As Mark Steyn writes, “James Garner was one of those actors who was watchable in almost anything, even commercials:”
He had great sexual chemistry, which is why his leading ladies loved working with him. For my money, when it comes to Sixties sex comedies, he was better with Doris Day than Rock Hudson was, and not just for the obvious reason. In Move Over, Darling, Doris and Polly Bergen crank it up a tad too much too soon, and it’s Garner dialing it back and reeling it in who keeps the picture’s contrivances from getting too much. Over a third of a century, he made three movies with Julie Andrews, and made her seem desirable, which is a trick not every leading man could pull off. And, of course, he and Mariette Hartley turned those Seventies/Eighties Polaroid commercials into such mini-masterpieces of effortless charm that most viewers assumed the relationship had to be real. The chemistry was so good Miss Hartley began going around in a T-shirt proclaiming “I am NOT Mrs James Garner.”
He was also one of the few Hollywood leading men of the 1960s to survive and prosper in the awful decade that followed, in which American coastal elites in New York, Washington, and Hollywood all lost their way, producing horrid results for the rest of us. (Talk about déjà vu.) Somehow though, with the Rockford Files, as John Nolte writes in “A Tribute to The Mighty James Garner” at Big Hollywood, Garner, producer Roy Huggins, writer Stephen J. Cannell. and Universal TV managed to capture “lightening in a bottle,” and in an odd way, the 1970s middle American zeitgeist as well.
While he had nothing in common with the character he played, my dad loved James Garner on Rockford, and it’s easy to see why. During that period, when Hollywood was still in its post-Easy Rider “youth phase,” the cool leading men of the 1950s and ‘60s were in short supply: Cary Grant had retired, Sean Connery seemed to vanish in his early post-Bond years, and Steve McQueen’s career was in that fallow period that had begun with the dark grotesqueries of Papillon, and arguably never recovered. You respected Charles Bronson’s characters for their macho toughness and steely brass balls, but no guy really wanted to be Charles Bronson. Which left Garner, who made looking cool easy, unlike McQueen and Paul Newman, each with an ice cold veneer which masked an venomous anger just under the surface. (Arguably in real life, as well.)
As John Nolte – who once featured Rockford’s business card on his Twitter homepage — adds, “Amiable, broad-shouldered, and handsome, Garner spent a half-century easily moving back and forth between television and film roles, a feat very few lead actors have successfully pulled off. Garner was the rare leading man who could spend countless hours in our living rooms without losing the quality that made him a movie star.”
In a phrase that’s applicable less and less to those in show business, James Garner was truly a class act. RIP.
Update: In his obit for Garner, Andrew Klavan writes that no men like the beach bum private eye characters portrayed in the mid-’70s by both Garner and David Janssen in ABC’s then-concurrent Harry O series exist on TV these days. “I don’t say that out of nostalgic grumpiness but as a matter of fact. You cannot pitch a private eye show to the networks. I’ve tried it. You can’t even get in the door.”
“I began by saying that the Obama presidency is unraveling, and that it was a creation of the culture,” Drew adds. “Part of what the culture did to help create this disaster was to lose its faith in the man alone, and put its trust in princes and principalities.”
Offstage, Garner was a cast-in-the-mold Hollywood liberal seeking — whether he knew it consciously or not — authoritarianism, collectivism, and big government. But he was smart enough to portray characters who fought against that authoritarianism, sometimes won along the way, and retained their heart and individuality in the process. And compared to today’s smarmy and chestless Hollywood actors, that was more than enough.