Smooth-talking and amiable as they come, you’d think James Garner pretty much made his living playing himself on the big and small screen. But one of the revelations of The Garner Files, the new autobiography written by the actor with Jon Winokur, is that Garner is not who he appears to be. At least, not all the time.
In fact, Garner calls himself a “curmudgeon,” then sets out to prove himself worthy of this description that he has given himself throughout The Garner Files. He does a nice job making his case, reveling in laying forth his no-holds-barred philosophies on show business, racing, golf, politics, people he’s worked with and, well, life.
Born James Bumgarner in 1928 in storm-heavy Norman, Oklahoma, Garner escaped a fractured early life—his part Cherokee Indian mother dying when he was four, physical abuse from his stepmother, apathy leading to his becoming a high school dropout—to look for guidance by joining the Merchant Marines, then winning two Purple Hearts while fighting in the Korean War. A move to Los Angeles, a non-speaking part in a stage production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, and some swimsuit modeling helped get into the entertainment business.
Garner pulls no punches, particularly when it comes to his travails in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes in show biz. Maverick, he insists, was a landmark show that tweaked the typical western formula with humor. While Garner loved playing the part of the black-clad gambler, he hated working for Warner Brothers, who overworked and underpaid him, then hired Jack Kelly to play his brother and gave the performer a better contract. This action persuaded him to take the studio to court to get out of his deal.
Of the popular TV show The Rockford Files, a program that played with the conventions of the detective genre, Garner loved the role of Jim Rockford, his co-star Noah Beery, Jr. and co-creator-writer Stephen J. Cannell. Eventually, however, the actor had it out twice with Universal Studios over monies owed for the show’s profits and syndication fees.
The actor, who has remained married to Lois Clarke since 1956 when they met at an Adlai Stevenson presidential campaign rally, is a lifelong Democrat. He was active in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s and is a staunch environmentalist. He writes vividly about joining Marlon Brando, Paul Newman , Joanne Woodward, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster and others during 1963’s March on Washington in which Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” In fact, Garner says, he sat three rows away from King.
Garner’s TV career, which also includes stints in Nichols, Bret Maverick, 8 Simple Rules, such TV movies as My Name is Bill W, The Glitter Dome, Heartsounds and Breathing Lessons, and as a pitchman for Polaroid and the beef industry, brought him steady work and good money. He writes that he never had a problem mixing TV with film work, and never felt the need to take do “act-ing” (as he calls it) in the theater.
Of his movie roles, Garner is most proud of his parts in Sayonara, The Great Escape, The Americanization of Emily, Grand Prix (in which Garner, a seasoned racer, did his own driving), Support Your Local Sheriff, Murphy’s Romance and The Notebook, a film he calls “a magnificent love story.” His insights into the making of all of these films are filled with anecdotal bon mots about Brando, McQueen and director John Sturges, Julie Andrews and writer Paddy Chayefsky, director John Frankenheimer, Joan Hackett and Jack Elam, director Martin Ritt and the son-mother tandem of director Nick Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, respectively.
As for the films Garner shows least affection for, there’s Up Periscope, Mister Buddwing, How Sweet It Is, A Man Called Sledge, The Fan and the 1992 Eddie Murphy comedy The Distinguished Gentleman, of which Garner notes “I can’t remember a thing about this picture. I can live with that.”
If The Garner Files proves anything, it is that Garner stays true to his promise made at the beginning of the book and does not mince words. “Something funny happens when you get older,” he writes. “You don’t hold back so much.”
So, he has little positive to say about Jack Warner, Ronald Reagan or Charlton Heston. He popped Anthony Franciosca while making 1966’s A Man Could Get Killed because Francisoca was really hitting stuntmen. Fellow racing enthusiast Steve McQueen was a friend, but also a piece of work (Garner says he actually did some stunt driving in Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway with the actor and informs us that McQueen did not, in fact, do the famous motorcycle stunt in The Great Escape).
But Garner is not easy on himself, either. In The Garner Files, he reveals his years of addiction to nicotine (he even smoked after his open heart surgeries), his medical problems (doing your own stunts often takes its toll) , his separation from his wife, his brief use of cocaine, and the habitual marijuana intake which, he claims, helps his severe arthritis pain.
At 83 years old, Garner is a survivor, an example of what you get when you mix Old World values and Hollywood success without the B.S.
The actor’s mantra is identified towards the end of his breezy, always entertaining and sometimes surprising biography.
“Deep down, curmudgeons are good people. They try to do the right thing. They have a sense of humor and a sense of proportion. They speak their mind and devil take the hindmost. They have principles and they don’t run from a fight.
“Curmudgeons know that some things are worth fighting for, that we all need boundaries that we’re ready to defend no matter what. If you don’t make an enemy or two along the way, you’re not doing it right.”
Stated like a true Maverick.
For further information on The Garner Files, go to www.thegarnerfiles.com