James Garner nearly got into a fight to protect Santa Monica Mountains

James Garner nearly had a fistfight with a councilman over nature conservancy in the Santa Monica Mountains

James Garner is well-known for his starring roles on the TV series "Maverick" and "The Rockford Files," but he also was a passionate advocate for nature conservancy in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The actor, who died Saturday, nearly got into a fistfight with a Los Angeles councilman over the issue at City Hall in 1964. Steve McQueen was there too.

Garner and Councilman Karl Rundberg almost came to blows over a master plan for the 92-square-mile Santa Monica Mountains area, the Los Angeles Times reported July 30, 1964. A group of residents — including Garner and McQueen — approached Rundberg after a council meeting, saying they felt the guidelines for development were being rushed to a vote and wanted time to organize opposition.

Then Garner and Rundberg clashed. Here’s how it went, according to the article:

“Witnesses said the actor, raising his voice, moved toward Rundberg and accused him of … being personally interested in ‘certain developments’ in the mountain area.

“The councilman whirled in his chair.

“‘You’re a liar,’ he shouted, his face blanching. ‘I will not be intimidated.’

“Stepping still closer, Garner said, ‘I am not a liar and I am bigger than you.’

“‘In height, weight or stature?’ the 65-year-old, 6-foot councilman retorted, leaping from his chair.

“Garner, the words tumbling out, said, ‘Remember, we are the people.’

“‘You’re an actor,’ Rundberg shouted.”

They continued trading harsh words at the top of their voices, their faces inches apart, and a police officer stepped between them just as they seemed ready to start swinging, the article said.  

The City Council ended up passing the master plan, but Garner's activism had a lasting legacy.

That year, Garner, along with McQueen and Burt Lancaster, became founding members of the Friends of the Santa Monica Mountains conservancy group, according to the book "Transforming California" by Stephanie S. Pincetl. The group played a key role in the 1978 creation of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which at 153,075 acres is the world's largest urban national park.

Rundberg didn't fare as well. He lost a bid for reelection the year after he tangled with Garner, and he was then appointed to the Harbor Commission. In a harbor scandal, he was convicted in 1968 of accepting furniture from a developer in exchange for a city lease valued at $12 million and was barred from ever again holding public office in California.

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