James Garner: An Appreciation Of A Great Acting Legend Who Never Looked Like He Was Acting

James Garner just made it all look too easy.

That’s the only explanation I can give for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences failing to vote him an Honorary Oscar over these last few years of Governors Awards.  More than once I wrote a column of “suggestions” including  those egregiously overlooked artists deserving of the industry’s top award, and always near the top was my annual reminder of Garner. But I guess it is just too late now.  Garner, who died Saturday night at age 86, probably just would brush off the honor anyway, thinking those more “obvious” choices were more likely to ever get an Oscar. But it is precisely because he made  it all seem so effortless that he was annually passed over.

Brett_Maverick_-_James_GarnerIt couldn’t  have been because he was also a major television star could it?  Nah. Maverick , The Rockford Files, those fine TV movies, and those magical Polaroid commercials he did with Mariette Hartley  were all great. And  no one can deny the power of those TV movies he did including Promise, Barbarians At The Gate , Breathing Lessons, Decoration Day, The Long Summer Of  George Adams and My Name Is Bill W to name a few. These showed off an actor of real range. If it were just a career in television, it would be incredibly impressive but all the obits this morning calling him a TV legend, which he certainly was, missed the point of just what Garner’s remarkable acting achievement  really is about.

 I can hardly think of any other actor who so successfully could bounce from major TV stardom to major movie stardom and back again without missing a beat. A lot of stars were afraid of television, but not Garner, who showed you could do series TV and commercials and not have it harm your status as a movie star.  And a movie star he was, even if he didn’trockford files poster  do the kind of theatrical motion picture roles that win Oscars, or even nominations, or even, apparently, Honorary Oscars.

It is telling that this man who received 15 Emmy  nominations (and an acting win for Rockford  in 1977)  as well as 12 Golden Globe nominations that began with his being named the Most Promising Newcomer of 1958,  only once was nominated for an Oscar and that came in 1985, long after all that TV success and more than 50 previous films, for starring opposite Sally Field in Murphy’s Romance. He was enormously touching as a small-town druggist finding a chance at new love with a woman 20 MV5BMjE5NjUzMTExNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODM3NTkyNA@@__V1_SX640_SY720_years his junior. Pure Garner perfection, but it wasn’t flashy. He lost to William Hurt‘s role as a homosexual inmate in a South American prison in Kiss Of The Spider Woman.  And those were the kinds of roles that win Oscars, not the more simple, less obviously character-driven kind of work Garner regularly turned in on the big screen. Garner never felt the need to lose 40 pounds, or gain them, or hide behind make up, or transform himself into those kinds of Oscar-bait performances.

He was, more often than not, a likeable, reliable presence on screen, an actor we felt comfortable being around and a performer beloved by not only co-workers and crew members, but also those who sat out there in the dark watching him make it all look, well, so easy.  But sometimes we  just took for granted how damned good he was. Check out some of that film work, beginning with his role opposite Marlon Brando in 1957′s Sayonara, the same year Maverick began.  Simutaneously with his first iconic TV role, Warner Bros. turned him into a leading man in a series of fairly forgettable movies until 1961 when major  directors like William Wyler came calling with projects tumblr_m69kx4h6bC1qmt6u6o1_400like The Children’s Hour.  

Directors also loved him, and he worked for some of the best, including Wyler, John Sturges in 1963′s The Great Escape (one of my three all-time favorite movies), John Frankenheimer in Grand Prix, Norman Jewison, Robert Altman, Martin Ritt, Clint Eastwood (Space Cowboys), Blake Edwards (Victor Victoria) 51iHkJoiiOL__SY300_and Robert Benton (in the under-appreciated 1998 film Twilight)  among others.

He proved as adept in drama as he was in comedy, and as comfortable on a horse as he was behind the wheel of a race car. But his biggest hits seemed  always to come with his light touch, as in 1969′s Support Your Local Sheriff and two years later, The Skin Game. Both were first-class comic westerns that just stand out in that genre. And if you want to see that light touch at its best, watch the two 1963 comedies - The Thrill Of It All  and Move Over Darling - that he did opposite Doris Day.  She worked with2116377196_883bffca18_m Cagney, Gable, Douglas, Stewart, Rex Harrison and on and on — and she always put Garner at or near the top of that list. Watching  his reaction as he drove his convertible into a pool that hadn’t been in his backyard when he left that morning is a priceless moment in Jewison’s  Thrill Of It All. Yet it was the comedies Day did opposite Rock Hudson that are the ones that everyone seems to remember. Garner’s work with her was just as good, if not better.

Blake Edwards employed Garner’s comedic talents to great effect opposite Julie Andrews in 1982′s terrific Victor Victoria but it was an earlier teaming with Andrews in The Americanization Of Emily in 1964 that was perhaps the best screen work of his career. Fifty years later, it’s still the favorite of all those involved, including director Arthur Hiller. This anti-war film and lilting romance was written by the great Paddy Chayefsky. Garner was brilliant as Charlie, delivering that unforgettable dialogue and making every word seem unscripted.  But he theanever seemed to get the credit other actors might have in the same role.  I had a screening of it a couple of years ago and Hiller could not stop talking about how good Garner was in it.

