SUMMER SNEAKS '94 : Was, Is and Always a Maverick : His signatures are Rockford and Maverick--can anybody in Hollywood do cool and canny better than James Garner?

James Garner does not go to the movies. "Ohhh, I don't like to sit there too long," he explains in a perfect Jim Rockford-esque grumble of a drawl. "I don't like the crowds, I don't like to get out of the house if I don't have to. Parking. It's such a chore." Yet, here he sits in the Hotel Bel Air dining room, cheerfully saying you're going to want to do all those things to see his new movie, "Maverick."

"It's going to be a kick," he says. "We did have a ball making it. I asked (director) Dick Donner the second week, 'We're having so much fun, are we laughing ourselves into trouble here?' "

It has been 37 years since Warner Bros. officials called over to Japan where Marlon Brando was filming "Sayonara" and asked the producers to hurry up and send home a young contract actor, James Garner, to play Bret Maverick in their new television series. By the time Garner was finished with "Maverick," the tongue-in-cheek Western had supplanted most others and Garner was on his way to being a star.

"Well, we just killed Westerns," Garner says chuckling. When a character once declared "He went that-a-way," Maverick looked at him and deadpanned, "And you know a shortcut, right?"

In fact, "Maverick" established two seminal things about Garner. One was that he is brazen enough to stand up to a studio in a legal battle. (Long before his famous 1980s suit against Universal, he successfully sued Warners for laying him off his 52-week contract during a writers' strike.) The second was that he is the master of the wry, bemused everyman character.

In the four decades of his career, Garner has proved to be one of the most enduring and endearing actors in the business, accessible enough for television, commanding enough for movies, unpretentious enough for commercials. He has done things you've probably forgotten--"The Americanization of Emily" and "Victor/Victoria," both with Julie Andrews--and things he'd rather forget about. ("A Man Called Sledge" is what he regularly offers up when asked for his biggest stinker.) And along the way there were films like "Support Your Local Sheriff," "Grand Prix" (he loved that because he got to drive race cars), "The Children's Hour," "The Great Escape."

But it has been television that let him distinguish himself from the pack, first with his charming gambler-adventurer, Bret Maverick, and then later with the witty, beleaguered private detective, Jim Rockford, of "The Rockford Files." In 1993, he starred in HBO's Emmy-winning version of "Barbarians at the Gate," but for most TV fans, Maverick and Rockford were the quintessential Garner roles. In many ways, Rockford was a 1970s reincarnation of Bret Maverick and had a similar skewering effect on TV private eyes. "We kept sticking our tongue in our cheek, and that ruined a lot of detective shows," says Garner. "People would get to thinking, 'What would Rockford have done? He wouldn't have gotten a gun and gone chasing him.' "

Bret Maverick has never been quite out of circulation, living on in fans' fond memories and getting resuscitated in a short-lived 1981 series that Garner says never made him particularly happy. But now, there's a big screen rebirth, and Garner is passing on the torch to Mel Gibson, who plays the glib gambler in Richard Donner's movie "Maverick," which also stars Jodie Foster and Garner. Here, the actor says, he's content to sit by at the poker table and on the stagecoach playing straight lawman Zane Cooper to Gibson's wisecracking Maverick.

Garner says his Maverick days are over. "That was a long time ago," he says. "I don't own it. It's wonderful to see Mel play it. He has such charm and wit. I've said before I don't know anybody who could play it like Mel could."

Gibson plays Maverick broader than Garner did, he says. "He's much funnier than I was," muses Garner. "I think when we did it, we were a little more subtle. This can get pretty broad."

But Garner sees that as a necessary '90s update. And he says the antic comedy of the movie--which virtually no one has seen because Donner was still racing to finish it two weeks before its slated Friday opening--owes much to Donner's and Gibson's rapport from their collaboration on the "Lethal Weapon" franchise as well as the fact that a female character, Foster, has been added to the mix.

"It's much more played between three people rather than the humor that was in the series, which came from Jim's witticisms and observations," notes Donner, who says Garner was "extremely giving as both an actor who created the character and a compatriot on the set." Because of Garner's observation that he never drank as Maverick, Gibson doesn't either.

Both Donner and Garner are vague on just what Garner's lawman character, Zane Cooper, is doing besides keeping his eye on Maverick.

"He's a wonderful stick-in-the-mud," Donner says laughing. The director also insists there's a twist in the movie. "You know that movie last year where they said don't say what the gender of the actor is? Well, we say you can tell the gender but don't tell the ending."

Garner figures more moviegoers will come for Gibson than for him. "He's a hot property," he says. "He deserves it."

That's not out of character for Garner on screen or off. Much of his long-lived appeal owes to his unpretentious straightforwardness and humor.

"He's the kind of guy you want to go to dinner with after you're done shooting," says Donner.

He's certainly pleasant over a late breakfast in the lush confines of the Bel Air. He eats a politically correct half a papaya and a bran muffin. At 66, he's a veteran of bypass surgery who no longer smokes (well, he sneaks one now and then) and drinks only wine.

"I had 'em working nights trying to make enough whiskey for me to drink," he recalls of his hard-liquor-drinking days that ended, he says, when he was 27. He allows himself about six ounces of beef a week--and this from a guy once famous for beef commercials. "I got letters from people: 'I hope you die eating beef.' All these vegetarians."

