Sunday, July 20, 2014

The reason why I STILL love LA: James Garner, 1928-2014

I first went to California as a nine-year-old, and continued to go back there every Tuesday for the remainder of my childhood. Usually around 7.20pm, before being coaxed up to bed, 50 minutes later.

This weekly introduction to the land of permanent blue skies and seemingly cool cars, came courtesy of The Rockford Files, one of the many US TV imports that added a golden colour to otherwise drab, grey life in 1970s Britain.

There were plenty of detective shows around at the time, but this one owed singular appeal to its star, James Garner, who has died at the age of 86. Garner played Jim Rockford as a compassionate, principled private eye, one who frequently took on cases that put him in more danger than his standard "$200 a day plus expenses" fee would cover, and very often would end up out of pocket completely.

He kept his gun in a cookie jar, seemed to own only one checkered jacket, and lived and worked out of a trailer on a secluded beach  north of Malibu (actually, the very real Paradise Cove)  just off Pacific Coast Highway. Quite how he managed to do most of his work in Los Angeles is still a mystery to me, as it's at least an hour's drive in normal LA traffic from that beach to LAPD headquarters, where he would meet with sometime friend and detective Dennis Becker, or his dodgy former inmate 'Angel' Martin.

However, to the nine-year-old me, Rockford lived the dream. A home on the beach, few - if any - neighbours  and California all around him. No wonder, when I eventually put feet down, properly, on southern Californian soil 15 years later, it was all so familiar to me.

Garner was a much under-rated actor: part of Rockford's appeal was Garner's own laconic ease. Even when confronted by a gun-wieding thug (usually a character actor like Anthony Zerbe), it would be "Look, just put down the gun, will ya?" rather than any gung-ho grappling. Jack Bauer must look like an alien in comparison.

Rockford was, in fact, an intentionally updated version of Garner's first starring role on TV, Brett Maverick, in the late 1950s and early 60s. The light-hearted Western series provided Garner with the perfect platform for his classic Hollywood square-jawed, leading man good looks, which also led to Gerry and Sylvia Anderson basing the puppet of Troy Tempest, their lead character in the puppet sci-fi series Stingray, on him.

Born James Bumgarner on April 7, 1928 in Norman, Oklahoma, Garner dropped out of his Midwestern high school to join the merchant navy, before moving to Los Angeles - where his errant father had gone - to complete his secondary education. Eventually returning to Oklahoma, where he joined the state's National Guard, he was eventually called up to serve in the Korean War, winning a Purple Heart in the process following a friendly fire incident. 

College, after his discharge, didn't work out either, which indirectly led to an old high school friend persuading Garner to work in the theatre. This in turn led to - and helped by his tall frame and charismatic charm - Hollywood calling. 

Settling back in Los Angeles in 1955, Garner, started picking up bit parts In TV shows like Cheyenne. This earned him a modest contract with Warner Brothers, and small parts in film and TV, including that of Marlon Brando's friend in Sayonara, and his first starring spot, in Darby's Rangers (replacing Charlton Heston who'd walked off the picture). It was also around this time that Garner met - at a political rally - and subsequently married Lois Clarke, to whom he remained married until his death, without doubt one of Hollywood's longest-running marriages.

In 1957 the ABC network created Maverick, a deliberate antidote to the traditional Western shows that featured rugged, embittered plains-hardened heroes. Garner played the character as a charmer who would talk his way out of trouble, rather than reaching for his gun. 

On leaving the show in 1960 Garner embarked upon a movie career, successfully exploiting the appeal of his lighter touch in the sort of romantic comedies that Hollywood was developing as star vehicles for their leading ladies and leading men alike. 

But it was in a war caper that Garner would see his movie career take off. In 1963 he took second billing behind Steve McQueen in the all-star ensemble of The Great Escape, the-now British bank holiday TV staple, playing the Canadian RAF officer Hendley - the escape committee's 'scrounger' (a part Garner based on his Korean experiences, he fulfilled much the same role as his unit's unofficial quartermaster). The Great Escape established Garner as a major box office draw, leading to being cast in the hit Doris Day romcoms, The Thrill of It All and Move Over Darling.

When TV producers Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell decided, in 1970, to recreate Maverick as a latter-day gumshoe, they approached the original show's star. Garner had once said of Brett Maverick: “I’m playing me,” explaining that the character was lazy and "...I like being lazy.” In the process, Jim Rockford's appeal was cast too.

It was this same appeal that would sustain his career, post-Rockford. Though he would never again have a role as iconic as the detective (various lawsuits with Universal in the 1980s may have hampered his lust for work, too), he landed gold in an ironic appearance as Mel Gibson's father in Richard Donner's film version of Maverick, Gibson playing Brett Maverick, of course. The appearance seemed to revive Garner's career, with TV roles - including a recurring part in Chicago Hope - following.

In 2000 Garner reunited with occasional [original] Maverick villain Clint Eastwood, along with Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland for the enjoyable veteran astronaut caper Space Cowboys. And then a guest spot on the sitcom 8 Simple Rules turned into a recurring role until the show's cancellation in 2005, while a year before Garner starring in Nick Cassavetes' film adaption of The Notebook playing the older version of Ryan Gosling's character. 

The performance earned Garner a Screen Actors Guild nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role, and Garner actually won the SAG's lifetime achievement award.

For an actor television stardom can be a double-edged sword. As so many other iconic characters have done for the actors portraying them, Jim Rockford put James Garner into people's living rooms every week at the same time for six years. As a result Garner became Rockford, Rockford became Garner. 

Occasionally he would be reunited with the character on made-for-TV movies in the 1980s and 1990s. More recently, the inevitable attempt to reboot Rockford for the big screen, starring Vince Vaughan, struggled to get off the ground. Garner was rumoured to have been given a role in it, but ongoing ill-health following heart surgery and a stroke a few years ago had allegedly led to Garner suffering from depression or at least a progressively decreasing lust for life.

For me, the endless Hollywood remakes of classic TV shows rarely - if ever - recapture what it was that made them classic to begin with. For The Rockford Files - and what made it "must-see TV" before the phrase ever came to be coined - it will always be about James Garner, that trailer on a Malibu beach with the gold Pontiac Firebird parked next to it. Please leave your message after the tone.

1 comment:

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