James Garner, the heroic antihero and light comic heavyweight - The Buffalo News

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James Garner, the heroic antihero and light comic heavyweight

My favorite episode of “Maverick” was called “Gun-Shy.” It was a parody of “Gunsmoke,” that old leather Western that spent so many years as one of the most popular shows on television.

Somehow or other, Bret Maverick, the slick, lily-livered gambler in the black hat, found himself in a place whose marshal kept running him out of town. The episode opened with a parody of “Gunsmoke’s” “slap leather” opening, that gunfight on the streets of Dodge City where giant Jim Arness as Matt Dillon shot to death someone or other. In “Gun-Shy,” doofus Marshal “Mort Dooley” quick-draws his gun and shoots. No luck. His combatant is still standing. So he keeps on shooting whomever is on the other end of the street. He empties his six-shooter.

Finally we hear the distant voice of his target far away: “Should I come a little closer, Marshal?”

It wasn’t James Garner’s voice but it should have been. It would have been the perfect Garner wisecrack, the distillation of the self-protective, nonviolent, irreverent wiseacre that Bret Maverick was to one and all.

Surely, Bret’s idea of a good old-fashioned shootout would be to stay so far out of range at his end of the street that he’d have to shout at the top of his lungs to be heard by his combatant.

That episode of “Maverick” embodied everything I loved about the irreverent, glibly anti-heroic Garner episodes of “Maverick.” The Jack Kelly episodes were huge disappointments, especially when they came in increasing quantity, even the ones that involved Diane Brewster as Samantha Crawford, the Maverick boys’ beautiful and fraudulent female bête noire.

It would be rude to say that cowardice was Garner’s thing as a star. It was more like enlightened self-preservation. He was, in American consciousness, an early incarnation of Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.”

His favorite of his films, he used to say (and I agree wholeheartedly) was “The Americanization of Emily,” whose script by Paddy Chayefsky includes one of those wonderful blasts of incendiary verbiage that, a few more years down the road, would make Chayefsky’s scripts for “Hospital” and “Network” classics. (I never understood why so much effort was always put into collecting three or four scripts by Woody Allen into one volume a la Ingmar Bergman and absolutely none at all into an omnibus edition of Chayefsky’s “Emily,” “Hospital” and “Network.”)

The truly startling moment in “The Americanization of Emily” is Garner delivering, to perfection and at some length, a kind of sulfurous defense of cowardice as a thoroughly effective deterrent to war.

Here was an antihero we could all believe in – charming, affable, fond of the good life, completely averse to getting hurt or killed but no one’s idea of a sissy either. Garner, over and over again, was Rick Blaine from “Casablanca” but without the melancholy, the nobility, the undying love and everything else that made Rick a hero in antihero’s mufti.

By the time I started my three-year tour as the daily TV columnist of this newspaper, Garner’s “Rockford Files” was the compromise private-eye version of the treasured Garner anti-war series that only lasted a season and became one of the truly fabled “lost” shows in TV history. It was called “Nichols,” and along with Peter Falk’s “The Trials of O’Brien,” it deserves a revival somewhere in cable TV’s world of omnitelevision.

“Nichols” was a critical delight but far from a hit. “The Rockford Files” was both. And thank heaven for that. While everyone soon got on my case for saying so many rude things about PBS’ “Masterpiece Theater” and NBC’s “Holocaust” (to me, it was itself a kind of high-minded atrocity), I was happy as can be to point out, as often as I could get away with, how wonderful TV actors could be, especially Garner as Jim Rockford, who lived in a trailer and hired out for $200 a day, plus expenses.

After a while, people began to agree. They began to congregate in large groups pointing out that Garner wasn’t just a charmer, he was one of the great actors in American movies and television. He was a guy who gave every line – even the very worst of them – enough of a spin or a twist to make it register as if it were eloquence itself.

Give him a well-written speech or a soliloquy or an emotional scene – like that astonishing defense of cowardice in “The Americanization of Emily” – and he could do something that was for all time.

Whatever Garner did, he was the kind of actor who was the answer to a writer’s prayer. If your script was being acted by Garner, you weren’t far from dying and going to writer’s heaven.

David Chase, creator of “The Sopranos,” got his start working for Steve Cannell on “Rockford.” Garner’s version of Universal’s reason for putting “The Rockford Files” to sleep involved Garner negotiating as hard as possible for another writer on the show.

I loved all the things people remembered about Garner on Facebook after he died this past weekend at the age of 86.

Little remarked upon was his memoir, “The Garner Files,” which was full of episodes very different from the onscreen epitome of bewildered cool – the time, at 14 for instance, when he nearly strangled his cruel stepmother.

All that onscreen charm and cool was very hard-won, it seems. So, too, was it the product of the consummate occupational craft that some of us argued was there all along. (He used to say that his model was Spencer Tracy, the actor devoted to making sure you could never catch him in the act of acting.)

Garner wasn’t always doing the epitome of cool, Middle American affability. He didn’t like being played for a sucker when it came to his wildly inadequate recompense for “Maverick” and even “Rockford.” He knew his worth among us happy potatoes on American couches everywhere. He wanted monetary reward from Hollywood that was appropriate to our esteem, which was through the roof.

The myth, at his death, is that he was more of a TV star than a movie star. I consider that pure hooey.

What’s true is that he was almost always superb on the big screen, Put him in a comedy with Doris Day, for instance, and he was a lot more fun to watch with her than Rock Hudson ever was. “The Americanization of Emily” remains a little-known American cinematic gem. (You can see some of its bones sticking out of Tom Cruise’s recent film “Edge of Tomorrow.”)

But as good as Garner was, he was often a casualty of damnable Hollywood snobbery – the asininity of those who prefer to think of TV folks as lesser inhabitants of America’s dream factory.

The most enlightened of his colleagues – the Paul Newmans, Robert Bentons, Martin Ritts and Sally Fields of this world – never thought so for a second. They knew how lucky they were to work with an authentic onscreen master of the non-mastery that is the lot in life of most of us.

You know – those of us who love Westerns and other onscreen shoot-’em-ups but are hopelessly and irretrievably gun-shy.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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