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James Garner, RIP

By Rich Heldenfels Published: July 20, 2014

Saying James Garner was one of my favorite actors does not quite cut it. Garner, who has died at the age of 86 was the embodiment not only of an articulate cool, but of a determination to do what was right, whether it was to bring a certain amount of unpleasantness to a performance or to do battle with studios.That side is part of what made his Polaroid commercials so successful. At the same time, though, he could make you believe in a character, even one doing awful things, because Garner convinced you that the awful thing had some kind of moral foundation. And there were the Garner looks; he played Philip Marlowe in one movie, and while Bogart is still THE screen Marlowe for many, Garner looked more the way Raymond Chandler imagined the character, and absolutely sold a scene at the end which might have been audience-repelling if played by another actor.

It is also not quite right to call his characters heroes, even when they did heroic things. Both Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford were only partly heroic, and reluctant about the heroism at that; Garner often said his favorite of his films was "The Americanization of Emily," and that is Garner -- unapologetic about his principles even when those principles go against mainstream thinking, but basing thsat on a sense of right and wrong that was carefully thought through and articulated.

Garner was often underestimated as an actor because so much of his best work was in comedies, and ones that sometimes had a layer of subversion over a more laugh-laden frame; look not only at "Maverick" (indeed, all the different places he played Bret),  "Rockford" and "Emily" but "Support Your Local Sheriff." It has the surface of a silly comedy but an underpinning of utter defiance of western wisdom. He could get away with this because he was big and charming and handsome, with an engaging grin, which made people want to forgive him his sins because, heck, it was James Garner.

But he would also remind people that he was a fine dramatic actor, whether playing Wyatt Earp in "Hour of the Gun" (he would also play Earp again, in "Sunset") or Dr. Bob Smith in "My Name Is Bill W.," one of his collaborations with James Woods -- and Garner was even better in another, "Promise," which had a similar idea to "Rain Man" and is many times better than that big-screen success. Look, too, at "Murphy's Romance," where his wooing of Sally Field is built not only on charm and wisdom but his character's old hurt and his determination to be seen not as a father figure to Field but someone deserving her passion (and ultimately getting it). Consider, for that matter, "Twilight," not a great film but one where Garner deserves his acting place in a cast that also included Paul Newman, Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon.

And I have not even gotten to "The Notebook.' Yes, it is Ryan Gosling (and one Garner obit leads with Garner playing "the older" Gosling). But it is also Garner, direct and unfussy in his work and his approach to it. I crossed paths with Garner a couple of times and saw his cranky side, but not to the degree Gosling did. "Notebook" director Nick Cassavetes tells this story, according to VH1:

[Ryan] says, “I was thinking about accents. There’s all kinds of South Carolina accents — one’s more rural” and this and that. [Garner] goes, “I don’t do accents, kid. They’re stupid.” And [Ryan] goes, “Okay. What about eye color? I have blue eyes. You have brown eyes.” He says, “Everyone knows Jim Garner’s got brown eyes. Do what you want, kid.” [Ryan] says, “Okay, I guess I’ll wear contacts. What about hair?” And he says, “Do whatever you want, kid. Nice to meet you. See you later.” Ryan looked at me and said, “Shut up, don’t even say a word.” So that’s just an example of two extremely different types of acting styles. Both are wildly successful.

Garner's was more than successful. It was classic, and unusual, and difficult to duplicate. After all, you had to be James Garner to do it.



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