Perdido 03

Perdido 03

Sunday, July 20, 2014

James Garner On Acting And Politics

It has been announced that James Garner has died at the age of 86.

Garner wrote one of my favorite pieces on actors and politics in 2011:

James Garner's memoir "The Garner Files" was published today, and far from being a glossed over look at his career, it's very much matter of fact.

Although he defends actors who express their political views, he is critical of those who run for office.

"Too many actors have run for office," he writes. "There's one difference between me and them: I know I'm not qualified. In my opinion, Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn't qualified to be governor of California. Ronald Reagan wasn't qualified to be governor, let alone president. I was a vice president of the Screen Actors Guild when he was its president. My duties consisted of attending meetings and voting. The only thing I remember is that Ronnie never had an original thought and that we had to tell him what to say. That's no way to run a union, let along a state or a country."

Garner writes that he was asked to run for Congress in 1962 as a Republican, and "it didn't stop them when I told them I was a Democrat. …They just thought I could win." In 1990, Democratic leaders approached him about running for governor of California, but the discussion got to the issue of abortion and Garner says he answered, "I don't have an opinion, because that's up to the woman. It has nothing to do with me." The conversation pretty much stopped there.

Garner is what he calls a "bleeding-heart liberal," having participated in the 1963 civil rights March on Washington and later advocating for a number of progressive causes. He voted for Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, he writes, but never cast a ballot for a Republican again. He voted for Adlai Stevenson in 1956, and calls him "the most intelligent presidential candidate we've ever had. I think Obama runs a close second."

He's also critical about Charlton Heston — either as an actor or defender of civil rights. As Garner describes it, Heston appointed himself leader of the Hollywood group that went to the March on Washington, and even tamped down a suggestion by Marlon Brando that the performers chain themselves to the Lincoln Memorial. But the next year, Heston switched parties and backed Barry Goldwater.

The Times really gets at Garner's charm in the Rockford Files:

Rockford, a semi-tough ex-con (he had served five years on a bum rap for armed robbery) who lived in a beat-up trailer in a Malibu beach parking lot, drove a Pontiac Firebird and could handle himself in a fight (though he probably took more punches than he gave), was exasperated most of the time by one thing or another: his money problems, the penchant of his father (Noah Beery Jr.) for getting into trouble or getting in the way, the hustles of his con-artist pal Angel (Stuart Margolin), his dicey relationship with the local police.

“Maverick” had been in part a send-up of the conventional western drama, and “The Rockford Files” similarly made fun of the standard television detective, the man’s man who upholds law and order and has everything under control. A sucker for a pretty girl with a distinctly ’70s fashion sense — he favored loud houndstooth jackets — Rockford was perpetually wandering into threatening situations in which he ended up pursued by criminal goons or corrupt cops. He tried, mostly successfully, to steer clear of using guns; instead, a bit of a con artist himself, he relied on impersonations and other ruses — and high-speed driving skills. Every episode of the show, which ran from 1974-80 and more often than not involved at least one car chase and Rockford’s getting beat up a time or two, began with a distinctive theme song featuring a synthesizer and a blues harmonica and a message coming in on a newfangled gadget — Rockford’s telephone answering machine — that underscored his unheroic existence: “Jim, this is Norma at the market. It bounced. Do you want us to tear it up, send it back or put it with the others?”

In his 2011 autobiography, “The Garner Files,” written with Jon Vinokur, Mr. Garner confessed to having a live-and-let-live attitude with the caveat that when he was pushed, he shoved back. What distinguished his performance as Rockford was how well that more-put-upon-than-macho persona came across. Rockford’s reactions — startled, nonplussed and annoyed being his specialties — appeared native to him.

And Maverick:

Alone among westerns of the 1950s, “Maverick,” which made its debut in 1957, was about an antihero. He didn’t much care for horses or guns, and he was motivated by something much less grand than law and order: money. But you rooted for him because he was on the right side of moral issues, he had a natural affinity for the little guy being pushed by the bully, and he was more fun than anyone else.

“If you look at Maverick and Rockford, they’re pretty much the same guy,” Mr. Garner wrote. “One is a gambler and the other a detective, but their attitudes are identical.”



  1. I always remember "Support Your Local Sheriff," where he had a jail in which the bars hadn't arrived. This criminal says to his Paw, Walter Brennan, "I thought you said they hadn't built the jail that could hold us." "Well, they have now," Brennan replies.

    1. I'm not a fan of TV advertising in the least, but Garner and Mariette Hartley managed to make those Polaroid commercials some of the most memorable ones you ever saw - and in a good way too.