Combative, intelligent, sensitive, hard-driving, tough and above all talented, James Garner -- who died Saturday at the age of 86 -- did share one trait in common with so very many gifted people: He was complicated. He took a cauldron of life experiences and turned them into choices that defined to some extent what we see on television today, for the rootstock of Walter White is indeed, to some not so remote extent, Jim Rockford. (Both shared one thing certainly in direct proportion -- the double wide trailer...)
Garner came from Norman, Oklahoma and it is fair and accurate to say that Norman, Oklahoma never left him. He arrived -- one of three brothers, to a mother who would die by the time he was four -- in a world that was about to be desperately impoverished.
The land would be scoured to the bone by prevailing winds that would turn the middle of the country into a stretch of dust and sand. His father was an alcoholic and his step-mother a monster -- or so he would recall in his late-in-life memoir (that in parts doubled as payback.)
Garner learned to use his fists and discovered, and maybe feared, a temper that he couldn't always control.
Garner was also one quarter Cherokee -- the tribe brutally decimated, then "forcibly removed" by Andrew Jackson to a place no one wanted: Oklahoma. He was deeply proud of his Indian heritage (and named his production company, Cherokee.) Hence, the idea of Garner as a Western TV "hero" in a '50s era serial certainly had intriguing if not in the moment exactly promising potential -- especially considering the casual and implicit racism that haunted the TV western over its long run.
He didn't want to play Maverick. He was a contract player for Warner Bros. and he was told to do it -- no discussion, no negotiation. It was a studio play that turned him against the System and ultimately forged one of Hollywood's most litigious stars. Garner wasn't exactly the Curt Flood of movies and TV, but he was certainly part of the wave -- initiated first by Cary Grant -- that ultimately broke the studio's iron hold over stars and talent. "Maverick," in which Garner appeared in only 52 episodes, was actually an important part of that history.
Garner, of course, didn’t play Maverick like the usual laconic white hat, who rode into town, ordered a whiskey and then promptly -- or eventually -- put a bullet in the guy wearing the black hat. He was witty, bemused, ironic, suave, intelligent, and full of a sense -- not explicitly stated -- that the world was mad and he was just another member of the asylum. You could almost apply the exact same description to Jim Rockford, who arrived over a decade later.
Garner's best roles, or certainly his most memorable roles, reflected Garner to greater or lesser extent. That was part of his appeal, part of his enduring success. Write what you know, writers are told. Garner acted what he knew.
As mentioned, Garner was conflicted; that's no surprise and you could see it on screen. He wanted the money and success that came along with the major roles -- but he didn't want the indentured servitude, as he thought of it before he sued the studios to release him from both "Maverick" and "The Rockford Files."
It's hard to know who was in the right or wrong over those long ago and now forgotten lawsuits, but it's easy now to take Garner's side. After all, who's going to take the side of a studio run by someone like Jack Warner? In fact, Garner had badly damaged his knee in basic training years earlier, and had other assorted injuries during a brutal tour of duty in Korea, as an infantryman. (He was nearly killed, twice, by the way, and had a pair of Purple Hearts as testament. )
Garner was hospitalized at one point for the bad knee -- he did many of his own stunts on "Rockford" -- and the studio, Universal, interpreted that as work stoppage. It sued, Garner counter-sued. "Rockford" was dead, except as a series of movies that kept the franchise going. "I'll accept a lot before I snap," he once said. "But I do snap."
Rockford and Maverick, as characters, broke a long tradition of the hero-as-violent: Who used the gun as a means of settling any argument or removing any impediment. Garner said he was proud that he rarely used his gun as Rockford, and never shot anyone. Rockford hated guns, and in fact he would often be on the receiving end of violence. But like Garner, if pushed, Jim shoved back.
Rockford endured because he had a certain magic that only a gifted actor can instill. But he also endured because the man who played him knew him so intimately. Viewers thought they were seeing someone entirely real, or thought they were.
It's also worth noting in this all-to-brief appreciation that some of Garner's big screen roles were jewels -- at least three were classics, "The Americanization of Emily," "The Great Escape," and "Murphy's Romance," for which he received a late-in-career best actor nod.
Nevertheless, it was TV that would provide the mirror of the man. That mirror reflected one of TV's finest actors who helped to expand the boundaries of what was possible on the medium. Garner will be missed, and in fact already is.