James Garner has a quiet professianlism. Clearly annoyed that he he has been waiting for an hour to begin the day’s cycle of interviews, the 74-year old Oscar nominee mumbles about “having been on time” while apologising for the delay through no fault of his own.
Clearly a man who calls ’em as he sees ’em, he alluded to the tardiness of a particular actress who kept others waiting while shooting the predominantly female Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood. “When I worked, there was no problem with punctuality, but with other people, I didn’t work with, I don’t know how it was when I wasn’t there. But when I was there, everything was perfect, right on time. Everybody doing good.”
The star of some 90 films and two classic TV series, the veteran actor had no qualms about being the only guy on this all female set, one that included writer/director Callie Khourie, as opposed to Space Cowboys, where it was all guys. “. It’s the same; we were all telling dirty jokes,” he recalls laughingly. “No, I didn’t feel any different really, you know, that it was all women or that Cowboys was all male; a movie set’s a movie set.”
Garner is a straight shooter. A man of few words, he has survived Hollywood’s rollercoaster of fame, anhd is not shy to tell it like it is. While he has genuine affection for his Ya Ya director, he refuses to play ther game and talk lovingly of all of her predecessors. Garner is a man who clearly doesn’t suffer fools gladly, talking with disdain about “The thing I did with Jack Lemmon” whose director Garner angrily describes as a “self-appointed genius who didn’t know what the hell he was doing, but he knew everything. I can’t even remember his name.” Garner loathes unprofessionalism, which is perhaps why the actor remains a Hollywood survivor.
Born in 1928 in Oklahoma, the son of a local carpet layer, Garner did stints in the Army and merchant marines before working as a male model. His professional acting career commenced with a non-speaking part in the Broadway play The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1954), in which he was also assigned to run lines with stars Lloyd Nolan, Henry Fonda, and John Hodiak. After a few TV commercials, he was signed as a contract player by Warner Bros. studios in 1956. He barely had a part in his first film, The Girl He Left Behind (1956), before being cast in the Warner Bros. TV western Maverick. The series’ writers latched on to his gift for understated humor, which became a traditional Garner trademark.
The actor was promoted to starring film roles during his Maverick run, but by the third season, he chafed at his low salary and insisted on better treatment. Warners refused, so he walked. Lawsuits and recriminations were exchanged, but the end result was that Garner was a free agent as of 1960. He did quite well as a free-lance actor for several years, turning in strong work in such films as Boys’ Night Out (1962) and The Great Escape (1963), but soon was perceived by filmmakers as something of a less expensive Rock Hudson, never as well as softer roles opposite Doris Day in Move Over, Darling (1963) and The Thrill of It All! (1963), as well as what would emerge as his favourite film of all time, 1964’s The Americanization of Emily, opposite now close friend Julie Andrews. “Here was an anti-war film at a time when we were at war, a police action or whatever they called it Vietnam. I liked the content of that movie, it was beautifully done, and Arthur Hiller did a great job of directing. We had good people.”
A decade later, Garner utilised his wry sense of humour within the character of TV’s Jim Rockford and his Emmy-winning Rockford Files, a character with which he is still associated with, though not according to Garner. “I don’t think I was associated with him any more than I was with Maverick. If you look at Maverick and Rockford closely, they are pretty close to the same guy, but one was a gambler and the other a detective. But their attitudes to people and that sort of thing, were pretty close.”
Garner is not as driven as he used to be, but his passions for acting are still prevalent, as he philosophises on the differences between his feelings for the profession today as against forty years ago. “When I started working, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, in that I was just wandering around, hoping that I could succeed. Then after I got a little under my belt, it took me about 25 years to feel like I knew what I was doing. Yeah, I’m as passionate about it now as I ever was. As a matter of fact, when I first started acting, I wasn’t passionate at all. I just was doing it to make a living, a few bucks here, a few bucks there. Then I got married and got an instant family. I had a wife and a daughter all of a sudden, and I had to get serious about it. Then I got very passionate,” he laughingly recalls. “The responsibilities of life were what made me passionate at the time. I had a wife and a daughter who was just out of the hospital, weak with polio, so I had to get serious and support these people.”
Today, it takes a lot for Garner to step out of tranquil domesticity and in front of the cameras. In the case of Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood, it was merely the script that interested him. ” Before I decide whether I’m going to do a film, I read the script. I say, ‘You know, I understand this character. That’s fine. Now how is the movie? The movie as a whole, you know? This is good. You know, it may not be a blockbuster, but it’s a good one. So, I’ll do it.’ I just like to keep working and I like to do good work with good people.”
In Divine Secrets, Garner plays husband to strong-willed Ellen Burstyn, in the adaptation of the novel. It’s a strained marriage, and one where we questiuon why he remains with her, through predominantly tough times. “He loves her, and basically, she loves him, but she’s got problems and I think we all have that. We put up with some things that our wives do in our life and our husbands do because we love them,” Garner says, with typical simplicity. Garner himself has been married to wife Lois for over forty years and is happy to play loving husband and stay away from the business of Hollywood, admitting that he doesn’t “deal with Hollywood anymore preferring to live my little life out in Brentwood and go to the golf course and go to the set. I don’t know what’s happening in Hollywood.”
As to whether or not we’ll see Garner reprise Jim Rockford any time soon, absolutely not, he says. “Look at it this way: I’m 74 years old. Who wants a 74-year-old detective unless he’s a bumbling idiot?” There doesn’t seem to be anything bumbling or idiotic about this true Hollywood survivor.