Tribute: James Garner, 1928-2014.

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The real world never never impinges on the entertainment side of television, so fully realized private eyes continued to perform their pulp kabuki all over the tube. Mannix and Cannon and all those fellows, of whom the best was by a long shot Rockford. Rockford didn’t try to break out of the rituals, but used them in a very knowing and able way. His relationships with society, with the police, with his clients, with women, were all very much in the tradition, and yet Rockford was an individual, a human being you could believe in rather than a cardboard figure in a trench coat.
Donald Westlake, The Hardboiled Dicks

That quote, along with much else of interest, may be found in The Getaway Car, Levi Stahl’s soon-to-be-published anthology of Westlake’s nonfiction writing, which I’ll be reviewing in the near future (spoiler alert–I liked it). So there’s a quick plug, but this is a tribute–to somebody in the entertainment biz. Which this blog isn’t mainly about, and I wouldn’t be holding my breath waiting for a lot more of of the same here, if I were you. But Garner was the exception to so many rules in his world, I’ll make an exception for him in mine.

I grew up on The Rockford Files–I knew nothing back then about who wrote what. I never noticed the names Roy Huggins, Stephen J. Cannell, David Chase, Juanita Bartlett, Meta Rosenberg, until much later. All I knew about James Garner besides this show was that he did those Polaroid commercials with this sarcastic blonde who then showed up on The Rockford Files. Which was confusing. Maybe they should have hired Gretchen Corbett for the commercials, though that might have been even more confusing.

There aren’t a lot of big name stars who can remotely live up to their hype. Garner may have been nearly unique in that he far surpassed his (because in spite of his long popularity, he was never really an A-Lister). People who worked with him just couldn’t get over how un-full of himself he was. If he had an opinion he’d share it, but at the end of the day, if the writer or director said “This is what I want”, he’d back off and do it their way. And if it didn’t work, he might avoid working with that writer or director again, but he believed in letting people do their jobs. I don’t know if Westlake ever met him–tend to doubt it–but I think it’s a shame they never worked together. Garner would have been ideal to play many of Westlake’s protagonists (for example, the protagonist of the novel I’m reviewing next here).

He did a whole lot of quality work over the years, on television and in the movies, but it was in The Rockford Files, above all, that he hit that sweet spot, found the perfect venue for all the aspects of his talent. He wasn’t in the best physical shape by that point in time, and the show ended mainly because he couldn’t handle the demands of the role anymore, but for five years, he and his collaborators proved that commercial scripted genre television wasn’t crap because it had to be. If you cared enough, you could make it more than than gimmicks and posturing for an Emmy. You could make it truly great storytelling.

In one of the Sam Holt novels Westlake wrote under the not terribly convincing pseudonym of Sam Holt (I don’t have time to leaf through all four to find out which one right now), Holt, a former TV series star himself, hears a reference to The Rockford Files, and thinks to himself “The Gold Standard.” And it was. It was the epitome of television that entertained and illumined, at the same time, without ever putting on airs, or selling itself out. And it’s held up for around four decades now. No reason to think it won’t hold up another four decades, and beyond.

But Garner couldn’t. More’s the pity.

Anyway, back to the books.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Tribute: James Garner, 1928-2014.

  1. I didn’t grow up on The Rockford Files (I just couldn’t), but I’d been watching it for two years, and it’s easily the best P.I. series on TV ever. I ordered his book of memoirs The Garner Files (haven’t read it yet), and every Garner’s fan should do the same. The man was a legend and will remain a legend.

  2. For a guy who rarely ever left southern California, Rockford certainly gets around.

    I happen to know which episode I saw first, because I remember the answering machine message that opened that show–“”This is Marilyn Reed, I want to talk to you…is this a machine? I don’t talk to machines. ::click!::”

    Last ep of the first season. I had some catching up to do. I probably still haven’t watched every last ep all the way through. Some are a lot better than others, it must be said.

    My favorites are usually the ones with Beth Davenport. Gretchen Corbett had to leave the show after the fourth season, which I learned many years later was because she was a contract player for Universal, and they had a dispute with the show’s producers. I never really got over that. To this very day. And then she came back for the 90’s TV movies about Old Rockford, and she was married to this drip. I refuse to watch those. Some things you have to leave in the time they were born in.

    They were talking about remaking the show–with Vince Vaughan playing Rockford. Happily, that never happened. I have nothing against Mr. Vaughan personally. I’m glad I didn’t have to kill him. 😐

  3. I watched every one of them, from the pilot (that’s probably my least favorite ep) to the TV movies (they are awful but at least in one of them Russian mafia thugs speak crystal clear Russian).
    And can I confess? Of all the support cast Beth is my least favorite.

  4. You have to take into account the fact that I was going through puberty when I started watching this show.

    But I’m way past puberty now, and I still say Beth rocks.

    I also note that Rockford never let his relationship with her get in the way of his activities with his many attractive guest stars.

    We’re going to have an interesting conversation about Claire Carroll once I get to those books, aren’t we?

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