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James Garner was a grand master of invisible acting, one of the last of a dying breed of old-school American performers who made everything look laid-back, laconic and natural. “I’m a Spencer Tracy-type actor,” he told People magazine in 2005. “His idea was to be on time, know your words, hit your marks and tell the truth.”
Garner’s death at 86 robs our screens of a versatile, understated talent who always exuded affability and cool-headed moral authority. His reputation was cemented by two long-running TV roles: the classic cowboy series Maverick, which spanned 1957 to 1962, and the globally successful private eye drama The Rockford Files, which ran from 1974 to 1980, earning Garner an Emmy. But he also notched up over 50 big screen credits in a phenomenal career spanning six decades, during which he snagged an Oscar nomination (for 1985’s Murphy’s Romance) and multiple awards. In a 1973 interview, no less an icon than John Wayne named Garner as America’s best actor.
A generous and unshowy performer, Garner often did his best work as part of a large ensemble. Among his most immortal roles are the resourceful “scrounger” Robert Hendley in John Sturges’ World War II prison-camp classic The Great Escape; the hard-bitten Formula One driver Pete Aron in John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix; a Chicago night club owner who falls in love with a gender-bending English actress in Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria; and the veteran astronaut “Tank” Sullivan in Clint Eastwood’s elderly action-hero romp Space Cowboys.
Working on Grand Prix turned Garner into a race-car fan, and the actor later launched his own racing team and drove the pace car at the Indianapolis 500. It also wrecked his friendship with fellow rubber-burning obsessive Steve McQueen, who coveted the role of Aron for himself.
But behind his unruffled image, a hint of suppressed anger was crucial to Garner’s screen charisma. By his own admission, he had a notoriously combustible temper. Beaten by his stepmother as a child, he finally punched her back when he was just 14. He would later cheerfully boast about “decking” fellow actors and film-makers including co-star Tony Franciosa, director John Frankenheimer and even a fan who heckled him during a golf game.
As friend and Rockford Files co-star Joe Santos explains in Garner’s autobiography, The Garner Files: A Memoir: “Garner says he’s easygoing, but he’s lying. He’s angry and desperate, just like I am. That’s why Rockford has always worked so well, because Jim is coming from a very passionate, driven place.”
Garner was a political animal and a longtime Democrat, which impacted his life both on and off screen. He met his wife Lois at a rally for presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1956, and they married two weeks later. In 1963, he joined Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, witnessing King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from just yards away. In the 1985 CBS miniseries Space, he insisted on switching his character’s party affiliation with the perfectly reasonable explanation that “my wife would leave me if I played a Republican.”
Five years later, Democratic leaders tried to persuade Garner to seek the nomination for Governor of California. The plan came to nothing, but he did make an agreeably grouchy former U.S. President in Peter Segal’s 1996 comedy My Fellow Americans, opposite Jack Lemmon. He was a late stand-in for Lemmon’s regular sparring partner Walter Matthau, and it is a testament to Garner’s comedic skills that this veteran duo summons up an equally irascible, irresistible screen chemistry.
Though not chiefly known as a comedian, Garner had a flair for dry humor – two of his most enjoyable and underrated starring roles were in the comedy westerns Support Your Local Sheriff! and Skin Game, released in 1969 and 1971 respectively. But in his later years, he traded the wise-ass sarcasm for twinkly grandfather parts, notably in the pan-generational 2004 romance The Notebook, in which he played the older version of Ryan Gosling’s character. The film became a smash hit, and the old heavyweight of American screen masculinity turned in a grand autumnal performance. Clearly mellowing with age, Garner did not even punch anyone on set.
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