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James Garner: The ultimate gift - a remembrance

James Garner as Bret Maverick (1957)
James Garner as Bret Maverick (1957)
Warner Bros. Television

Everyone has their own memories of James Garner. Be it watching him dazzle on horseback on the silver screen, defend democracy and the American way be it as Wyatt Earp or President Matt Douglas, deliver laugh after laugh with Doris Day, be smitten with Julie Andrews be she a man or a woman, con his way through the Old West as Bret Maverick and then pass the Maverick torch to Mel Gibson, head for the moon as a “Space Cowboy”, solve every crime and mystery as Jim Rockford, increase the stock price of Kleenex thanks to a heart-wrenching performance in a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, entertain a whole new generations of fans through animation voicing, or become an indelible part of the advertising world thanks to 300 TV commercials with Mariette “I am not James Garner’s wife” Hartley, one thing is for certain: James Garner was “the ultimate gift”.

I was fortunate to not only know the on-screen personas of James Garner, but that off-screen as well. It wasn’t too long after my arrival in California that legendary stuntman Al Wyatt introduced me to Garner for the first time. Al had known Garner for decades, working with him in both tv and film. I remember it well, especially given that I met Randolph Scott at the same time. The smell of the coffee, the gentility of both men, but especially the affability of Garner and his “everyman” quality. Garner and Scott were both as kind as kind could be to this gal from Philly.

It was also Wyatt who introduced a young Neil Summers to Garner and the world of westerns and stunts with the film “Duel at Diablo”. Summers himself would go on to become another legend in the stunt community as well as a noted western historian. Lucky for me, he has also proven to be a decades long dear friend who not only provided me with early introductions into the industry, but together with other “legends” regaled me - and still regales me - with stories of their early days in the business and the stories told them by and about guys like James Garner. But when it comes to James Garner, the one thread that always rang true even more than his professionalism and dedication to his craft, was his loyalty and kindness to his friends and colleagues.

Just the tip of the iceberg, but some examples of James Garner, the man:

When Garner signed to do “Maverick” for Warner Bros back in 1957, although Garner did many of his own stunts over the years, Roydon Clark was onboard as his stunt double and no matter where or when the next call came, remained his double for the next 40 years in everything from “Duel at Diablo” (Garner’s first western after “Maverick”) to “Support Your Local Sheriff” to “Sunset” and, of course, Garner’s other TV western series, “Nichols” and “Bret Maverick”.

Stuntman Dean Smith has long attributed his career to James Garner, going back to their days in the Army together. After both left the Army and Smith moved to California, it was James Garner who helped Smith get his first film work in “Born Reckless” alongside Jeff Richards and Mamie Van Doren.

Victor Mature’s stunt double, Fred Carson, was always in demand; so much so, in fact, that he often had to turn down doubling Mature because he was booked on other films (including MGM’s legendary “Million Dollar Mermaid” with Esther Williams). One of Carson’s biggest roles, “Skin Game” came thanks to James Garner. Knowing Carson’s prowess with a whip, it was Garner who insisted on him for the film and the role of Sam Bass.

Tales of James Garner’s generosity and friendship are countless but quietly kept secrets. Humility is one of his hallmarks.

A frequent visitor myself on the set of 1988's “Sunset” with Garner, Bruce Willis, Malcolm McDowell, Kathleen Quinlan, Dermot Mulroney, my local bar buddy M. Emmet Walsh, and a gang of crew and stunt friends, it was Garner who set the tone. Although Willis was the hot ticket of the day thanks to “Moonlighting” and his much anticipated transition to film (“Sunset” opened three months prior to “Die Hard”) and had the most exuberant fun-filled and free-wheeling attitude on the set of “Sunset”, the daily tone clearly came from Garner. Although he never acted like a “star”, Garner’s legend filled the air with an aura that you knew you were experiencing someone special. He laughed, he chatted, he always had a “hello” for everyone, he was on his mark, knew his lines and was beyond gracious with all. He was as kind to the guys at the craft services table or the folks picking up flying paper trash as he was to camera pullers or director Blake Edwards.

I saw first-hand the level of James Garner’s kindness through a completely different set of eyes when his long-time script supervisor Gillian Murphy was severely injured in a non-work related slip and fall on a golf course. Knowing all too well from his own stunt work the toll that physical injury takes on the body and the mobility challenges one faces with orthopaedic pinning and fusing, Garner was determined to help Murphy keep working. In the midst of shooting the “Rockford” tv movies of the 1990's, it was Garner who had a location truck outfitted with a lift and flat bed anchor to accommodate Murphy with first a wheelchair, then crutches, then orthopaedic boot as she could no longer “step up” due to her permanent injury. Garner was as equally worried about her physical well-being as her mental well-being and self-worth.

It has always been a treat whenever I have had the chance to run into Garner, be it behind the camera, on a press line, at a premiere, on a set, at an event or in a coffee shop. He showed me a lot about kindness, generosity of spirit and class. Having the chance to have known him even on a limited basis is truly, an ultimate gift in my life for which I shall be forever grateful.