The Americanization of James Garner | Pioneer Woman Entertainment | Ree Drummond
Dec 03 2012
The Americanization of James Garner
By Mark Spearman.
Not long ago someone asked if I could recall a perfect moment. Not a universal, deep-in-your-bones, milestone moment, like cradling a newborn or falling in love. No, the question implied a moment that might, from the outside, seem ordinary, but to you is anything but. A moment in which you experience, for a fleeting particle of time, that oceanic feeling of bliss usually reserved for artists and poets.
Mine was on a late summer evening while traveling for work. Returning to my hotel exhausted, I grab any icy Heineken from the mini-bar and hold it to my forehead. I slip into an almost-too-hot bath and feel the warm breeze from an open window to the Pacific Ocean at dusk. Just within my reach, a TV remote control. The screen on the wall flickers to life with… An answering machine. It’s James Garner’s voice as we begin one of my favorite episodes of The Rockford Files.
“Hello, this is Jim Rockford. At the tone, leave your name and message. I’ll get back to you.”
Indescribable. No words.
While beer and bath salts certainly contributed to my euphoria, it was also Garner’s unmistakably familiar and entertaining presence, one you’ll find in every performance. And a tone that says Nothing is As Big of a Deal as You Think; and Life is Short, Let’s Not Get Our Panties in a Bundle. It’s understated, humble, with gentle humor and an acute sense of irony. And somehow he makes it all look easy.
I’ve written previously on my affection for Garner’s films. Recently I happened across and rewatched one of his better ones, The Great Escape, as well as what is likely his very best movie, The Americanization of Emily. That drew me to his memoir – just released in paperback – where I learned the surprising and sometimes traumatic journey of the boy James Scott Bumgarner in becoming the Movie Star James Garner. In its own way, it’s a story, and a life, as admirable and heroic as any role he has played.
It’s also refreshing in that we’ve become accustomed to actors and other celebrities exaggerating the dark corners of their lives. With Garner, one has the sense that his childhood was even worse than the abuse and abandonment he shows us. And he shows us a lot. The favorite son of Norman, Oklahoma was four when his mother died. He and his brothers were shuffled among various relatives. For a time, they were reunited with their dad and one of his wives – “Red” she was called, an explosive woman who dealt severe and frequent beatings. Little James Bumgarner, the youngest and most vulnerable, became her preferred victim. By the age of 14, Garner was gone and on his own.
The whole account is served up as matter-of-fact reporting. He does not dwell on this period, nor does he ask your sympathy. Just as later in our story, when Garner’s infantry unit of 130 men dwindles to 30 under punishing enemy fire in Korea. The next morning, during an airstrike by U.S. Navy Panther jets, white phosphorous rockets rain down on Garner and few stragglers who are misidentified as the enemy.
Again showing his talent for understatement, he notes that being caught in such an incendiary blast “smarts,” because “that stuff really burns.”
Not surprisingly, the rest of the memoir, and his life, carry a thread of intolerance for bullies. No matter who is doing the bullying, up to and including powerful studio bosses who learn from Garner what a lowly actor can accomplish with righteous determination, nerve and a scrappy lawyer.
Read the book – there’s lots of cool stuff in there: He once broke Doris Day’s ribs – accidentally, of course. He detests turkey and Charles Bronson, loves Henry Fonda. He’s an Adlai Stevenson Democrat and was part of the March on Washington.
There is modesty, humility, and a sensibility of live and let live – up to a point. Garner is not to be pushed around. Just ask him. When pushed, he shoves.
Which all sounds remarkably like Jim Rockford, Bret Maverick, or any of a couple of dozen of Garner’s film or TV characters. It is a persona so firmly established that over a 50-plus-year career, he has never been cast as what he calls “an out-and-out villain.”
As a kid growing up in the 60s, I loved Garner’s TV western Maverick, then in broad syndication. No disrespect meant to the late Jack Kelly, who was Bart Maverick, but I watched only the episodes that featured Garner’s suave and witty Bret Maverick.
However, it is The Rockford Files that ranks top tier in my TV Hall of Fame. It turned the detective genre on its ear. Jim Rockford didn’t carry a gun; he kept one hidden in a cookie jar in his trailer. He was a wrongly accused ex-convict. He got punched out a lot. But for $200 a day, plus expenses, you got the best detective money could buy.
It was well written, the relationships and characters were realistic, and it successfully navigated the rocky shoal of subtle humor. Everything about it was different, even the theme song and opening credits. The show has aged beautifully, and thanks to our modern networking technology, every episode is streaming on Netflix.
Garner demanded consistently good writing and had strong feelings about story and tone. But I’ve never heard an actor so candidly and bluntly assess the grueling nature of a weekly action show for television. Years performing his own stunts very nearly killed him; in six seasons of Rockford, Garner had seven knee operations, finally needing both replaced.
He was the rare actor who moved freely between television and films in an era when a strict hierarchy separated the two.
Among his many films, The Americanization of Emily stands apart, and may be his best. It was written by Paddy Chayefsky, who also penned Network, The Hospital, and Marty. Throughout the film, Garner delivers long paragraphs of intricate, thoughtful dialogue as if its coming into his head just a he speaks it, something most of his contemporaries could not have done half as well.
It has a controversial message, that war will no longer exist when we all stop thinking that fighting is noble. “So long as valor is a virtue, we will have soldiers,” Garner’s character Charlie says. Dead heroes, he argues, are merely dead men.
It’s a philosophy that’s rejected by Julie Andrews, the adorable and sweet young English war widow Emily. But eventually she comes around to seeing that Charlie’s view is perhaps the most American – that we’re meant to be free to pursue our dreams and desires and shouldn’t feel compelled to self-sacrifice.
Garner’s experiences early in life sparked a transformation of its own. It wouldn’t have been surprising if James Bumgarner had never become James Garner. But instead we see someone who channeled hurt and pain into values of compassion and fair play, with a bright line separating right from wrong.
Which brings to mind that Rockford episode I watched from the almost-too-hot bath while sipping the cold, cold Heineken. It’s called The Hammer of C Block. Isaac Hayes is a menacing ex-convict named Gandolph Fitch who enlists Rockford’s services in exchange for settling an old $1,500 gambling debt.
He demands that Rockford prove his innocence in a 20-year-old murder. We learn that the victim, Fitch’s estranged girlfriend, had committed suicide over their troubled relationship. She staged her death to be seen as murder, implicating Fitch.
In the final scene, Rockford tells Fitch he has a choice: stay bitter, angry and miserable. Or move on.
“The only thing I’ve learned in this rotten life is collecting what’s due,” says Fitch.
“So you went out and collected a rotten life,” says Rockford.
Walk away, Gandy. You’re free and clear… If you want to be.”
Tell it, Jimbo.
Over on the blog from which I re-blogged this, there are 144 comments! Including mine. You really should go and read them. SO much love!