He's aging about as well as, oh, say, Warren Beatty (Garner is older), which is to say quite well. Tall and broad shouldered, Garner is dressed in a black sweater and black slacks, a black leather jacket tossed across the banquette seat. The face is ruddy pink, thicker and not as chiseled as in his Rockford days. He wears big, black-framed, rose-tinted shades on this hazy day. He takes them off halfway through the interview, revealing gentle light brown eyes. It was only nine years ago that his performance in "Murphy's Romance" as the pharmacist who falls slowly in love with Sally Field won him an Oscar nomination for best actor. It's one of his favorite roles and he plays Murphy as an unapologetic eccentric, comfortable with his life and his thickening waist, even sexy.

"Careful, girl," he demures when this observation is made. He says he has never tried to project himself as a sexually alluring figure. "I just don't see myself like that."

Garner has few illusions about himself in Hollywood or the people who run the business. He spent eight long years fighting Universal for his 38% share of the profits of "The Rockford Files." The studio claimed the show had made no profits, but Garner sued them for $16.5 million, settling out of court in 1989. He still won't disclose the amount. The battle, which cost him $2.2 million in legal fees, left him disillusioned about the business.

But he went back to work, and he is preparing to embark on at least three two-hour Rockford television movies for Universal. "I'll just make them somewhere else and send them the film. I wouldn't feel good driving on the lot every day," he says casually.

"The trouble with these companies--and I'm not just saying Universal--is they've got the money," he says. "And they're doing whatever they want to keep as much as they can. If you want it, you're going to have to come get it."

Garner is legendary for his bluntness whether he's talking about studios or colleagues. He thinks movies are too violent today and laments the loss of the understated picture.

" 'Murphy's Romance' was a good example," he says. "It has no violence, no sex--as we've come to know it in movies. And it was a charming film. 'Driving Miss Daisy' is another example. But they don't make many of those. They want to make the ones where they kill everybody."

Ironically, he worked on "Maverick" with a director who created the mayhem of "Lethal Weapon." ("The 'Lethal Weapons' aren't violent," Donner insists. "It's comic-book violence.") Garner says he didn't care as long as "Maverick" wasn't violent. "I'm not a crusader," Garner says.

Garner deplores ageism in Hollywood--particularly toward actresses over 40. "I think they're gorgeous after 40, but the producers want some hot T-and-A girl," he says. "I'd rather go with the actress."

And he's oblivious to the Generation X actors. He has never even heard of Christian Slater or Jason Patric. "Listen, I'm a caveman," he says matter-of-factly. "I'm out of the mainstream so far."

His points of reference are Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda. He adored Fonda, whom he met on his first acting job as a lowly "movable prop" in a New York theatrical production of "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial." "He was probably as professional an actor as I've ever seen," says Garner, who stayed friends with Fonda for years.

And he points to Tracy as an example of the kind of seamless acting to which he himself aspires. "You never caught Spencer Tracy acting, did you?"

He hastens to add that his ignorance is not a judgment. "Listen, I don't mean to knock these young guys here," he says. "I'm sure when I first started out, people said 'Who the hell is he?' I remember I'd been working about two years on 'Maverick' and I was at the Beverly Hilton one night for some big function. And Cary Grant came over to me and introduced himself and told me how much he liked my work. I didn't know what to say to the man! I said something dumb like, 'I sure like yours, too.' "

He speaks with fatherly affection of Foster. "Well, I've known Jodie since she was 9 or 10 years old. I fell in love with her then," he says. "We did a little picture that shall remain nameless. I think it was called 'One Little Indian.' Such a good actress and a wonderful girl." He frets over reports that have filtered back to him of her current regimen for her film "Nell." "She dyed her hair black for this new picture she's working on. Someone told me she'd lost about 18 or 20 pounds. Poor little thing. But she's so serious about her work."

Garner says he rarely gets good movie scripts anymore. "There are younger directors, and anybody over 30 is ancient to them, because they're not that old," he says ruefully. Not that he counts himself out yet. "I keep working. There are still those around me who know me."

Garner is in some ways an old-fashioned Hollywood story himself. He never made it through 10th grade, leaving Norman, Okla., where he'd been a high school athlete, for Hollywood, where his father had relocated and was working as a carpet layer. He briefly enrolled in Hollywood High School, earned some money doing swimsuit modeling--he rolls his eyes at the memory--and then shipped out of San Pedro with the merchant marine. Later, he spent 21 months in the Korean War where he earned two Purple Hearts. When he returned to Hollywood after his stint in the Army, he considered himself qualified for nothing. So he went off to see an agent friend who had once told him he oughta be in pictures. The agent signed him that day, and Garner has never wanted for work since.

"I've always said if there hadn't been a parking space in front of the building, I'd never have been an actor," he deadpans.

Today, he lives a comfortable quiet movie-star life, playing golf at the Bel-Air Country Club. "I try to limit it to four times a week," he says. He has a house in Brentwood and occasionally drives his Ford Explorer down to Toscana's for Italian food. The morning of the earthquake, he ran into his living room to check the fate of a prized Robert Graham statue and found it leaning precariously against a window but still intact.

He's married to his first and only wife, Lois, whom he met at an Adlai Stevenson rally in the Valley 37 years ago. With the exception of a two-year separation more than a decade ago, they've been together ever since. But they're not long for L.A. He's building a house in the Santa Ynez Valley.

"I've had it," he says. "I can't stand the violence; I can't stand the traffic."

However, he still loves to work. For the upcoming "Rockford Files" projects, he has managed to collect much of the same creative team. He expects Stuart Margolin will be back as Angel and Joe Santos will return as Lt. Becker. "We'll probably make him a captain now," Garner says with a laugh.

But this is a mellower Rockford. He won't be dashing around or tussling with unsavory characters. "There's not going to be much this time, I can guarantee it," he says. "Even my stuntman is old."*

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