“I come from the common-sense school of acting,” says James Garner, whose hit television series and feature films have made him one of the world's most popular and highly respected actors.
“I went to acting school once,” says Garner, ‘'but I realized that they weren’t teaching me anything I didn’t already know. To me, acting is reacting to a situation or to dialogue or to whatever is happening in a scene.”
James Woods, who starred opposite Garner in the Emmy-winning made-for-television movies Promise and My Name Is Bill W., in 1986 and 1989, respectively, says, “Jim Garner is a great actor because he makes acting look so effortless. Many people don’t realize how much work and energy Jim puts into making his performances look so natural, and that’s a very difficult thing to do. I happen to think that Jim is one of the greatest actors alive.”
Describing Garner as his best friend, Woods adds, “When you meet Jim, you find that he is everything you think he is going to be when you see him on the screen, and more. He is the kind of person one is drawn to for a lifetime friendship because he is such a fundamentally decent human being. Jim is the greatest guy I have ever met. And Jim is wickedly funny, with that kind of Oklahoma-country-boy demeanor that is very quiet. Whenever he does say something, people fall off their chairs laughing because he has such a wry sense of humor.”
Noting that two of his most famous characterizations, those of Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford, were known for their wry senses of humor. Garner says, “I guess I look at life as pretty humorous, although that’s getting harder to do. Cleveland Amory once said of me, ‘Garner is funny, but he’s slow funny.’ I don’t think anyone develops a sense of humor. I think it is something a person is born with. One actor may understand humor, while another may try to play it, and there’s a difference. If you understand a joke you don’t have to play it. But if you play a joke to be funny, it will seem faked.”
Garner was born in Norman, Oklahoma, on April 7, 1928, and is one-quarter Cherokee on his mother’s side. During his teens, Garner and his father moved to Los Angeles, and for a time Garner attended Hollywood High School.
Even then he had the stature and rugged good looks that might have quickly led him into acting, but Garner says he went out of his way to avoid any contact with Hollywood.
“I read those fan magazines,” he says, “and didn’t want anything to do with acting. I didn’t want to be an actor.”
In 1950, Garner became Oklahoma’s first Korean War draftee and was twice awarded the Purple Heart. After his military discharge, Garner attended Oklahoma University. Returning to Los Angeles, he was offered an acting job at the age of 25 by an old buddy who had become an agent. Garner finally accepted the inevitable.
With typical self-deprecation, Garner recalls, “I had done 70 odd jobs before a guy offered me an acting job. I just wasn’t qualified to do anything else, so I tried it.”
That first role was as the non-speaking judge in the 1954 Broadway production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.
“It was not an auspicious start,” Garner says, “but I observed Henry Fonda and Lloyd Nolan and learned a lot from them.”
After touring with the national company of the play in a prominent speaking role, Garner was next seen in a string of television guest shots and supporting roles in feature films. These included Cheyenne and 1957’s Sayonara (opposite Marlon Brando). Soon Warner Bros. tapped him to play gun-shy card shark Bret Maverick in a new television Western.
Maverick's unexpected deadpan humor in a genre noted for its solemnity distinguished it from the slew of Westerns that were so popular at the time.
“When we started Maverick there were 17 other Westerns on the air,” Garner remembers. “What could we do different? Only humor. For the first three episodes, Maverick was straight. Then the producer and director and I saw that humor worked, so it was written into the scripts because we couldn’t take the situation too seriously. ‘They went that-a-way’ is pretty hard to read straight. If it hadn’t been for the tongue-in-cheek attitude, Maverick would not have succeeded.”
Following a controversial contract dispute with Warner Bros. that he eventually won, Garner left television. For the next 15 years, he worked almost exclusively in feature films, including The Americanization of Emily (opposite Julie Andrews in what he says is his favorite role), The Great Escape, and Support Your Local Sheriff!
“There used to be a hierarchy of acting,” Garner says. “If you were a Broadway actor, that was the greatest. If you sold out, you went to movies. Then if you sold out movies, you went to television. Then if you really sold out, you did commercials. I have never liked that whole attitude. We’re actors and that’s our trade. I have just as much pride doing television as I have doing a stage play. Actors act.”
In 1974, Garner returned to television in The Rockford Files, again turning a potentially stereotypical character upside down. Jim Rockford was an essentially cowardly, penny-pinching private detective who lived in a trailer in Malibu.
“I lean towards playing characters who don’t like bullies,” Garner says, “and I liked the Rockford character. He was a bit like Maverick in that he also had a tongue-in-cheek attitude. I don’t like steely-eyed detectives in general, and Rockford had to have that little twist of humor, that twinkle. Rockford had to be a bit nuts.”
In 1977, Garner’s work on Rockford earned him a Best Actor Emmy.
Stephen J. Cannell, who co-developed Garner’s second hit series and wrote over 50 of its episodes, says that the script for the pilot episode of Rockford evoked Maverick’s pragmatism when confronted with danger. “Jim instantly saw that this was the right material for him, and he gave me six of the greatest years I have ever had in this business. Jim was absolutely faithful to the material and protected our dialogue. He would read it exactly as it was written. If guest stars were bending lines, he would go over to them and say, ‘I think we’ve got wonderful writers, and I try never to change their lines. I would appreciate it if you wouldn't, either.’ He was so conscious of what we were doing.
“That show went like a greased clock. Jim was our co-producer without credit on the set. The crew would have killed for him. Jim is one of the most remarkable people in this business because he has managed to keep his perspective about who he is and what’s going on around him, despite the fact that he’s been a huge star for most of his life. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Garner has not let multiple stunt-work injuries, two controversial and successful legal tussles with corporate goliaths, or coronary surgeries (including bypass procedures) stop him or even slow him down.
In recent years, Garner has also produced several television programs and starred in several feature films. His production credits include the 1986 Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation Promise (which won Garner an Emmy as executive producer) and My Name is Bill W., about the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. In all, Garner has been nominated for 13 Emmys, including one for his performance last season in Decoration Day.
Garner’s list of feature films includes 1982’s Victor/Victoria and 1985’s Murphy’s Romance, for which he received a Motion Picture Academy Award nomination as Best Actor.
Garner is presently taping episodes of Man of the People, a new NBC situation comedy, in which he plays a former con man who is appointed to a city council seat, formerly occupied by his late ex-wife.
“I lean toward projects that have some sort of human value,” Garner says, “things that say something about the human condition. I feel a moral sense of right and wrong about the use of television. I don’t like violence. It bothers me. And if you look at most of the television shows that I have done, they are not violent. Television is the biggest propaganda machine that there has ever been, and we teach violence on television. We should exercise some restraint and remember who is going to be watching it.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating James Garner's induction in 1991.