Toward the end, after his stroke six years ago, he was largely out of sight and confined to a wheelchair when old friends visited. It was a shame because I still think Garner had more to give. I had the great privilege to moderate a discussion for Screen Actors Guild members between him and his equally talented co-star Gena Rowlands (another who should be getting an honorary Oscar, Academy)  in 2004 upon the release of The Notebook.  Somewhere in New Line Cinema’s vaults is a copy of that video. They should find it, because watching these two pros was like taking a master class in aMV5BNjY3MzY0NzIxNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTUxMTg0NA@@__V1_SX640_SY720_cting.  Before it started I asked the notorious golf addict how his game was going. He sadly said he had to give it up finally due to the arthritis that was starting to take its toll. But when you watched those simple and moving moments he had on screen in The Notebook as a  man desperately trying to reach his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife, you could see Garner hadn’t lost any of his ability as a screen great. I had hoped the Academy would nominate both stars, but they didn’t.  Garner did receive a Best Supporting nod from SAG in early 2005 for the role, as well as their Life Achievement Award that year. In typical self-effacing fashion, he said of his acceptance speech, “well, this will be shorter than others.”

His long and wonderful career thankfully was not as short as that speech and something worth celebrating today.  His last on-screen appearance was in The Ultimate Gift, something this star had to the end. James Garner did indeed make it all look so easy.

    1. When I saw the news this morning my eyes welled with tears. Loved him since I was a child watching Maverick and adored Rockford Files. Tom Selleck has that mantle now of being beloved. Used to be a saying ” Everybody loves Jimmy Stewart “..then it shifted to James Garner who in turn mentored Selleck. Rest in Peace Jimbo.

  1. Thank you for such a wonderful celebration of James Garner’s life. I fell in love with him as a young teenager when I saw him in the movie “Cash McCall”. He was a true gentleman and a tremendously talented actor. My heart aches a bit today.

    PS You are right on target about “Move Over, Darling” and “The Thrill of It All”. They are far superior in the genre to the movies Doris Day made with Rock Hudson, rather like the cinematic version of the Polaroid commercials with Mariette Hartley.

  2. Thanks for summing it up, Pete. I was a big fan of Garner’s since I was a teen (movie people often think teens only like teen stars). Garner had the goods, and his amazing balance of toughness and humor was truly special. A great, long career, where the right people understood what he could do and let him do it.

  3. Loved him in everything but one of my favorites is “The Skin Game.” When I saw “Django”, it made me think of “The Skin Game.”

  4. I once delivered something to Garner at his home when I started in the mailroom at ICM. I broke protocol to tell him I was a huge fan (as a kid I loved “Maverick ” and just watched “Great Escape” again last night before I knew he had died ) but he was genuinely touched that I named “Americanization of Emily” as the reason for my fandom. A great and much under appreciated talent. You never saw the brush strokes in his work.

  5. Excellent review of an acting career, Mr. Hammond. What an amazing actor and great talent. R.I.P. Mr. Garner.

  6. He was one of the generational actors that this next generation continues to stand on their shoulders.

  7. A great actor and a great man. Watched him with my Mom and watched him as an adult. I always loved his interviews and comments. Not many I can say that about….. R.I.P. Mr. Garner. You will be missed.

    1. Yes, so true. He truly crossed multiple generations. He made me swoon when I was young seeing repeats of The Rockford Files. And made me weep as he painfully watched his wife suffer in The Notebook. It was on TV this weekend and I had to stop what I was doing and watch it AGAIN. His performance like so many of his was so amazing and under-appreciated. He will truly be missed. A family man married for many years, he is one of the last of true Hollywood royalty. God Bless you Mr. Garner, may you rest in peace.

  8. James Garner was indeed a great actor. I grew up watching him. He will be missed & is truly loved in our home. He is in a better place–for he is with God. Giving God a personal show. He is truly on God stage now. Good work James. God Bless You Always & Forever……Peg

  9. It is with great sadness that my friend James Garner has past on but not out of my heart and never will. I say great friend as I started to know him on my tv set as Bret Maverick and was seduced by the feeling that if I ever was to approach him he would treat me like a friend and as such we remained friends in everything he acted in. He was good looking but you never felt he was throwing it at you as his claim to fame or part of his acting. He had charm that was unassuming and took you along with him on his adventure in whatever medium. Maybe what gave realism to his many roles came from his authentic experience in the Korean war and being wounded so he new how it really felt to get shot at and feel the fear of that situation. He did his own stunt driving in Rockford Files because he was better than the stunt drivers that were hired as well as also drive in the film Gran Prix. He was a man of principle and fought for what was do him in court when the industry tried to cheat him of money due by creative accounting. He won.d He was loyal to his friends and crew he worked with in his Cherokee company and when one of them got ill and needed help he was there with a helping hand in his usual understated way. Americanization of Emily was his favorite film because it was a statement about war and what it really means as it is my Garner favorite too. I could go on but it will never be done because he brought smiles and laughter and contentment when we watched him and satisfaction that we did not miss his performances and due to netflix and tv we will have him to cheer up our lives when we need a friend. Thank you Mr Garner

  10. Thank you for this wonderful tribute to my all time favorite actor. He did make it look too easy, which is probably why we all loved him and thought of him as our friend or neighbor. Heaven got a great one today. RIP to a true legend 😊

  11. Thank You Mr. Hammond, for a touching, and real dedication to my friend James Garner. He was my friend for many years, even though he knew nothing of me. I have always been his great fan since his ‘Maverick’ days, and followed his lovely daughter GiGi on Twitter. I cried when Larry told him he had passed. I really felt I knew him personally, but unfortunately I didn’t. I will always think of James, as you have a special place in my heart. Thank You for making me laugh, cry, and just feel GOOD! You will be truly missed, but never forgotten.

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