Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA
James Garner, one of my favorite actors, passed away last month on July 19, 2014 at the age of 86.
I’ve been watching THE ROCKFORD FILES, Garner’s hit TV show from the 1970s, on Netflix Streaming this year and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying it. When THE ROCKFORD FILES premiered in 1974, I was just 10 years old and really wasn’t interested in a TV show about a private detective. I was much more interested in the shows THE NIGHT STALKER and PLANET OF THE APES which also premiered that year.
But I remember my mom and dad watching ROCKFORD regularly. THE ROCKFORD FILES of course went on to become a huge hit, and James Garner’s performance as the cautious, charming, often down on his luck yet tough and reliable private detective Jim Rockford is the main reason why.
With Garner’s passing, I decided to pick up and read his memoir The Garner Files – A Memoir written in 2011, to learn more about the actor responsible for creating the iconic Jim Rockford character.
James Garner did not set out to be an actor. Garner grew up in Oklahoma during the Great Depression, and his upbringing was a rough one. His mother died when he was four, and his father decided he was unable to properly care for Garner and his two brothers. As Garner writes, “My father wasn’t bad. He just wasn’t there. He couldn’t handle the responsibility of raising three young boys.”
So Garner grew up living in various households and learned the value of hard work at an early age, working all sorts of different jobs. He was drafted into the Korean War where he was wounded and received a Purple Heart, although he said it was just a minor injury. Garner explained, You automatically get a Purple Heart if you’re wounded or killed in action against an enemy of the United States. “Wounded” is broadly defined. The little shrapnel scratches I got were the same as my more serious knee injuries for the purpose. For that matter, a piece of shrapnel gets you the same medal for losing an arm.
After serving, Garner returned to California where he’d been living, and he hooked up with a friend who was a producer. Garner thought it was as good a job as any, and that’s how his career started. He started on stage and worked his way into films. After making some movies, Garner caught his break with the television show MAVERICK (1957-1961) which became a huge success and made him a star. He repeated this magic with his second hit show, THE ROCKFORD FILES (1974-1980) in which he played private investigator Jim Rockford, who in James Garner’s words was pretty much the same character as Brett Maverick.
In addition to these two hit TV shows, Garner also enjoyed a long film career spanning from 1956 to 2007 in which he appeared in forty-six movies, including THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF (1969), VICTOR/VICTORIA (1982), MURPHY’S ROMANCE (1985), SPACE COWBOYS (2000), and THE NOTEBOOK (2004) to name just a few.
In The Garner Files, Garner writes that people often thought that he was playing himself when he played Brett Maverick and Jim Rockford, but he said that wasn’t true. He said he played a part of himself. For example he explains that he had much more of a temper in real life than either Maverick or Rockford, and he was notorious on the golf course for being very competitive and hard on himself.
Garner describes himself as somewhat of a rebel. The stories of his battles with Jack Warner over MAVERICK are fascinating and serve as a reminder of the bizarre world of Hollywood, where producers and studio owners made their own rules and laws. Garner stood up to this insanity, and judging by his long and successful career, I’d say he made out just fine.
It’s also a nice love story, as he peppers stories throughout the book about his wife Lois. They fell in love instantly and were married two days after they met, and they remained married throughout Garner’s career. At one point Garner writes that their marriage survived not because it was perfect or without rocky times, but because they understood each other and supported each other through the difficult times, even surviving a separation because they were patient enough to see it through so that when the time was right they returned to each other.
There’s also plenty of name dropping, as Garner shares his thoughts and feelings about his fellow actors. He holds little back. While he had high praise for fellow actor Clint Eastwood who he’d known since their early TV days and for Marlon Brando who he called the greatest movie actor ever, he had mixed feelings about Steve McQueen, saying he thought McQueen always looked like he was acting in his movies.
He had this to say about Charles Bronson: Charlie Bronson was a pain in the ass, too. He used and abused people, and I didn’t like it.
Bronson and Garner had an argument over a poker game, when Garner insisted Bronson pay a young Hollywood extra the money that he owed him.
After that, Charlie went around swearing he’d never work with me again. Throughout my life, there have been a few guys who didn’t like me because I was outspoken. Hell, I never thought I was outspoken, I just told the truth.
And while Garner does write about making movies and his experiences making MAVERICK and THE ROCKFORD FILES, he also spends considerable time in the book discussing his other passions, like car racing, golf, and politics. While these chapters are interesting, I have to admit I wanted to learn more about his movies and television shows.
Still, the book does contain lots of memorable stories. My favorite because it shows Garner’s tenacity is when Garner found himself in a scuffle with an aggressive driver. The man got out of his car and physically attacked Garner, and in spite of Garner’s size and strength, the guy went to town on him and kicked the living daylights out of him. Garner said that to survive, he decided to play dead, but as soon as the man let him go, Garner jumped out of his car and went after the man again.
They (the man & his sister) started to leave, but I figured anybody who could hit and kick me so many times without killing me wasn’t that tough. If he’d had any punch at all, he’d have knocked me out halfway through the first round. So I got up and went after him.
Only later did he learn that he was tangling with an ex-Green Beret.
Like the actor and the two famous characters he created, The Garner Files is an easy going read, one that has a lot to say about the entertainment industry and life in general.
I highly recommend this memoir.