of most of the time. In his spare time, he fished with his father and healed up from whatever wounds he’d sustained on a case. Cannell created the show, among his legion of television hits that are a mainstay of classic tv still today, and “The Rockford Files” has been a part of the daytime lineup on ME-TV until just recently, some 34 years after the first run had ended. Jim Garner brought Jim Rockford to life, and stayed there.

Fans loved him, and the show, which lasted for 122 episodes and included a prestigious list of Hollywood guest stars that Jim could easily attract. The cast included Noah Beery, Jr. as his dad, Joseph (Rocky) Rockford, Joe Santos as Sgt. Dennis Becker and Garner’s personal friend Stuart Margolin, as the dodgy character Angel, without a last name. Actress Gretchen Corbett appeared in 33 episodes of “The Rockford Files,” playing Jim’s love interest and lawyer, Beth Davenport.

Wartime dramas produced some of his best works, including “Darby’s Rangers,” (directed by William Wellman), “Sayonara” (directed by Josh Logan), “Up Periscope,” directed by Gordon Douglas, “The Americanization of Emily” (costarring Julie Andrews, written by Paddy Chayefsky, directed by Arthur Hiller and Al Shenberg) and “The Great Escape” with Steve McQueen, directed by John Sturges.

Some of his final and most charming works were among his most memorable, including “Murphy’s Romance” (1985), the only film for which Jim was nominated for an Academy Award, but he didn’t win. In 1978 and 1982, however, Garner won People’s Choice Awards for “Favorite Male Performer and Favorite Male Performer in a New TV Progam.” In the film, “Grand Prix,” Jim Garner’s love of driving fast cars would ultimately become another lifetime love. That gold-colored Firebird he drove in “The Rockford Files” undoubtedly went far to help GM sell more than a few Pontiacs for several years. Driving was cool with Jim behind the wheel.

Other beloved films include: “Space Cowboys” (2000) “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” (2002), and of course, “The Notebook” (2004). The Nicholas Sparks book was brought to life in a way that no other actors could, as Jim and Gena Rowlands play characters (in their final years) of a young married couple played by Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, in a story that unfolds from the pages of a notebook.

Just last week, the Hallmark Channel broadcast a Garner favorite, the poignant 2007 film, “The Ultimate Gift.” Based on Jim Stovall’s book, Garner portrayed billionaire Howard “Red” Stevens. His ultimate legacy to his grandson was metered out in life lessons in a story told in flashbacks, the way we now remember Garner’s career—in flashback. Veteran beloved actors Lee Meriwether and Bill Cobbs plus then ingenue, now veteran, Abigail Breslin added much to the story whose central theme was “Life is how you live it, not how you spend it.” True enough.

Another memorable Garner Hallmark TV movie was the 1994 love story, “Breathing Lessons,” with the great Joanne Woodward, for which she won a Golden Globe award. Joanne’s lasting marriage to Paul Newman and Jim’s to Lois, gave them a wealth of background to bring to convincingly portray a couple who’d been married thirty years. It’s another treasured Hallmark film.

At the end of almost every celebrity’s career, whether it is television, film, stage, or music, the collective group of true friends one can count on reaches an all-time low. The height of celebrity brings all the trappings of success, bright lights, big bucks, chauffeured limos, formal wear, agents, accountants, managers, attorneys and hangers on. It’s ironic that at the time you most search for truth, for normalcy in life, the career you’ve worked so hard to achieve rewards you with the things you want least.

Hence the need to escape presents itself, so you can once again remember who you used to be, before you got what you wanted. By the time the phone ringing off the wall has slowed substantially, you understand that the same people who were with you when you didn’t belong to the public are still there when the public has given you back to your own choices, left with plaques, statues, and your rightful place on classic television.

In his biography, “The Garner Files,” co-written by Jon Winokur, Garner wrote an opening letter to his readers, dated June 2011, sharing a poignant message with his fans. He had long delayed in putting out a public accounting of his life, as it had been filled with as many bad times as good. As iconic an actor and celebrity as he was, he considered himself unremarkable.

His biography shocked more than a few of his fans as he revealed facts about himself that stripped away many preconceived images of his actually being that clean-cut hero that all of American women had secretly crushed on for decades. His honesty was part of who he was, though, and he cut himself very little slack, telling it like it was.
The best part of his life was the devotion of his wife Lois, whom he married in 1956 and their daughters, Greta Scott Garner (Gigi) and Kimberly Clarke Garner. Garner’s brother Jack, who passed away in September, 2011, also had a chance to star with Jim in several projects, over Jack’s 40-year acting career.

His secret to a long marriage? Respect. He wrote in his biography: “Lois and I have always respected each other. I think that’s why we’ve lasted so long. You have to think of how everything you do will affect your partner. I’ve had chances to go crazy, but I asked myself, ‘What will that do to Lois?’ And I said, “No, I’m not going to do that.”

Garner shared their marriage had included an 18-month separation, not out of anger, but until Garner could get himself out of a deep depression he suffered over the exhaustive demands of doing “The Rockford Files.” When the couple reunited, he said, “Lois knows me better than anybody in the world. Just like the couple in ‘The Notebook,’ we’ll be there for each other forever. Now, if I could just get her off the phone.”

Said Garner, “I’ve avoided writing a book until now because I’m really pretty average and I didn’t think anyone would care about my life.” He actually felt that way, despite the legion of people who would have argued otherwise with him. His own final words in his biography’s preface are the most poignant:

Above all I want you to know I have no regrets. Here’s this dumb kid from Oklahoma, raised during the Depression, comes to Hollywood, gets a career, becomes famous, makes some money, has a wonderful family…what would I change? Nothing. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Yours truly, James Garner”

Indeed he was: ours, truly. Thank you, Jim, for a wonderful collection of art in film and television that we have loved and memories we will cherish for the rest of our lives.

As to how Garner wanted to be remembered, he said it himself, better than any journalist could. From his biography, “The Garner Files,” Jim’s own words:

I’ve been asked again and again, ‘How do you want to be remembered?’ I usually say I don’t care, but that’s not true. I want to have accomplished something, to have made a contribution to the world. It would be wonderful if just one person looked at my life and said, “If he could overcome that, maybe I can, too.” Beyond that, I think an actor can contribute by making people forget their troubles for an hour or two. Call it relief, escape, diversion….I think one of the greatest gifts is being able to make people happy. I like to make people happy. So, if anybody asks, ‘How do you want to be remembered?’ I tell them: ‘With a smile.’

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