Actually, there were a few dozen crew members around as well, not to mention Stuart Margolin, Garner’s long-time friend and a frequent co-star on The Rockford Files. But when you were in Jim Garner’s presence, he had a way of making you feel like you were the only person in the world.
Garner was in the wilds of the Canadian west making a low-budget drama titled Pure Escape, directed by Margolin. Garner was co-starring with Billy Dee Williams as a favor to his friend. It was late at night, and we were in a barn. Garner, bearded for his role, was doing a scene involving, if memory serves, a calf. My experience with movie stars on a movie set to that point was as follows: the movie star ignored the visiting reporter until the unit publicist corralled the movie star, at which point you were led to the star’s trailer to receive a few well-chosen words.
Jim Garner, it must be said, was unlike any other famous actor I ever encountered. That night he would finish a scene and then saunter over and start-up a conversation. He was open, friendly, radiating warmth. Hanging around in the middle of the night with James Garner and a calf, you might get the impression you were his best friend in the world.
Garner that is, not the calf.
You weren’t his best friend, of course. But for a few hours you could be fooled. Ah, yes, you could be wonderfully fooled.
“The thing about Jim is that from the movies and television you expect he’s going to be the nicest guy in the world,” noted Quinn Donoghue, the publicist on the film. “And he is. But what an awful disappointment it would be if that turned out not to be the case.”
Quinn was certainly not alone in his assessment. Garner was hugely popular with just about everyone. Julie Andrews said he was her favorite leading man. Sally Field, who co-starred with him in a quirky little comedy titled Murphy’s Romance (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) said the best screen kiss she ever received came from Jim Garner,.
When I interviewed him, he was going through a difficult patch. He was in the midst of a legal battle with Universal over his unpaid share of the profits from the Rockford Files (Universal, as was typical of the studios, insisted Rockford, one of TV’s biggest and longest running hits, was still in the red). It was a case that would make its way through the courts for years, but which would result in Garner finally collecting millions. “They think if they can drag this on long enough,” he said to me at the time, “I’ll get tired and let it go.” He paused and grinned. “They don’t know me.”
He had separated from his wife Lois, temporarily as it turned out, and was said to be dating Lauren Bacall, with whom he had co-starred in a little-seen thriller titled The Fan.
But you certainly got no intimation of any difficulties during our time together. When I asked him about Bacall, he just grinned and insisted they were friends—which, as it turned out, was likely the case.
Shooting when on until nearly midnight, but Garner was up early the next morning joining Margolin and myself for breakfast. Later, we retreated to his hotel room and spent the afternoon chatting. There was a lot of talk about how television had cheated him, beginning with Maverick, the offbeat western hit that ran on CBS, and which made the young Korean War veteran an overnight star, but kept him indentured to Warner Bros. for years on a weekly salary (I think he said) of only three hundred dollars. Little wonder he had little love for the studios that made him famous—and why he went to such lengths to ensure they finally paid up.
We talked about his curious career, this see-saw professional life he led, bouncing between television and the movies. He could slip from romantic fluff like The Thrill of It All (with Doris Day) to The Americanization of Emily, the Paddy Chayefsky classic (his favorite, co-starring Julie Andrews) that was one of the most powerful anti-war movies of the era (not to mention cuttingly funny), to big studio-big cast extravaganzas such as The Great Escape and Grand Prix to the small-scale comic inventiveness of Support Your Local Sheriff. In between, he jammed in what sometimes seemed an endless succession of quickly forgotten TV movies. Like most stars who work a great deal (hello, Michael Caine), he was not always judicious about the projects he chose.
“I like working,” he explained that afternoon. “I like being on a movie set. I feel very at home on a movie set.”
He was best as the amiable rogue, the easy-going con man who would rather run from a fight, but somehow triumphed at the end anyway. For those of us of a certain generation, he will always be Bret Maverick, the slick western gambler who became the template for the kind of anti-hero he would play over and over again.
When I think about it, that character had an enormous impact of me. Growing up, James Garner was my kind of unwilling hero, and when it came time to create a private eye for The Sanibel Sunset Detective novels, I envisioned a sixtyish Garner in the role and drew shamelessly on the anti-hero persona he established so long ago on television in black and white.
But all of that was a long way in the future. At that point, out there on the prairie, he was simply one of my childhood heroes, and, all grown up, I was a bit in awe. It was a pleasure to be briefly in his company. He may not have been the nicest guy I ever met.
But he came awfully close.
James Garner’s death yesterday at the age of eighty-six brought back memories of the time I spent with him. However, shortly after I left the set, Pure Escape ran out of money and shut down. It was never completed, and does not show up on the resumes of either Garner or Stuart Margolin—an all-but-forgotten footnote in a great actor’s long career.