James Garner

James Garner: Modest, Likable, Talented

By Paul Levine

James Garner was one of the many Hollywood figures whose passing was noted in the “In Memoriam” tribute of the Emmy Awards Sunday night. I knew Garner a bit and wanted to share a few memories of the handsome, talented actor who died last month at 86.

James Garner
James Garner as P.I. Jim Rockford. Yikes, those plaid sport coats!

I met James Garner briefly 45 years ago. Fresh out of Penn State, I had just started as a rookie reporter for The Miami Herald. Jackie Gleason, a part-time South Florida resident, was holding his annual celebrity golf tournament. Gleason had chartered a plan to bring his Hollywood buddies to Miami, and I was assigned to interview a few stars. Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Danny Thomas, whoever I could grab at the airport.

(In those days, Miami was a backwater southern town that still got goose bumps over any brush with celebrity. South Beach was called “God’s Waiting Room” for the number of elderly playing their last hands of gin rummy on the porches of crumbling old hotels).

James Garner: After “Maverick,” Before “Rockford”

I watched the celebrities step off the plane, and there was James Garner, ruddy-faced and smiling. (He might have enjoyed a cocktail or two on the cross-country jaunt). All these years later, I can’t remember a word that was said. But the man was modest and helpful to this nervous, obviously inexperienced reporter. (I was 21 and looked about 12 and was wearing my one suit, which happened to be green). I didn’t know it at the time, but Garner was considered one of the most likable actors in Hollywood.

Garner’s career-making western “Maverick” was in the past. His success with “Rockford Files” hadn’t yet happened. But he had become a movie star. Earlier that year, he’d starred in “Marlowe” and “Support Your Local Sheriff!” A few years earlier, he’d made “The Americanization of Emily,” the World War II dark comedy he considered his favorite film.

Many years later, I was working in Hollywood with Stephen J. Cannell, the co-creator of “Rockford Files.” I asked him what it was like working with James Garner, and he paid the actor perhaps a writer’s highest compliment:

“We were on a rugged writing schedule, and sometimes, the scripts weren’t up to par. But Jim would never complain. He just raised his performance to make the scripts better.”

Chief Justice James Garner

In 2002, when Garner was 74, we had a chance to work together. I had co-created “First Monday,” a CBS drama set at the Supreme Court, and Garner played the Chief Justice. The show was loosely based on my novel, “Impact,” in which a Supreme Court law clerk attempts to change a decision by extorting one of the justices.

James Garner, Chief Justice
Chief Justice James Garner and our fictional Supreme Court.

Joe Mantegna and the late Charles Durning were associate justices. On the set, James Garner was pleasant, modest, and a delight to be around. Often, in down time, the other actors would gather around him, and he would tell stories covering his five decades in the business. He had recently completed a feature film and was mildly annoyed at the young, insecure director who kept calling for additional takes. “I told him I’d shoot as many takes as he wanted, but my performance wasn’t going to get any better,” Garner said.

One day we were on location, shooting a scene at a local college campus. Garner sat in an ancient director’s chair that could have dated from his “Maverick” days. (The canvas had been replaced by sheepskin). Without warning, the wooden chair legs simply cracked. I was sitting on one side, and writer Randy Anderson on the other. We both moved quickly and caught Garner as he was tumbling to the floor.

That’s it. I saved the actor from a bruise or too. He was grateful, and I was very pleased to have known this modest, likable and talented actor.

“First Monday,” however could not be saved from its tumble. After one season, the show was cancelled by CBS. I don’t think it’s available on DVD, though “Impact,” the book that inspired the show is an Amazon e-book.

Paul Levine

(Paul Levine is the author of the Jake Lassiter and Solomon vs. Lord series. His most recent book is “State vs. Lassiter,” currently nominated for a 2014 Shamus Award).

Paul Levine

Paul Levine

PAUL LEVINE has won the John D. MacDonald fiction award and was nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, International Thriller, Shamus and James Thurber prizes. He wrote 20 episodes of the CBS military drama “JAG” and co-created the Supreme Court drama “First Monday” starring James Garner and Joe Mantegna. “To Speak for the Dead,” an international bestseller featuring lawyer Jake Lassiter, was his first novel. He is also the author of the “Solomon vs. Lord” series of legal capers. Among his latest novels are "Bum Rap," a Amazon Number One Bestseller, and “Cheater’s Game,” in which Lassiter dives deep into the college admissions scandal. His newest novel is “Early Grave,” in which an ailing Lassiter sues to abolish high school football as a “public nuisance.” A graduate of Penn State and the University of Miami School of Law, he divides his time between Santa Barbara, CA and Miami, FL.
Paul Levine
Paul Levine