James Garner rarely acted outside his comfort zone, but you can say the same of a thousand other familiar actors who never quite inspired the same loyalty and warm feeling. He was his own comfort zone, on the small screen and the large, and as critic Glenn Kenny wrote over the weekend on his blog: "His work in later pictures such as 'Murphy's Romance' provided little object lessons that 'masculine' and 'gentle" need not be mutually exclusive terms."
Garner enjoyed three long-running TV series. First came "Maverick" (1957-1962), which allowed the Oklahoma native a chance to reveal his charm, wit and easygoing way of kidding his material when the material could take it. Then came "The Rockford Files" (1974-1980).
And the third? A TV series that wasn’t a series in the formal sense. From 1978 to 1985, after doing solo spots for the same sponsor, Garner began a string of Polaroid camera ads opposite the droll
"He taught me so much about comedy," Hartley told me Sunday, speaking from her home in Los Angeles. The actress recently finished a run of "The Lion in Winter" at the Colony Theatre in Burbank. "We'd shoot the legalese, you know, the first 20 seconds or so, and then we'd ad lib, improvise, our tongues in our cheeks. People got attached to us, and nobody could do that sort of thing with such grace and humor as Jimmy. I just loved working with him."
In the early '60s Hartley worked as a young contract player, playing supporting roles in "Ride the High Country" and "Marnie," at the time Garner was becoming a hot film commodity. His "Maverick" fan base was huge, yet in those days TV stars didn't cross over to film easily. Garner kept busy, moving from wartime drama ("The Great Escape," 1963) to romantic comedy ("The Thrill of It All," 1963) to trenchant Paddy Chayefsky insights on combat and the warrior mentality ("The Americanization of Emily," 1964).
“I guess one of the reasons people loved him,” Hartley told me, “is that there’s such an earthbound quality, a real base to the man. He didn’t push at all. He didn’t have to.” While
From television Garner learned a kind of "domestic intimacy," in the phrase of David Thomson, who writes beautifully on Garner's career in "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film."
"Humility is a very tough thing to have," Hartley said Sunday, "especially when you're a tough guy. But it's so appealing. Jimmy never came off as a know-it-all. You know what the key was to Jimmy's success? He listened. Just like Henry Fonda on screen, like Spencer Tracy, Jimmy really listened. I don't know how you can act without that. Every film I've seen of his, whether he's a cowboy or a soldier or a detective or an ordinary husband, you never really felt he had secrets. He was just there, listening, working hard, but making it look so damn easy."
In tribute to Garner, who died Saturday at the age of 86, here's a Bill Evans trio rendering of the exquisite Johnny Mandel theme written for "The Americanization of Emily." The song begins at 2:45.