I secretly always wanted to marry James Garner, and was foiled only by the fact that, as humorist Jean Kerr once wrote of her designs on George S. Kaufman, he was already married and I never met him.
I cannot imagine I was alone in this desire — in her introduction to Garner’s 2011 memoir, Julie Andrews revealed a similar devotion and for pretty much the same reasons I had: Garner, who died at home Saturday at age 86, effortlessly combined strength and humility, humor and capability, frankness and empathy to create an ideal Alpha-male, of the sort that hadn’t existed before, at least not in drama. He constructed a new kind of hero, one who would much rather be playing cards or going fishing. But all right, if no one else was going to save the girl, or solve the case, or prevent the crime, well, then — here, hold this for a second — he’d do it.
When he brought this persona to life in “Maverick” and then again in “The Rockford Files,” he all but rebuilt an archetype. Before Garner, heroes were heroes, which meant, nine times out of 10, they were boring. After Garner, they could be funny, irritating, lazy, fearful and complicated. Without James Garner there would be no Indiana Jones, no Starsky and Hutch, no Gregory House, no Patrick Jane, certainly no Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes. Without James Garner, adventure heroes would be no fun at all.
Unlike virtually any other TV hero before them, Bret Maverick and James Rockford (who was, after all, also written by Roy Huggins as a revamp of Bret) eschewed guns and violence, preferring to talk their way into and out of trouble. In another actor’s hands, both would have been supporting roles, the weaselly if likable friend of the more macho lead. But Garner, with his great hair, handsome face and “relax, fellas” demeanor, managed to make even an aversion to physicality manly — his breakout movie role was a soldier who adhered to deeply held convictions of wartime cowardice in “The Americanization of Emily,” but still got the girl.
Tall and broad, Garner was clearly capable of taking down any bad guy, he would just rather not.
This is not to say he was one-note. In a career that spanned six decades, Garner played every sort of man: the scrounger in “The Great Escape,” the oblivious American gangster in “Victor, Victoria,” the quiet but passionate neighbor in “Murphy’s Romance,” the devoted husband in “The Notebook.” He appeared with Tommy Lee Jones and Clint Eastwood in “Space Cowboys,” stepped in as Grandpa Egan on “8 Simple Rules” after the death of series star John Ritter in 2003. But to all he brought an essential decency, a quick intellect and an admirable intolerance for delusion, denial and other forms of bull.
And he managed to do it without coming off as self-satisfied, which is simply miraculous.
Garner, who famously hesitated in taking the role in “Murphy’s Romance” because he thought he was too old to play a romantic lead and didn’t want to look like a fool, had an air of rueful self-awareness that he used to ground most of his characters in a very no-nonsense reality. It wasn’t humility so much as a sense of proportion, something so unusual in a lead character or a lead actor that it became a hallmark of a Garner performance — he didn’t think too much or too little of himself because he’d rather not be thinking of himself at all.
More than anything, he was a star who didn’t appear to need every ounce of oxygen in the vicinity to shine. And as with Halley’s Comet and other rare celestial objects, it will be a few years before we see anything like him again.