“I’m 76 years old and I’m worn out!” exclaims a boisterous James Garner as he sits down to chat about his co-starring role in the sweeping romantic drama The Notebook. Wearing his trademark, oversized tinted glasses, and supporting himself with a cane that his wife recently gave him, the actor is surprised when suggested that many young women still swoon around him on a movie set. “I’ve never made a move on anybody,” Garner says, emphatically. A true Hollywood survivor, part of the Eastwood, McQueen, Newman era, James Garner has appeared in close to 90 films, two beloved TV series and continues to work.
In The Notebook, he plays a man trying to help his Alzheimer-stricken wife [Gena Rowlands] remember their romantic past, by reading their story from a notebook. It’s a memorable, meaty role for the veteran award-winner, but the modest Garner disagrees. “It’s not that meaty if you look at it,” Garner says. “It’s like, you used to say, if you’ve got one scene in a film that’s really good, then do it,” he continues, referring to one of the most poignant and emotionally-charged scenes in the film. “Really the picture is with Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, who carry the picture and at the end we come in and put a wrap on it. So there’s a lot of work done and all I had to do was read to get into the next scene. But any time you can do a film where you’ve got one and maybe two really good scenes, it’s worth doing.”
With The Notebook, he had little doubt as to why he wanted to be a part of this old-fashioned film. “I read it and thought it was a beautiful story, but I didn’t think it was as big as it is. I called my agent and said: Is this a TV movie or what, and he says a ‘movie movie’ So I read it again and I said, well, yeah, but I didn’t think it had the scope that it has or the reaching power that it has to an audience. But then I realised anyone from 10 to 100 can really enjoy this picture.”
Coming out in a crowded Hollywood season, full of proverbial blockbusters, Garner is unconcerned at the competition. “You know, all the six year olds are going to go to Spider-Man, but I doubt if it has a story. I’ve never seen one of those big movies, but there’s these pictures that blow up the world, freeze them, flood them and do everything and I’m sorry, but if you look at them, there’s hardly any story, no relationships, real relationships with people. When I left Rockford in 1980 I decided I want to do films that have interesting characters, people with human emotions and feelings and I’ve been very fortunate to do that.”
Born James Scott Bumgarner, the son of an Oklahoma carpet layer, Garner dropped out of high school at 16 to join the merchant marines. He worked in a variety of jobs and received the Purple Heart when he was wounded during the Korean War. He had his first chance to act when a friend got him a non speaking role in the Broadway stage play “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1954)”. That led to small television roles, television commercials and a contract with Warner Brothers. Director David Butler saw something in him and gave him all the attention he needed when he appeared in 1956’s The Girl He Left Behind. After co-starring in a handful of films during 1956-57,
Warner Brothers gave Garner a co-starring role in the 1957 television series “Maverick” Originally cast as an alternating series between Bart Maverick (Jack Kelly) and Brett Maverick (Garner), the show quickly turned into the Brett Maverick Show. As Maverick, Garner was cool, good-natured, likeable and always ready to use his wits to get him in or out of trouble. Highly successful, Garner continued in the Western into 1960 when he left the series in a dispute over money. In the early 60s, his persona transferred over to films which were mostly the same type of character he had played on “Maverick”, which included The Thrill of It All, (1963), Move Over, Darling (1963), The Great Escape, (1963) and The Americanization of Emily, (1964). After that, his career wandered and when he appeared in the automobile racing movie Grand Prix (1966), he got the bug to race professionally. Soon, this ambition turned to supporting a racing team, not unlike what Paul Newman would do in later years.
In 1956 he would marry the love of his life, Lois Clarke, so in talking about The Notebook, Garner knows something about what it is that makes love last a lifetime. “Well, let’s forget the physical side of it, but it’s caring, it is giving your partner respect and I think that if you don’t do anything that will affect them deeply in a bad light then you’re probably going to get along pretty well. I respected my wife, and she respected me, and we’ve been at it 48 years.” Looking back on his remarkable career, it is The Americanization of Emily that remains his favourite film. “I loved it for the content, for Julie Andrews and Arthur Hiller did a magnificent job.” Still remembered as that feisty detective in The Rockford Files, Garner insists that no matter how many fans want to see him resurrected, Garner insists that there will be no more Rockford in his future. “Nobody needs a 76 year old detective.”
Yet Garner does remain one of Hollywood’s busiest 76-year olds, having taken on a recurring role in the TV sitcom, 8 Simple Rules, arguing that while trying to be selective, “I’m also very lucky in what I do. I’m tickled to death about doing Eight Simple Rules for another year and at 76 years old, I have a steady job and I feel lucky.” Seeing his performance in The Notebook, one can argue that luck has nothing to do with it.