It’s okay if you didn’t know who James Garner was. For most of us, the TV and film actor was way before our time. Here is the best way to describe him: Take Brad Pitt, add some Vince Vaughn, mix with a teaspoon of Mark Wahlberg, and throw in a dash of Bradley Cooper and you are about half way there to how cool James Garner was. And since Garner passed away at the age of eighty-six a few days ago, now is the time to learn about a man who was more of a man than you, me, and the entire population of the Northern Hemisphere combined.
Garner dropped out of high school at the age of sixteen, joined the Merchant Marines for a spell, worked in the oil fields of Texas and Oklahoma, then served in the Korean War where he won a Purple Heart. Wait. That’s not true.
He won TWO Purple Hearts.
He did all of this by the age of twenty-four. For comparison, at the age of twenty-four I was working at a Starbucks getting yelled at by my assistant manager for not knowing how to make a “proper” dry cappuccino.
Though he appeared in over fifty films throughout his career, Garner was best known for his two television series: “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files.” Despite the former being a western and the latter being a private eye series, in both he essentially played the same character – a low key, ne’er-do-well type more interested in self-preservation who only helped people out when he got mixed up in their problems due to his own negligence. And yet he always managed to save the day and do so with subtle charm and humor.
He was the rare breed of anti-hero – one with a sense of humor. His humor was sly and understated. Not once did it scream, “Hey! Look at me! I’m a TV star being funny! Honk honk!” In fact, when told by a TV exec to tone down the humor early in the season of “The Rockford Files,” Garner reportedly said, “Humor is what I do best… either fire me or don’t mess with it.” That takes brass balls and because of those brass balls the show is considered a classic… and who the heck knows what happened to that exec.
Garner’s acting was so laid back and effortless that you wonder if he was even acting at all. It always looked like he just arrived on set a few minutes late, didn’t know his lines but just said, “Screw it. Let’s just shoot this scene so it’s done before lunch.” That ability to appear so lackadaisical can only come from a man who has worked extremely hard to know exactly who he is. And there is nothing more manly than knowing who you are. That was Garner in a nutshell.
(Speaking of knowing oneself and being comfortable in one’s skin, back in the 70s he shilled for Polaroid Cameras at a time when TV stars really didn’t do the commercial thing. Garner pulled it off effortlessly, all the while with a grin on his face that seemed to say, “Yeah, I’m doing commercials for an instant camera that twenty years from now will become obsolete. So what?”)
The old adage of “Men want to be him, women want to be with him” certainly applied to the persona of Garner. But it went much deeper than that. Men obviously wouldn’t mind being him, but being his buddy would probably have been even more fun. The same applies to women, though I’m sure sleeping with him would have been top on their list. He was classic old-school good-looking. Go check out clips of his work on “The Rockford Files.” He is so cool that he makes those painfully awful 70s plaid sports jackets look like something you actually might want to wear now. That is how much of a man he was.
James Garner just seemed like the kind of guy who was completely unaffected. You could call him “James,” you could call him “Jim,” you could even call him “Jimmy.” All three were fine with Garner. You know why? Because he didn’t give a s**t, that’s why. To him, it was just a name. To him, it mattered more about what a man did more than what a man was called.