The Rockford Style

Eastwood? McQueen? Why James Garner is the real star of his era.

By Clive James

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.

On the evidence the ghostly Winokur provides, Garner’s early jobs were never part of a plan leading toward show business. Such plans, in America, are usually called “dreams.” To the extent that the apparently aimless and perhaps ineducable Garner had them, all the dreams must have been of his stepmother, who was fond of beating him with a spatula and made him parade around in a girl’s dress while everyone called him “Louise.” He somehow limped away from these rehearsals doing a convincing impersonation of a sane man. The war in Korea tried to kill him a couple of times but got no closer than qualifying him for two Purple Hearts, bestowed for wounds that he later made a point of shrugging off.

Honesty about himself is important to him. We feel, when reading, that he is leaving out none of his vices: he swore too much when he played golf, but only because he couldn’t bring himself to cheat. Traditionally, Hollywood stars are allowed to cheat at everything, including marriage, but Garner has quite evidently played it straight all along. (McQueen notoriously milked the budget of every movie—if the hero he was playing wore a suit, it would mean 10 more Savile Row suits for McQueen—and Eastwood, worshipped by now as a pillar of artistic integrity, has never expected himself to present the picture of faithfulness that is provided here of Garner.) The question about Garner is not whether he has really played it as straight as he says but whether he has ever played anything.

But the answer has to be yes, and the role he has played is (you guessed it) James Garner. Aside from the solid nice-guy basis provided by mother nature (or stepmother nature, if you prefer to think that a little routine homicidal mania makyth the man), he has had to make it all up. Nothing was given to him, except the looks. He had to deepen his voice (he never tells us how he did it: perhaps, in these censorious days, he prefers to omit the information that he did it the way Lauren Bacall did, by steamboating a few thousand cigarettes). Even today, he is not really comfortable speaking to a roomful of people: the camera is a way of not having to do so. (And even to the television camera, his discomfort shows if he has to speak in propria persona: in a tribute to Doris Day, he praised her devotedly, but it was obviously only the obligation of a close friendship that could make him speak at all.)

As he reveals several times during the course of this short book, he thinks actors should say what is set down for them—which rather rules out the prospect of speaking impromptu. By listening, he learned that the script is the foundation of the house. He was always a great one for learning things, and the key to that was to keep his ears cocked. In his pre-television career, when he was playing one of the silent judges in a touring company of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, he learned that listening properly to the other actors is the only way to keep your face alive for the audience. If you don’t listen, they won’t look. On set, he learned not to sit around and shoot the bull for too long with the crew: better to study the camera, treating the various parts of its façade as parts of a face. If it’s you that’s supposed to be delivering lines from offscreen, be there to deliver them on the spot instead of looping them afterward. It will sound better for you, and look better for everybody. (There are plenty of actors hiding in their trailers who don’t know that one.)

All of his skills have been improved by study—often of other actors. Fans of Henry Fonda will be glad to find that Garner copied a little dance step in Local Sheriff from My Darling Clementine. Garner is good throughout the book when speaking about most other actors, but far too generous when praising his buddy Marlon Brando. “We were both rebels” sounds like a rare instance of his normally finely tuned ghost letting the tone control slip, but there’s nothing wrong about praising Brando as long as you admit that the capacity for industrial sabotage that he brought to so many of his film sets was another form of robbery: somewhere, somebody was paying for every extra hour that Brando’s behavior cost. Still on the subject of Brando, a judgment like “best movie actor we’ve ever had” would mean more if Garner had taken room to say that Alan Arkin was a much better movie actor but didn’t look it.

It’s dissatisfying to find Garner so predictable about actors, when he’s otherwise so open and honest. But no one can complain about his honesty when it comes to the executives who were still, in those days, running the industry like a canyonful of horse thieves. At a time when Jack Benny was earning $25,000 a week on television, Garner was starring in Maverick for a 50th of that amount, and practically paying for his own pants. It might have been treatment like that, when McQueen was doing Wanted: Dead or Alive, that made McQueen into the future burglar of any movie’s budget, but you can’t be made into a thief except to feed your family. Garner was never a thief. He played it straight over money, and expected everyone else to as well.

That was a revolutionary attitude in Hollywood, where everybody expected the written deal to be a mere preliminary to the subsequent larceny. The problem wasn’t so much the system as it was the custom. When the studio system finally came apart and the big moguls were no longer on the telephone together except via Tokyo, the custom continued of robbing the artists. It continues to this day—I have a director friend who has given his career to making off-trail movies but he has found to his cost, and repeatedly, that his backers will back out when the thing is nine-tenths complete and leave him to finance the remaining tenth, because they know he will mortgage his house (again) rather than abandon the project. Garner, whose natural integrity makes you wonder why he is not a Quaker or an Amish person or something—how do you escape with so much virtue from a house ruled by a sadist?—simply hates such an attitude. When he finally got around to studying the accounts for the worldwide television reruns and saw how Lew Wasserman and Universal were robbing him, he sued them. Nobody ever does that.

Garner did it, and got some millions back when he finally agreed with the thieves to settle out of court, he having been vindicated and they, no doubt, still with a mountain range of stolen money yet to spend. The impressive thing here is that Garner was in no way a born litigant. He doesn’t like having his time wasted, any more than anyone else. He just wanted to correct an anomaly, to punish an offense: to get justice, if you wish. You could hand this book as a primer on ethics to any young man just reaching the age of choosing his way in life. Perhaps the most useful thing it shows is that you need not panic if the choice is not clear: things sometimes just happen. Given his proclivities, Garner could have driven racing cars. But by accident, he wandered into a situation where they were looking for an actor roughly his shape and size.

Later on, he became a renowned amateur race-car driver anyway, like Paul Newman. And although Newman drove race cars onscreen to formidable effect, he never got the chance to be a Formula One star onscreen, as Garner did in Grand Prix, the split-screen guy-thing blockbuster by John Frankenheimer. Garner likes that movie a bit too much—the story line is even worse than he says—but maybe he still smells high-octane gasoline. A measure of his generosity and understanding is that concerning Grand Prix, he refrains from making the most of his opportunity to call McQueen a dolt, which the bullet-headed one clearly was. Grand Prix was McQueen’s starring vehicle if he wanted it. He walked away from it. Then, when Garner took it, McQueen had the hide to behave as if Garner had stolen it.

Perhaps the equivalent book about McQueen should be handed to your young man as a guide to what not to do. I have an idea for packaging the two books together. But I wouldn’t want to do anything that Mr. Garner might not like, and I imagine the same sentiment is general throughout show business. In every field of creative activity, there are people famous for their goodness: they are rarely at the top of the tree, which is a harsh environment. But the occasional one is. In time, James Garner’s lasting importance might be that he showed how a television career and a movie career could be fruitfully combined. But it must be said that the TV actors have a very good reason for leaving a hit show behind when the moment comes, and Garner and his ghost have done a very good job of showing what that reason is.

The work is just too hard. A good show takes more than a week to make, so making one a week leaves no time at all. The mental strain is vivid, and even the mere physical strain can leave a strong man needing knee replacements. In the later episodes of The Rockford Files, that deep pain in Jim’s eyes was probably the spin-off from about six different areas of arthritis at once. So successful in television that he could rarely stop work to make the movies that would have made him a great film star, he wore the silver shackles of the golden slave ship. James Bumgarner, in my country, Australia—the magic land to which you were always on your way—we have a name for you. We call you a hero.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/12/the-rockford-style/308715/