Garner on his career and his fellow actors

Posted: December 27, 2011

The Garner Files

A Memoir

By James Garner and Jon Winokur

Simon & Schuster 273 pp. $25.99


Reviewed by Jonathan Storm


Tall and handsome, one-quarter Cherokee, with an aw-shucks demeanor that he carried from Oklahoma to Hollywood with little else, James Garner has battled his way through 50 years of movies and two of the all-time great TV shows.

"I just wanted a clean job for decent money," he says in The Garner Files, a memoir written with Jon Winokur, a graduate of Temple University, that harps constantly on his dislike for pretentiousness and, particularly, pretentious actors.

"I don't give a damn about Shakespeare," he writes. "Acting is just common sense." In his epic career, he says, he took a total of two acting lessons - with Warner Bros. acting coach Blair Cutting when he was under contract to the studio.

"All I remember about the whole experience with Blair is if the wind was strong, his hair would blow off."

Though he's mostly a pussycat, Garner's not afraid to say mean things about some of his peers, in show business and in the other two main pursuits he outlines in the book, golf and auto racing.

Bill Murray "is a disgrace." Sam Snead "was a curmudgeon and full of himself," and a cheapskate, to boot. Director John Frankenheimer was a bully. Ronald Reagan, who "never had an original thought," wasn't qualified to be president or even governor of California. Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn't qualified to be governor, either. Steve McQueen was "a poser who cultivated the image of a macho man," and Charles Bronson "was a pain in the ass, too."

McQueen and Bronson were costars with Garner in The Great Escape (1963). One of the biggest of Garner's 46 movies, it gets eight pages in the book, two less than Grand Prix (1966), which the race-car enthusiast describes as "the most fun I've ever had, period!" The Americanization of Emily (1964) is his favorite film, in part, he says, because it reflects his antiwar views.

He comes by them through experience. Garner writes that he was the first Oklahoman to be drafted, in 1950, into the Korean War, where he earned a Purple Heart with an oak-leaf cluster fighting with the 5th Regimental Combat Team of the 24th Division. Of the 3,200 RCT troops deployed with him, more than a third were killed, injured, or missing within six weeks.

His years in movies and television were more grueling than the war. The Rockford Files, his most notable work, closed down after Garner had to quit because of bleeding ulcers, after seven knee operations. He says he has been in constant pain from arthritis for 50 years and has smoked marijuana all that time to help alleviate it.

Born in 1928 in Norman, Okla., Garner had a less-than-idyllic childhood, winding up on his own at age 14. His mother died when he was 4, from a botched abortion. The family never discussed it. His stepmother was a harridan who took his brother Jack's virginity, he says, when he was 8 or 9 and made Garner wear a dress. "Now, they'd put that woman in jail for what she did to us. But in those days nobody cared."

Movies get sections of chapters in the book, but his two great TV shows, Maverick and The Rockford Files, get their own separate chapters. Garner says he was chosen to play Bret Maverick because he came cheap, being already under contract to Warners when the show, about an itinerant gambler, premiered in 1957. After the first couple of episodes, Garner writes, he and director Budd Boetticher "started to play around with the scripts, injecting a little humor here and there."

The wisecracking, antihero cowboy who would rather slink out of town than face gunplay in the streets was a sensation, often imitated, never duplicated. Garner says the show became the top-rated show on TV. That's not true, but it was a success. It got as high as No. 6 in its second season, but hit a major snag in 1960 after Garner sued Warner Bros. and broke his contract.

That unheard-of act seems pretty typical for a man who constantly boasts about how easygoing he is, but repeatedly tells of punching people to the ground over this transgression or that. The Rockford Files premiered in 1974. After it ended, Garner sued Universal over its creative accounting, common in the business at the time, which concluded that the fabulously profitable show had actually lost money. Nine years later, the studio agreed to a seven-figure settlement.

"If you look at Maverick and Rockford, they're pretty much the same guy," Garner says. He's right, but what he doesn't say is that both of them changed the direction of television, nearly two decades apart. First cowboys, then cops and private eyes, became less heroic and more human, in part reflecting the humanity of Garner himself.

TV Guide at one point named him the greatest actor in television history. Last year, the Television Critics Association gave him its career achievement award. His co-author Winokur accepted it while Garner stayed home. "Jim hates these things," the writer said. "He just doesn't feel he deserves people's attention." Garner writes in the book's introduction that he agreed to publish a memoir only after people he trusted said it would be a good idea.

There's very little flash in Winokur's writing, which seems determined to reflect Garner's low-key character. The memoir would be more effective if it spent less time dwelling on its subject's humbleness.

But it's an easy read about the life of a significant and beloved movie and TV star, with insider chat about scores of Hollywood legends, from Clint Eastwood, Marlon Brando, and Billy Wilder to Julie Andrews, Doris Day, and Audrey Hepburn.


Jonathan Storm is a retired Inquirer television critic. Contact him at jstorm@gmail.com.

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