A few weeks ago, mostly because I could not recall having ever seen it before, I found myself watching the 1963 film "The Wheeler-Dealers" on television one afternoon. A semi-satire on Texas oil billionaires—who were then a popular subject in the media—the film follows the misadventures of Henry J. Tyroon, a smarter-than-he-acts (the big skeleton in his closet is his Harvard education) oilman who, in the need of additional funds, comes to New York City to raise money and finds himself attempting to woo a sexy stock analyst (Lee Remick). As a whole, the movie is pretty silly—the very definition of cinematic fluff—but as dumb as it was, it nevertheless remained completely, utterly watchable and that was due almost entirely to the presence of James Garner in the lead role. His character was kind of a boor but Garner invested him with such sly charm, grace and wit that you not only rooted for him to succeed, you wished that he would attempt drilling in your own backyard to boot.
That, in a nutshell, was the secret to Garner's long-running popularity as a performer on both the big and small screens. He often played characters who were slick rogues who shied away from confrontation or violence—the typical hallmarks of an American screen hero—and who preferred living by their wits than by their fists or their guns. And yet, no matter how cowardly or lazy they might have appeared, it was obvious that when the chips were down, he would finally rise to the occasion on his own terms and make things right. In a sea of anonymous screen he-men, Garner's more laid-back approach struck a nerve and made him an enormously beloved star.
When it was announced today that he passed away overnight at the age of 86, it hit a nerve with people because this was a star that they didn't just like or admire; people loved James Garner.