James Garner’s first big role came on television, where he played traveling gambler Bret Maverick in the western series Maverick, from 1957 to 1960. Garner was nearly 30 when he got the part, and had only been acting for a couple of years, but there’s rarely been a more perfect fusion of actor and part—at least not until Garner starred as private detective Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files, a little over a decade later. The gimmick of Maverick was that he wasn’t the laconic, violent hero, or the dashing hotshot. Bret Maverick was a wry dude who was just trying to make a little money and avoid conflict, as was Jim Rockford. This became Garner’s screen persona, which he’d carry over into a lot of his movies. He was a different kind of manly: Handsome but no Adonis, strong but not musclebound, smart but not brainy, and a wiseass who was rarely out-and-out mean.
Garner died yesterday in Los Angeles at the age of 86. He hadn’t worked much since having a stroke in 2008, but from the mid-1950s to the mid-2000s, Garner never lacked for jobs. He had his strongest run in the movies in the 1960s, after he extricated himself from his Maverick contract. Hollywood positioned Garner as a more down-to-Earth version of Rock Hudson, putting him in romantic comedies like Move Over, Darling, and The Thrill Of It All (both opposite Hudson’s regular co-star Doris Day), rip-roaring action movies like Grand Prix and The Great Escape (the latter alongside Steve McQueen, another actor who redefined macho in the 1960s), and even an arty, existential drama, Mister Buddwing (which is like a Garner spin on Hudson’s Seconds).
Garner’s best big-screen performance of the 1960s—and his second-best film of that era, after The Great Escape—is 1964’s The Americanization Of Emily, directed by Arthur Hiller and written by Paddy Chayefsky, adapting William Bradford Huie’s novel. Playing a World War II naval officer on an easy administrative assignment in London, Garner gives convincing speeches about the folly of heroism, scandalizing a war widow played by Julie Andrews with his lack of patriotism. The Americanization Of Emily is another quintessential Garner role: a man who sees more nobility in staying alive and living well than in doing something stupid for the sake of worthless glory.
The Rockford Files took up most of Garner’s time in the 1970s (and while it’s not a movie, that show should be essential viewing for fans of shaggy private eye pictures like The Long Goodbye or The Big Fix). Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, Garner was an infrequent but always welcome presence in movies—sometimes playing a major role, as he did in the lovely 1985 drama Murphy’s Romance, and sometimes just adding his own flavor to an ensemble, as in 1982’s Victor Victoria, 2000’s Space Cowboys and 2004’s The Notebook. One of the best of the later-period Garner films is 1998’s Twilight, directed by Robert Benton and co-written by Benton and Richard Russo. Paul Newman plays a detective who does favors for his rich L.A. friends, and finds himself drawn into a mystery that involves one of those buddies, played by Garner. Benton turns Twilight into a measured, melancholy farewell to aging stars like Newman, Garner, and Gene Hackman, and in the film Garner shows how easily his recurring character of the likable guy looking out for himself could be turned into something darker.
Like Twilight’s Newman and Hackman, Garner wasn’t an actor who “reached,” per se. He wasn’t doing accents or putting on prosthetics or trying to make himself over into someone he wasn’t. Movie and TV producers hired him to be James Garner, and over his 50-plus years in the business, Garner proved that he could be endlessly fascinating and charismatic, and could even reveal something of the best and worst of human nature, just by being “himself.”