James Garner: A Lawyer Reflects on the Actor's Legal Legacy (Guest Column)
Litigator Neville Johnson explains how Garner, who died July 19 at age 86, wasn't afraid to fight for his share of success.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
"You can never have too many friends," James Garner wrote to me on a picture of him as Bret Maverick when I asked for an autograph back in 1960. Garner indeed was a friend to actors in a way he might not have realized at the time: He was the rare thespian who dared engage in lawsuits with studios while he was a working actor.
In 1960, Warner Bros. suspended him because of a writers strike as Maverick filmed. Garner fought back, declaring his contract void. He won at trial, and the decision was confirmed on appeal and remains good precedent today. The affable star then went a second round with a studio, Universal, in a case that started in 1980 and lasted nine years. Garner claimed he was ill and could not work due to repeated injuries on The Rockford Files (he did most of his own stunts). Universal sued him, alleging he actually was on strike because he did not believe the show had accrued a $9 million deficit after five years and 100 episodes. Instead, Garner alleged, Universal was "creatively accounting," two words that are now part of the Hollywood lexicon.
Garner wasn't the first to fight a battle for his share of "net profits" — Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, Fess Parker and producer Harve Bennett had done so before — but he was the first to go public, even appearing on 60 Minutes to plead his case. In response, Sid Sheinberg, then president of parent MCA, called Garner a "crybaby," given that he'd been paid $5 million. Sheinberg once said that "litigation is a profit center for MCA."
But Garner put his money where his mouth was and fought until he received a confidential settlement reported to be $14 million. In doing so, he established that an actor would not necessarily be blackballed for demanding his just due. Thanks to Garner's suit, producer Roy Huggins was able to piggyback a nice settlement for his share of profits.
As we honor James Garner as a great actor, talent should also tip their hats to him for having the courage to take a risk to see that those fortunate enough to be in productions that achieve real profits get paid them. Mr. Garner's legacy is on film and in the lawbooks.
Neville Johnson is a litigator who represents talent in lawsuits against studios.