He was one big handsome hunk o' talent on TV and the big screen. Just like the Warner Brothers stars of the 1930s like James Cagney, he showed up with no controversy, got on stage and was totally honest as the character he played. It was as simple as that. In fact, he made the often difficult work of acting look simple because he just got out there and told the truth in the dramatic or comic role. And, Lord, was he entertaining!
Years later in the 1970s, James Garner again was the object of our family time at the TV. The Rockford Files on NBC. Those were the nights we bought excellent pizzas and watched Garner's excellent, witty private eye show. It was his second hit TV series.
My parents gently coaxed me to watch Garner in Sayonara. Marlon Brando was the star but Garner's onscreen charisma held its own opposite Brando. Mom and Dad felt it had an important message about the senselessness and tragedy of racial discrimination. Brando and Garner were U.S. Air Force members stationed in Japan during the Korean War. The story focused on how the U.S. military opposed its white men marrying Japanese women. In 1963, James Garner, Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier were some of the stars who participated in Dr. Martin Luther King's historic March of Washington for Civil Rights. Here's Garner at the march holding the hand of Diahann Carroll.
There's The Art of Love, a goofy comedy about a struggling artist in Paris. It teamed Garner with Dick Van Dyke and Ethel Merman as the pink-haired Madame Coco.
Today it's almost commonplace for actors to accept TV and/or movies scripts that embrace sexual diversity. But in the 1960s through the 1980s, taking on such material was pretty bold. Garner did that in two films. He was the male lead in another film that aired on L.A.'s Channel 9 when I was a boy. It aired at night for "mature audiences." The material was beyond me because I was so young when I first saw it, but I was sharp enough to realize Garner's commitment to the material and his character. It was William Wyler's remake The Children's Hour. He'd directed a 1930s version of the Broadway play. That 1936 version was retitled These Three and the implied lesbianism of the play was deleted because of Hollywood production codes (censorship) of the time. But it still had the grit of what happens when a vicious lie spreads. In 1961, Wyler remade it retaining Lillian Hellman's original title, the lesbian subject matter plus the bigotry towards people accused of being gay. Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine co-starred.
He starred opposite Doris Day in what I feel are two of her best comedies. One was a remake. Cary Grant and Irene Dunne starred in the funny 1940 hit, My Favorite Wife.
The Americanization of Emily, in which Julie Andrews plays a British woman in uniform who is not a virgin, is one of Garner's best films. He gives one of his finest film performances in it as Charlie, an American G.I. who loves the good life while troops are dying in the fight for democracy. He's not heartless. And he's no hypocrite. He sees how war is marketed. Charlie knows the absurdities of war.
Doing the work that you love and going home to someone special that you love, what a wonderful life that would be. That would make me feel like a star whether I was big at the box office or not.
From the Oscar-winning Sayonara (1957) to Grand Prix (1966) to 1982's Victor Victoria, James Garner starred in films that earned Oscar nominations for production teammates on or off the screen. I was thrilled when he got a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination for the 1985 charmer, Murphy's Romance co-starring another ABC prime time series veteran, Sally Field.
Another film that he did, and another one of my favorites even though it's not one one of his best-known movies, is the 1996 Warner Bros. comedy My Fellow Americans. He and Jack Lemmon starred as bickering former U.S. presidents who must get over their political differences and team up to fight some dangerous political intrigue. Sexual diversity is embraced in this Garner film too. Just like when I was a kid seeing The Great Escape, I was happy and entertained once again at a James Garner movie.
I saw Garner in a national TV interview -- it may have been conducted by Robert Osborne on TCM -- and he was asked how he'd like to be remembered. He said that he wanted to be remembered with a smile.
That is indeed how I will remember actor James Garner. He made me smile for most of my life. He leaves behind performances that will continue to make me smile.
James Garner. He was a class act. First class all the way.