The Rockford Style

Eastwood? McQueen? Why James Garner is the real star of his era.
Cherokee Productions/NBC/ Universal TV/The Kobal Collection

Stand aside for Maverick! Stand aside again for Jim Rockford! They live forever in the shining presence of one man! Let his name ring out: James Bumgarner!

Or perhaps not. At the appropriate moment, he changed his moniker. It was his one and only fiddle with the facts. Let this neatly written and well-supplemented little book—all of his friends provide relevant stories and fond judgments—set a new standard of integrity for the genre. But for a book to have that, the subject has to have the same, or he will have falsified the facts even before fame got to him.

James Garner, you can bet on it, has never told an important lie in his life. He really is like the men he plays onscreen, even unto the modest requirements symbolized by the humble trailer that serves Jim Rockford for a residence. He is thoughtful, honest, and fundamentally gentle, although he has knocked men down when riled. On the evidence given here, one doesn’t doubt that they asked for it. One doesn’t doubt this guy at all.

Every sane person’s favorite modern male movie star, Garner might have done even better if he’d been less articulate. In his generation, three male TV stars made it big in the movies: Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, and Garner. All of them became stars in TV Westerns: McQueen in Wanted: Dead or Alive, Eastwood in Rawhide, and Garner in Maverick. The only one of them who looked and sounded as if he enjoyed communicating by means of the spoken word was Garner. McQueen never felt ready for a film role until he had figured out what the character should do with his hands: that scene-stealing bit in his breakout movie, The Magnificent Seven, in which he shakes the shotgun cartridges beside his ear, was McQueen’s equivalent of a Shakespearean soliloquy, or of a practice session for a postatomic future in which language had ceased to exist.

As for Eastwood, he puts all that effort into gritting his teeth, because his tongue is tied. Garner could learn and deliver page after page of neat Paddy Chayevsky. If you can bear the idea of watching Eastwood struggling with a long speech, take a look at his self-constructed disaster movie White Hunter, Black Heart, in which he plays John Huston at the theoretical top of his mad male confidence: it’s like watching a mouse choke. Like McQueen, Eastwood never really left the Wild West, where little is said except by a six-gun. When McQueen and Eastwood moved up, they took the Wild West with them. Or at any rate, they took a context in which the important things are all unspoken, because nobody really knows how to speak.

Garner or his narrator could really have told us more about just how leaden-tongued modern Hollywood is. Writers like Chayevsky and Aaron Sorkin are rare cases, and the preferred way of writing is to bolt together clichés that have already been tested to near-destruction. When Garner speaks here about the marvelous Joan Hackett, he forgets to say that she spoke beautifully. Of what use was that, in a medium that spoke—still speaks—in a string of sunsets and crashed cars?

Garner, a quick study who could learn and deliver speeches long enough to make his awed listeners hold their breath to the breaking point, was the only one who seemed to enjoy producing intelligible noise. But Garner, compared with the other two, never really caught on as a big-screen leading man. Though tall and handsome, he was never remote: he had an air of belonging down here with us. As a small-screen leading man, he had done too thorough a job with the 20 or 30 good lines in every episode of Maverick or The Rockford Files to make an easy transition into a putatively larger medium that gave him many times more square feet of screen to inhabit, but many times less to say.

In a feature movie like Support Your Local Sheriff, he was charming, but his standout line of dialogue, the line that we all took home, was all that he got to take home as well. I loved that line, especially in its final variation, when he is beginning to lose patience with pests: “I’ve never made any secret of the fact that basically I’m on my way to Australia.” The tag became one of my own call signs, and I would try to get the soft richness of his voice into my own timbre. But in the movies, you just couldn’t get enough of him. When, in earlier years, he made the occasional movie that rang the bell—The Americanization of Emily, The Great Escape—it was a reminder that his television shows had more of him in them. And even today—except for those movies that, in his near-retirement leisure, he has been choosing with great care, sometimes developing the entire project—you still can never quite get enough of him. Nobody ever felt that way about Clint Eastwood, because all he ever did was grit his teeth as he varied his “art” movies with thrillers, the same story made half a dozen times while he was holding the same gun, a .44 Magnum that slowly acquired the patina of the Statue of Liberty. But I digress.

Garner, though he had to nerve himself to do it, spoke wonderfully, even though he spoke against his nature. In real life, he was comparatively unforthcoming, as people who were beaten up at home during their childhood sometimes are. (More of these domestic tortures in a minute, after we get a clearer focus on the person they happened to when he was not much more than knee-high to the people hitting him.) But he positively loved to read out written words. In The Americanization of Emily, he has a long speech by Chayevsky that Eastwood and McQueen, put together, could never have finished reading even silently. Garner flew through it. As it happens, his views about dying for your country were the same as Chayevsky’s, but it wasn’t mere congruence of mind that made the matchup of writer and actor so thrilling: it was synchronicity of tone. While mourning the continued loss of The Hospital, the great movie Chayevsky wrote for George C. Scott (if the role wasn’t first conceived with Scott in mind, we can still say that he was born to play it) (where is the damned thing?), let us think for a moment of what the great writer would have done for Garner, and for all of us, if only the great writer had lived to a proper age. If Garner himself were to think too much about such things, he would go nuts. One of the secrets of maintaining a long and fruitful career is not to mourn too much for the might-have-beens.

Presented by

Clive James is an Australian poet and critic who has lived in London since the early 1960s.

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