It still makes me mad, but at least he's getting his props while he's still alive. No, it's not just me. Read on...
Updated Thursday, June 16, 2005
James Garner: True Blue from Maverick to Eight Simple Rules
by Ed Robertson
James Garner is one of the few actors whose film and television career spans three generations.
Baby Boomers remember him as the star of Maverick (ABC, 1957-1962) and many movies from the ‘60s, including The Great Escape; Move Over, Darling; The Thrill of It All; The Children’s Hour; The Americanization of Emily; Grand Prix; and Support Your Local Sheriff.
Those who came of age in the ‘70s know him as Jim Rockford, the wise-cracking hero who changed the way we looked at television detectives in The Rockford Files (NBC, 1974-1980).
Then there’s that impressive string of films he did in the ‘80s and ‘90s, including Heartsounds, Promise, My Name is Bill W., Barbarians at the Gate, Breathing Lessons, Twilight and his Oscar-nominated performance in Murphy’s Romance.
Young people today know him as Grandpa Jim on 8 Simple Rules (ABC, 2002-2005), not to mention his roles in Space Cowboys, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and The Notebook.
An actor must be pretty special to enjoy that kind of longevity. That’s exactly what James Garner is. Here’s a look at why he appeals to so many of us, filmmakers and filmgoers alike.
Garner is admired throughout the industry for the environment he creates on the set. Ask anyone who has ever worked on a Garner film or television series—actors, writers, directors, producers, crew members, stunt people, extras, and anyone else who’s part of the production—and they will invariably mention the word family.
My wife and I saw this firsthand in 2001, when we visited the set of Garner’s Supreme Court drama First Monday. The entire soundstage crackled with energy the minute Jim arrived. Everyone knew that they were in the presence of a real star, the kind who instantly lends gravitas to a project by virtue of his participation. That kind of stature not only creates excitement throughout the set, it raises the bar for everyone and inspires them to do their best.
Garner also inspires loyalty because he looks after the needs of his cast and crew. He takes care of the little things, such as making sure people on the set have the best coffee and food available. And he takes cares of the big things, such as giving cast and crew the room they need to do their job.
“I like to let people do what they were hired to do,” Garner told me when I interviewed him for my book, Thirty Years of The Rockford Files. “I think you get better work that way. They know that they won’t have somebody looking over their shoulder all the time.
“Now, I know what everyone does on the show, and they realize that, but they also don’t feel as if I’m looking over their shoulder.”
Jim has always respected the work of his writers—and the feeling is mutual. Television writers especially love him, knowing that even an ordinary line will sound that much better because Jim is the one who’s saying it.
As for how his peers view Garner, consider the tribute by Morgan Freeman on the night of the Screen Actors Guild awards earlier this year.
The Guild honored Jim that night with its prestigious Life Achievement Award for career achievement and humanitarian accomplishments. After a 20-minute ceremony that culminated with a heartfelt speech by Garner, the show resumed with the award for Best Supporting Actor in a Dramatic Film. Although Jim was among the nominees in that category for his performance in The Notebook, the award went to Morgan Freeman in Million Dollar Baby.
When Freeman took the stage to accept the award, he could still feel the glow in the room emanating from the ceremony honoring Garner. Instead of delivering the usual acceptance speech, Freeman smiled warmly at Jim and immediately led the entire audience in a rousing rendition of the theme song from Maverick—the show, of course, that originally made Garner a star in 1957.
Garner’s approach to acting has always been internal. He doesn’t so much “learn lines” as he “learns thoughts”—that is, the thought process of whatever character he is going to play. According to the late Marion Hargrove, who wrote multiple episodes of Maverick as well as many of Jim’s movies in the early ‘60s, this is a trait the actor developed as a young man growing up in Oklahoma.
“The South is a richer environment to grow up in than any other part of the country,” said Hargrove in Maverick: Legend of The West. “You can get to know more people in the South: you watch them, you know what they’re like. That can be a great benefit to a writer or an actor.
“And, of course, Garner went through many odd jobs before he settled onto acting, so he would’ve met a lot of different people. He told me that he learned a lot from listening to people while he worked at the filling station [while he was a student at Hollywood High School]. He’d take in the different conversations people had as they passed through.”
Garner himself has said that listening has always been a key to his success as an actor. “One of the first things I learned in this business is how to listen,” he said in an interview with ABC. “By listening, you put yourself in it. You know what’s going on. You’re reacting to it.”
Indeed, Jim is one of the finest reactors film or television has ever known. Whether he’s playing Jim Rockford, Grandpa Jim, or the Chief Justice of the United States, you can often tell exactly what his character is thinking simply from the look on Garner’s face.
