Skip to main content

James Garner: 'Like, Zen, man'

By Gene Seymour
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Actor James Garner poses at a portrait session at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, on January 31, 2005. Garner died of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles on Saturday, July 19, police say.<!-- -->
</br> Actor James Garner poses at a portrait session at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, on January 31, 2005. Garner died of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles on Saturday, July 19, police say.
HIDE CAPTION
Actor James Garner dies at 86
Actor James Garner dies at 86
Actor James Garner dies at 86
Actor James Garner dies at 86
Actor James Garner dies at 86
Actor James Garner dies at 86
Actor James Garner dies at 86
Actor James Garner dies at 86
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: James Garner won a devoted following playing the coolly principled coward
  • He was noted for "Rockford Files" and "Maverick," in which he played reluctant do-gooder
  • Seymour: His movies uneven, but "The Americanization of Emily" was a perfect fit
  • Seymour: Garner's persona was not Oscar bait, but audiences loved him

Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN) -- He was the logical synthesis of John Wayne and Jack Benny. Interlace the Duke's measured drawl and virile swagger with Benny's comic timing and shrewd use of wordless exasperation, and you have James Garner, who died Saturday night in Los Angeles at 86.

His persona: Laid-back pragmatist ... or, if you needed to be a tad more provocative about it, coolly principled coward. It endeared him to generations of moviegoers and television viewers.

Garner's most cherished roles shared, to varying degrees, a bent gallantry that saw little need to advertise or flaunt itself before others. In his entry on "The Rockford Files"-- the 1974-80 TV series in which Garner played a perennially, often unjustly besieged private detective living in a trailer -- Gene Sculatti's "The Catalog of Cool" summed up "Gentleman Jim's beat message: Very few expenditures of energy are worth the effort. Like Zen, man."

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

But Garner did not only embody this persona in "Rockford Files'" eponymous character Jim Rockford (for which he won a best actor Emmy in 1977), but also Bret Maverick, the well-tailored Texas card sharp and reluctant do-gooder from the 1957-62 Western series "Maverick." That star-making role represented something relatively new in the cowboy genre: A manly hero, able to take care of himself, who was nonetheless far more inclined to use his wits rather than his fists to get out of a jam. More often than not, Maverick's way was the winning way.

Same with Rockford.

If powerful gangsters leaned on him and told him to back off an investigation, Jim Rockford would weigh his options, consider the bruises on his face and decide the hell with it. Somehow things would turn out OK in the end without him losing any cred with his clients -- or his audience.

Then there were those back-to-back Burt Kennedy Western spoofs, 1969's "Support Your Local Sheriff" and 1971's "Support Your Local Gunfighter," in which he played separate versions of the slow-thinking, fast-acting wayfaring stranger who'd rather do anything than be a hero. If the local pokey had no bars on its cells, no problem: All Garner's character in "Sheriff" needed was a bucket of red paint and a couple of well-placed faux bullet holes to make sure his prisoner didn't leave without permission.

If these characters made skewed heroism look easy, it's because Garner made acting look easy, too. His was the kind of nonchalant grace that in the 1930s or '40s would have made him a major movie star, at home in comedy or drama as were Cary Grant or Clark Gable.

But things weren't always as easy for Garner as he made them seem. He was often beset with physical ailments during his long, grueling "Rockford" run. And at the peak of his earlier "Maverick" popularity, he left the series -- in its third season -- over a dispute with Warner Brothers and tested his luck with the movies.

For a while, the movies didn't quite know what to do with him, casting him as stoic action heroes (with mixed results) in such World War II epics as "Up Periscope" (1959), "The Great Escape" (1963) and "36 Hours" (1965). He was an effective foil for Doris Day in 1963's "Move Over, Darling" and "The Thrill of It All," but was miscast in "Grand Prix" (1966) where his best scenes were arguably behind a race car's wheels.

Famed actor James Garner dies at 86

One picture, however, shines like a beacon from this period: "The Americanization of Emily" (1963), which Garner always cited in interviews as his favorite -- with most of his fans in agreement.

The lead role fit him like the proverbial glove: Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Madison, whose relatively cushy World War II posting as an admiral's aide-de-camp in London first repels, then attracts a prim British war widow (Julie Andrews) bemused by his staunch dedication to cowardice in the midst of war.

Charlie, speaking as if he were a lineal descendant of Brother Bret Maverick, insists throughout that cowardice is the only honest, rational response. (Because it's a comedy, he naturally ends up on Omaha Beach trying to get away from Nazi bullets.)

"So far this war," Charlie explains to the widow's widowed mother, "we've managed to butcher some 10 million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we'll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It's not war that's unnatural to us, it's virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved."

Such words were warmed to near-humidity by screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky -- by way of William Bradford Huie's novel. But it took an actor of Garner's innate charm, unassuming earnestness and modulated intensity to drive them home and let them resonate nearly 15 years into the new millennium.

Charm and modulation aren't Oscar bait -- and the closest Garner came to getting one was a best actor nomination for 1985's "Murphy's Romance" in which he played a liberal small-town pharmacist wooing Sally Field's overwrought, overburdened divorcee. But Garner won something in the long, fertile run of his life's work that other actors would covet even more: Abiding affection from audiences, so deep and wide that they were always glad to see him show up on big or small screens in any context, any role of any dimension.

In his later interviews, Garner insisted that all he ever wanted in life was for people to smile whenever they thought of his name. Done, and done.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:24 PM EDT, Sat September 20, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT