For a certain generation, he will always be the quick-witted, adroit cardshark Bret Maverick in
Maverick. His slick, snide persona left a major impact, even after he walked at the end of the third season (the show ran for another two years).
For others, he remains the laid-back beach bum private dick Jim Rockford, a problem-plagued PI whose questionable abilities were quelled by his flashy (?) fashion sense, beachside mobile home office/residence, street savvy, and complicated backstory (he served time in prison on a wrongful conviction). Audiences loved this
Maverick-like update (co-producer Roy Huggins was responsible for both shows) and it set a standard for which actor James Garner would be both grateful and a bit glum.
The Rockford Files was so successful, in fact, that its theme song became a Top 40 hit and the actor felt he had been stereotyped as a middle-aged, down to earth slacker. He would revisit both characters (for financial reasons) throughout the rest of his career.
But there was more to Garner (who passed away last week at the age of 86) than two iconic TV roles. He grew up James Bumgarner in Norman, Oklahoma, the youngest of three boys. After his mother died when he was five, his father remarried, and his stepmother was abusive. After an attempt at the Merchant Marines, he moved to LA and began modeling. He served in Korea, received the Purple Heart for his wounds, and returned to civilian life to try his hand at acting.
He landed work in commercials and was soon playing minor roles in films.
Maverick would be his big break, but he worked steadily in films throughout the ’60, ’70s and ’80s. In fact, his movie work remains one of the most under appreciated aspects of his career. In lieu of an obituary, here are our picks for his ten best performances. They range from comedy to drama, Westerns to war efforts. One thing was constant, however. Garner was great in all of them, beginning with this melodrama disguised as an intriguing cinematic experiment:
10. Grand Prix
By including real-life racing footage and cameos from famous Formula One racers, this movie made a significant impression on 1966 audiences. Perhaps even more impressive, however, was the use of 70mm Cinerama in some locations (a process which offered three separate 35mm prints synced up to run simultaneously). Garner is great as the American looking for a comeback — and bedding the disgruntled wife of one of his rivals — though he is often overshadowed by the triptych nature of John Frankenheimer’s storytelling. Yet it says something about our star that he can make a major impact among all the RPMs and screen stuntwork.
9. The Thrill of It All
There was a time, during the late ’50s and early ’60s, when Garner was partnered up with Doris Day. Together, they created ongoing roles that we now think of as a “RomCom given”, i.e., a slick and smart hunk who can’t see the fetching female forest for the stuck in the same old male chauvinist mode trees. In the case of this hilarious movie (written by Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart), she is a housewife who becomes a TV commercial pitchwoman. He’s the successful doctor who wants his little woman “back in the kitchen”. Considering how dated (and hateful) his character can be, Garner still manages to give his befuddled hubby an appealing side.
8. Victor Victoria
Reunited with Julie Andrews (his co-star in
The Americanization of Emily), Garner is the mobster and club owner, King Marchand. In Paris looking for possible acts, he stumbles across a Polish female impersonator and is immediately smitten. Of course, it’s Andrews. Of course, Marchand can’t have his sexuality questioned. Of course, things end up in a hilarious last act filled with Blake Edwards’ patented big screen slapstick and farce. While Garner’s character is proven “right” in the end (he didn’t fall for a man, after all), the sequences where it’s suggested that his character may be gay are some of the best, most subtle comedic acting he ever committed to film.
7. Hour of the Gun
Most movies dealing with the subject tend to focus on the events leading up to and including the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral. Here, a non-fiction book about the event becomes the source for Garner to play a much more complicated and unpleasant version of Wyatt Earp. There’s a bloodthirsty nature to this new interpretation of the character that left many audiences wondering where their favorite gunslinger had gone to. Fans of
Maverick was disturbed by his work here, and with good reason. Garner didn’t care. He gave the role his all, changing the industry’s perception of him as a laid-back goofball once and for all.
6. Skin Game
After being reminded of the storyline here, one will instantly think of a certain slavespolitation film made by one Quentin Tarantino a couple of years back. Indeed, Garner is a conman who works with an African American cohort to trick grim plantation owners out of their hard-earned cash. He sells his buddy to these unsuspecting marks, and then they turn around and split the money. When one buyer proves too savvy for the men, it’s up to Garner to save the day. With his quick-witted ways and undeniable personal magnetism, our huckster here is terrific. His accomplice, Oscar winner Louis Gossett Jr., is great, as well.
5. The Great Escape
While his work in this film is often overlooked, thanks to the undeniable magnetism and enigmatic qualities of star Steve McQueen, Garner is very good as Flt. Lt. Robert Hendley, the “Scrounger” of his particular Stalag. Working with other POWs to build a trio of tunnels, he’s both brave and boisterous, doing the best he can to keep spirits high while everyone struggles to survive. As with many in this movie, he’s doomed to his fate, but Garner still comes across as both heroic and compassionate. He also shows some decent action man chops toward the end, when our prisoners finally make a break for it.
4. Support Your Local Sheriff
Before the brilliance of
Blazing Saddles was this winning spoof with Garner in the central role as a city slicker from “back East” who becomes the local law for one reason and one reason only: he needs the money. Unfortunately, after making his first arrest, he discovers that the jailhouse doesn’t have actual cells with bars and locking doors. So how does he keep his prisoner’s secure? With chalk lines and absurdist psychology. Anyone who wants to see why Garner is considered a comic gem need only look at this film to find a sample of his sensational onscreen wit.
3. The Children’s Hour
In 1934, Lillian Hellman wrote one of the most controversial works in the history of the theater. Telling the tale of two women accused of lesbianism while in charge of an all-girls school, it had tongues wagging the moment it premiered. Why? Well, at the time, any mention of homosexuality was illegal in New York. A previous film adaptation had been heavily censored, thanks to the Hayes Code. This version, including a magnetic portrayal by Garner as Audrey Hepburn’s confused fiancé, returned to the source. He’s the perfect sensitive male, understanding and yet still stuck in the macho man role, conflict written all over his face.
2. The Americanization of Emily
The Americanization of Emily has an amazing script by renowned writer Paddy Chayefsky (
Network). It was directed by Arthur Hiller, who would go on to great commercial success with The Out-of-Towners, Love Story, and Silver Streak. It co-starred Julie Andrews in a rare dramatic turn and featured a story about war and duty dispersed amongst a solid cinematic scenario. As for Garner, he’s an officer’s gopher and a coward who is enlisted to become the poster boy (and first official casualty) of D-Day. From his trademark laconic smarm to moments of interpersonal terror, the actor delivers one of his best performances here, including a devastating final decision.
1. Murphy’s Romance
At the time of this winning May/December romance, Garner was 57 while his co-star, Sally Field, was 39. Today, such an age discrepancy would be criticized as being part of Hollywood’s paternalistic need to pair older men with younger women. Back then, it was seen as a solid move toward allowing “senior” citizen characters a chance at the same kind of passionate onscreen relationships as their less mature counterparts. Oddly enough, Murphy’s actual age at the time (we won’t spoil it here) is considered quite spry in 2014. In fact, many people would simply giggle at the premise. As for Garner’s amazing performance, it earned him his only Oscar nomination.