James Garner is so good, the effort he puts into each of his roles is sometimes overlooked. “Jim makes acting look so easy, he hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves,” said writer/producer Juanita Bartlett (Nichols, The Rockford Files). “When you see him on Rockford, he’s playing a character. He isn’t playing himself. But because he makes it look so real, you think you’re looking at James Garner.”
I had a chance to see just how hard Jim works during my visit to the set of First Monday.
It was a scene between Garner and Joe Mantegna. Their characters were engaged in conversation while walking down a long corridor. The dialogue was mostly expository, fairly routine stuff. From where I stood, Garner could do this in his sleep.
Suddenly, Jim stopped and shook his head. He was not satisfied with his performance. He’d gotten the words right, but he hadn’t delivered them quite the way he wanted. He motioned to the director, “Could we take it again from the top?”
The cameras rolled. The director called out “Action!” Once again, Jim and Joe went through their paces. This time, Garner nailed it. The director said, “Cut and print it,” and they went on to stage the next scene.
Now here’s a man who has been doing this for 50 years, yet he still believes in working just as hard as he did as a young actor. I couldn’t help but be impressed.
Garner also still believes in taking chances, as he did when he joined the cast of 8 Simple Rules following the untimely death of John Ritter in 2003.
Ritter was a television icon, beloved throughout the industry. Rules was built around Ritter. Not only was it sacrilege to continue without him, no network show had ever survived the death of a lead actor. That was what all the experts were thinking.
Yet 8 Simple Rules proved everyone wrong, thanks to James Garner.
Jim’s steady presence helped stabilize the cast and crew, especially during those first few days without Ritter. And though Rules did lose viewers who were loyal to Ritter, it picked up many more new viewers who tuned in simply to watch Garner. As a result, Rules not only survived, it continued to thrive for another two seasons before leaving the air earlier this year.
It’s that steady presence that has made James Garner a part of our lives for almost 50 years. He plays the kind of characters on film and television we’d all like to have for a friend.
Ed Robertson has written five books, including two on the television career of James Garner: Maverick: Legend of The West (pomegranate Press, 1994) and Thirty Years of The Rockford Files (ASJA Press, 2005). Ed was also a consultant and onscreen commentator on the documentaries “James Garner”(MSNBC, 1999) and “Hollywood Maverick” (A&E, 2000), which airs regularly on the Biography Channel. For more information on Ed’s books and articles, drop by his web site www.edrobertson.com.
One of my favorite actors talking about one of my very favorite actors:
I also loved working with James Garner, who is so unsung. When we were shooting the scene where we have lunch together, I'm throwing grapes up in the air, catching them with my mouth, and he's just sitting there. "Doncha want a cuppa coffee?" I ask him, and he says, "No, you're doing it all." I'd love to work with him again. He's in the same league with Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Gielgud, in a different way. All of them are coming from the inside, and all their thoughts have to be right. James Garner makes acting look effortless – that's hard work.
That's Malcolm McDowelll talking about working with Garner in Sunset. Quote's from an interview McDowell did with N.P. Thompson of The House Next Door. Thompson was focused on McDowell, naturally, so he didn't chase that down---Garner in the same league as those three great British hams? What did McDowell mean?
I'm guessing that when he says that, like those three, James Garner is "coming from the inside" he means that when you watch Garner you have to look into his eyes. He makes you read his thoughts. His characters don't move about much (neither do Olivier's but he vibrates so intensely when he's just standing still you feel as if he's moving as much as Gene Kelly does when he's dancing) but they're always thinking. You can see their minds working, which is how Garner can dominate a scene in which he has few lines, he's playing opposite an actor as volatile as McDowell, and that other actor is doing something as flamboyant as tossing grapes up in the air and catching them in his mouth. McDowell appears to have been worried about upstaging Garner but Garner knew. He can afford to give away space to anyone who's onscreen with him.
Garner once said he learned everything he knows about acting from watching Henry Fonda in the stage version of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. It was one of Garner's first acting jobs. He played a member of the panel of naval officers trying the case and he had no lines. He kept himself occupied by studying Fonda, another actor who I'd say worked "from inside."________________________________
by Clay Patrick
J u l y
ogically, of course, this month’s column should belong to Marlon Brando, who died recently at 80. He was, after all, widely considered to be one of, if not the, premiere actors of his time, and his legend is such that typically I would say few careers are more deserving of a tribute, along with a weekend’s viewing.
� 2004 Audience magazine