Many actors have breathed life into a memorable or even iconic role but only a few are capable of reconstructing an archetype. In “Maverick” and then again “The Rockford Files,” James Garner stepped into two of TV’s most calcified genres — the western and the detective series — and set a new standard that others have been chasing down since. Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford were different in many ways — Maverick was a fast-talking con man in the Old West, Rockford a modern L.A. private investigator with motivation issues — but they shared an important trait: They were reluctant heroes. Each would much rather wisecrack his way out of a jam, but if you pushed him hard enough, you would invariably find yourself counting angels on the ceiling.
So it’s not surprising that it’s taken Garner, now 83, this long to write a memoir. But having made up his mind to write it, with the help of Jon Winokur, Garner follows his own heroic dictum: Plenty of self-deprecating humor, a general air of live-and-let-live, but when it comes down to it, no pulled punches.
For Garner fans, “The Garner Files” is catnip; Winokur perfectly captures and sustains the actor’s voice, which includes a penchant for digression, intentional understatement and occasional declarations of war (against bullies; against studio bookkeeping; against certain directors, certain actors and certain studio heads). For industry aficionados, it is a candid accounting, sometimes literally, of a process that is too often over-glamorized and under-chronicled. Two of the most fascinating chapters involve his suits against Universal over syndication of “The Rockford Files” and a description of the physical damage caused by being an action star (he eventually had to have both knees replaced).
For the rest of the world, including and especially those too young to remember even “The Rockford Files,” Garner’s memoir offers a rare glimpse of a certain type of man, an archetype in itself. In her introduction, Julie Andrews describes Garner as a “man’s man,” but that has too brutish a connotation. Garner, like his characters, is first and foremost a gentleman, the sort who lives by a personal code that preaches patience and tolerance, up to a point. “When I’m pushed, I shove,” Garner writes, quoting one of his own characters, Murphy Jones of the movie “Murphy’s Romance.”
There are more than a few fistfights in “The Garner Files,” as well as thrown furniture and golf clubs, but usually there’s a reason, as when costar Tony Franciosa actually punched stuntmen during fight scenes: "… he kept doing it despite my warnings to stop … so I had to pop him one.”
Garner comes by his voice and his persona naturally enough. Born James Bumgarner in Norman, Okla., he lost his mother when he was 4; he and his two brothers were split up among relatives. The Bumgarners survived the Depression better than many Oklahomans, but when James’ father, Weldon, remarried and reunited the family, the result was disaster. Weldon drank and his new wife Wilma beat the children viciously. Finally, James fought back. The marriage fell apart, but Weldon left again. James was 14.
After working a series of jobs, he joined the Merchant Marine; undone by chronic seasickness, he headed to California to live with his aunt and enrolled at Hollywood High, where he was recommended for a Jantzen bathing suit ad. “I wasn’t interested until I heard they were paying $25 an hour. That was more than the principal made!” He was soon kicked out of high school (“There was a slight problem: I never went to classes”), drafted into the Army and headed to Korea, where he was wounded twice and developed an antiwar mentality that would later make Charlie Madison, the dog robber in “The Americanization of Emily,” his favorite role.
Garner became an actor the old-fashioned way — a soda jerk he met while working at a Shell station once told him that with his good looks he could be a big star. By the time Garner returned from Korea, that soda jerk was a stage producer, who quickly gave him a non-speaking role in the stage production of “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.” There, Garner sat as part of the jury, night after night watching Henry Fonda and learning how to act.
“The Garner Files” tells the story of Garner’s career with many entertaining backstage stories and Garner’s opinion of his luminous costars, but the kid who survived his own childhood is always present and accounted for. After falling in love with Lois, his wife of 55 years, at first sight and marrying her almost as quickly, he accepted a contract with Warner Bros. at a less than commensurate salary because he had a family to support.
That contract took him off the big screen and into “Maverick,” a move he was not thrilled with, partly because it was so ill paid. When it became a hit, he dug his heels in and after he was laid off because a writers strike shut down production on “Maverick,” he dug them in further. He and his lawyer, a young man by the name of Frank Wells (who would eventually run Disney), sued Warner Bros. for breach of contract. The judge ruled in his favor and despite all the predictably dire warnings, he did work, and sue, in this town again.
Garner is a self-described curmudgeon and there are times when “The Garner Files” wobbles dangerously toward the querulous. But it never topples because he is unfailingly candid about his own desires — which are to make money and do the roles he believes he is best suited to do.
By those standards, he is a wildly successful man, and by more ephemeral ones as well. Thirty pages at the end of the book are titled “Outtakes” and filled with anecdotes, memories and testimonials from Garner’s friends, family and colleagues, including Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, James Woods and David Chase (who got his start on “The Rockford Files”). Although there is an air of Tom Sawyer creeping back to hear his own funeral about this chapter, it is a fine, frank and fun collection.
More than that, it provides proof that the man the reader has just spent several hours listening to does actually exist outside his own narrative. Just in case you were wondering. Like James Garner knew you were.