Friday, August 1, 2014

Tribute to James Garner

It didn't feel right to let the passing of actor James Garner on July 19th go by without at least mentioning him on this blog. He was truly one of the last of the great old-time movie stars, right up there with John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood in my book.

James Garner was a longtime Brady family favorite. Although we were too young to have seen Maverick when it first came out in the late 1950s, my brothers and I watched Maverick reruns on WUAB-TV on Saturday nights in the 70s (along with The Wild Wild West and Star Trek).

I vaguely remember watching the offbeat Nichols, the Western series Garner did after Maverick in the early 70s. The only reason I remember it is that the easygoing Garner character was actually killed off in what became the final episode. (The plan to improve ratings was that his more heroic twin brother – also played by Garner, of course – was going to take over the title role in the series in the upcoming season. But the show ended up being canceled, and that was that.

Like many families, we watched The Rockford Files when it was part of NBC's Friday night lineup during the 1970s. (Dad always referred to Garner as "Rockford" after that, no matter what show or movie he was in.)

After I came home from college, I watched the Maverick revival series, Bret Maverick, in the early 1980s. Unfortunately it really wasn't all that much like the original series (or as good). In the new version, Bret Maverick was always pulling some kind of get-rich-quick scam. But James Garner was in it, so I watched and enjoyed it (although not enough other people did for it to last more than a season).

A real movie highlight in later years was seeing Space Cowboys with Garner and Eastwood. It was a fitting wrap-up to his longtime film career (although he made a few more movies after that).

My spouse isn't all that crazy about James Garner, which kind of surprised me. She even confessed to me recently that she preferred Jack Kelly as Maverick, since she thought he was better looking! I almost fell out of my chair when she told me that.

I couldn't be too upset with her, because years ago she had purchased for me one of my all-time best Christmas gifts from her, a hard-to-find video of the movie thriller 36 Hours (1965) with Garner. In the movie, which takes place just before D-Day, he plays an army intelligence officer with knowledge of the invasion plans who is captured by the Germans. The Germans manage to drug and trick him into thinking that the war has been over for six years, in an attempt to get him to reveal the D-Day invasion details. It's a terrific movie that still shows up on TV once in a while.

The spouse also bought me a DVD of The Great Escape, another Garner classic, as well as DVDs of the first two seasons of Maverick. Now that's a lot of good, manly entertainment.


Bret Maverick and Waco Williams (Wayde Preston)
In honor of James Garner, last week I spent an evening watching a classic episode from each of his two hit series, Maverick and The Rockford Files (which is on Netflix). The two episodes I chose are linked forever in James Garner lore, because the Maverick episode – The Saga of Waco Williams – was used as a template for the Rockford episode – White on White and Nearly Perfect.

In The Saga of Waco Williams, Maverick spends the episode unsuccessfully trying to keep his friend Waco Williams (Wayde Preston) from getting into trouble. Waco is a classic Western hero who is brave, stalwart and the best shot around, who never runs from a fight despite the odds. Maverick tries to give him advice (like telling him to sneak out the back door of a saloon rather than face some dangerous gunslinger) that would help him live a lot longer, but Waco never listens. In the end, Waco gets the bad guys, saves the day, marries the rich girl and is going to be elected sheriff – much to Maverick's disbelief.

Lance White (Tom Selleck) and Rockford
The hilarious Rockford episode – White on White and Nearly Perfect is very similar to the Maverick episode. It features Tom Selleck as Lance White, the handsome, lovable, perfect detective with a heart of gold who can do no wrong. He seems to have heroically saved the life of everyone he knows at some point. Women swoon over him and policemen – even Lt. Chapman, who hates Rockford – consider him a close friend.

Lance does everything wrong in Rockford's book, especially putting himself and Rockford into dangerous situations, and they almost get killed trying to save a beautiful kidnapped victim.

But the big difference between this episode and Waco Williams is that Rockford doesn't like Lance White at all. He's genuinely annoyed with him and considers him a pest. At the end of the episode, Lance White ends up marrying the rich girl that Rockford helped save. Rockford gets stiffed out of the reward money too.

It was that element of personal likability that Garner injected into the roles he played that made him so successful. No matter what part he played in a movie or TV show, the viewers always liked him – and that's a rare quality for a performer to have.

I liked Garner so much that I wrote him a fan letter in the early 2000's. He was getting older and I just wanted to let him know how much pleasure his performances brought my family and me over the years.

He responded back by sending me a signed photo of himself in a still from The Notebook. 

It's a nice souvenir of a favorite performer and one of the all-time greats.


Anonymous said...

I loved Maverik, Rockford was beat up in every episode about 8-10 mins in. A Gentleman richly deserving many tributes. rae

Anonymous said...

I knew him. I liked him.

--Bat Masterson

Anonymous said...

Those Tom Selleck episodes were hilarious! I remember Selleck saying that they wanted to spin the character off into a new series, but he didn't want to do it (of course, he also didn't want to do RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, too). Anyway, I think it would have been very funny show...the guy was the exact opposite of Rockford and that made for some funny moments!

Nice job, Dan!

Anonymous said...

Another great episode, written by producer Stephen J. Cannell (but based on a novel that had nothing to do with Rockford)was "Sleight of Hand" where Jim is returning from spending the day with his girlfriend & her kid--he parks the car in her driveway, gets the sleeping little girl out of the backseat--meanwhile, his girlfriend enters her house. In the time it takes Rockford to carry the little girl inside...the girlfriend vanishes. A great mystery with a sad ending...

Wireless.Phil said...

Met hem years zgo on a soot we were doing in Hawaii.
Of course back then I was only an union extra, background actors.

Nice guy, kind of reminded me of the late Gene Barry.

Wireless.Phil said...

Keep an eye open!
Clint Eastwood is or almost 89 now.
Also the main actors in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, have all passed.

You can look up any actor (yes, the women want to be known as actors now, not actress).

Look thrm all up on imdb dot com

n8h@wk said...

I was a Garner fan as well and I remember watching the same shows on WUAB 43. One of my favorite movies that I own is "Support your Local Sheriff" which I think is one of Garner's best (along with Space Cowboys).