“James Garner, the charming leading man from Oklahoma who made it look easy on NBC’s The Rockford Files and in films opposite Doris Day, Julie Andrews and Sally Field during more than a half-century in show business, has died.” As Mike Barnes and Duane Byrge note in the Hollywood Reporter, Garner, who was 86, “appeared in dozens of films, including two light romantic comedies from 1963 with Day, The Thrill of It All and Move Over, Darling; two with Andrews (1964’s The Americanization of Emily and 1982’s Victor Victoria); and one with Field, the 1985 romantic comedy Murphy’s Romance, for which he received his lone Oscar nomination.”
“There have arguably been bigger stars in television history than the late James Garner, but none who ever made it look quite so easy,” writes Alan Sepinwall for HitFix. Garner “first hit it big in 1957 with Maverick… At a time when TV was dominated by Westerns—and very solemn ones, at that—Garner was happy to play the same material lighter, to occasionally be the clown or the guy who gets punched in the face, and yet could always make it clear that Maverick could easily kill you if he wanted to—it just wasn’t his preferred way of doing things.” And The Rockford Files, “a drama about Jim Rockford, an ex-con who became a private detective, lived and worked out of a trailer in Malibu, and seemed to get punched in the face each week right around the second or third act break,” was “the perfect marriage of storytellers, star and genre.”
Garner’s persona “combined square-jawed, matinee-idol looks with self-effacing qualities and easy-going charm,” writes Brian Lowry for Variety. “Small wonder Garner remained in demand long after the phone normally stops ringing for many leading men, sliding into senior citizen and grandpa roles, a la The Notebook. More than anything, Garner gave off the impression of someone who was comfortable in his own skin—good company, even when the parts and programs weren’t especially interesting…. As for films that might otherwise be forgotten, Garner cut a dashing figure as Wyatt Earp and Philip Marlowe in the late ‘60s in Hour of the Gun and Marlowe, respectively.”
From the AP: “His first film after Maverick established him as a movie actor. It was The Children’s Hour, William Wyler’s remake of Lillian Hellman’s lesbian drama that co-starred Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. He followed in a successful comedy with Kim Novak, Boys Night Out, and then fully established his box-office appeal with the 1963 blockbuster war drama The Great Escape…. When he received the Screen Actors Guild’s lifetime achievement award in 2005, he quipped, ‘I’m not at all sure how I got here.'”
Updates: “Debuting in 1957, Maverick was a character ahead of his time in spirit, a forerunner of the little-guy heroes, the roguish, anti-authoritarians who would rule movies and TV in the 1970s,” writes Time‘s James Poniewozik. “You can see a little bit of a proto-Bill Murray in the dry, sly Maverick, and if Star Wars had been made 20 years earlier, Garner would have been your Han Solo hands down. Garner stayed off TV for a decade after Maverick, but he had a great run in the movies in the 1960s, drama and comedy alike. (Support Your Local Sheriff! would be a great catch-up watch for anyone wanting to discover, or rediscover, his work.)”
“An understated comic actor, he was especially adept at conveying life’s tiny bedevilments,” writes Bruce Weber in the New York Times. “One of his most memorable roles was as a perpetually flummoxed pitchman for Polaroid cameras in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in droll commercials in which he played a vexed husband and Mariette Hartley played his needling wife. They were so persuasive that Ms. Hartley had a shirt printed with the declaration ‘I am NOT Mrs. James Garner.’ … In his 2011 autobiography, The Garner Files, written with Jon Winokur, Mr. Garner confessed to having a live-and-let-live attitude with the caveat that when he was pushed, he shoved back. What distinguished his performance as Rockford was how well that more-put-upon-than-macho persona came across. Rockford’s reactions—startled, nonplussed and annoyed being his specialties—appeared native to him.”
“To a new generation of viewers,” writes the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey, “he had one last renaissance waiting, as Ryan Gosling’s older self in The Notebook (2004): a very touching performance that serves as a capstone to his career now. It had his stolid affability, his Clark Gable-like charm, and a touch of the rogue, without transgressing civil boundaries. He tipped us a wink with his old devil’s smoothness, but it was also exactly as sentimental as it needed to be. It was a reminder, behind the hearty frame of this Oklahoma jock and ex-soldier, that Garner’s best gift to us was something a little out of fashion—a gentle gallantry.”
“He was a different kind of manly,” writes the Dissolve‘s Noel Murray: “Handsome but no Adonis, strong but not musclebound, smart but not brainy, and a wiseass who was rarely out-and-out mean.”
“Sometimes, an interview just clicks,” writes Joe Leydon. “James Garner and I communicated directly only once, during an extended conversation for a 2004 cover-story profile I wrote for Cowboys & Indians magazine. But right from the start, I felt like I was conversing with an old friend who was forthcoming and unfiltered.” And the full piece follows.
“While Charlie Madison in 1964’s The Americanization of Emily has righteousness on his side, scripter Paddy Chayefsky’s writing, eloquent as it is, has an unrelenting stridency that, coming out of pretty much any other actor’s mouth, would have made him a scolding drag,” writes Glenn Kenny. “Garner’s voice, the set of his jaw and brow, his gait, make you warm to the character even at his most uptight. Similarly, part of what makes The Great Escape such a great sit is the fact that you’d follow Garner’s Hendley anywhere, any time.”
Filmmaker‘s Scott Macaulay points us to Clive James‘s 2011 review in the Atlantic of Garner’s memoir: “He is thoughtful, honest, and fundamentally gentle, although he has knocked men down when riled. On the evidence given here, one doesn’t doubt that they asked for it. One doesn’t doubt this guy at all.”
Updates, 7/21: “Calling himself ‘a Methodist but not as an actor,’ Garner considered acting a job; golf was his passion.” Time‘s Richard Corliss: “He knew his lines, stood on his mark and told the truth of his characters. Is that Acting? Not in the grand sense of Stanislavski or his heirs, from Brando to Gosling. But, as Garner plied the trade, it certainly was acting of the most persuasive order. ‘I think Jim is such a good actor because he leaves his actor at home and brings himself to the screen,’ said Gretchen Corbett, one of his Rockford Files costars, in the 2001 book The Garner Files. ‘He’s also a very appealing human being. Both men and women feel safe with him; they feel like they get him.'”
In the New Republic, Isaac Chotiner, too, suggests that if you watch Garner today, “what you really see is a man out in front of his time, largely because Garner doesn’t appear to be conforming to any outside standard of manliness. This is probably why he and Cary Grant have aged so well, and other stars, especially macho-types like John Wayne and Stallone and Schwarzenegger, have not.”
Update, 7/22: In 2001, Clint Eastwood spoke about working with—and directing—his old friend:
Update, 7/23: For the Voice, Peter Gerstenzang writes up “James Garner’s Five Best Sleeper Films.”
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