My mom has a type. Oh, she denies having told me about a childhood crush on Guy Williams, but she did, I promise her. And failing that, there’s James Garner, who also looks not unlike my dad. Did I grow up watching James Garner movies? Oh, yes. I was probably the only kid I knew other than my sisters who even knew who James Garner was. Oh, part of that was also being the kid in high school who legitimately recommended Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein when a classmate in journalism wanted to write about something unusual, but also, yeah, Mom’s fondness for older movies crossed over with her Garner crush.
James Garner had a hardscrabble childhood, including a stepmother he literally had to fight off to keep her from killing him. He was a poor student who dropped out of high school; he joined the Merchant Marines but suffered from perpetual seasickness, which doesn’t help that career. He went into the Army National Guard and served a tour in Korea, being wounded twice—including taking shrapnel in the butt from friendly fire. Within a couple of years of that, he was working steadily in commercials and television. And then, there was Maverick.
I’d say that, other roles notwithstanding, it was the part of Bret Maverick that cinched his persona. I haven’t seen the whole series, but I’ve seen a fair amount of it, and Bret is smart and wisecracking and kind, and a majority of Garner characters would fall into that category. Jim Rockford is simply Bret Maverick moved out of the Old West and into the New West of LA in the ’70s. (My favourite Rockford Files episode guest stars Isaac Hayes, who plays a criminal with territory in Pasadena.) And James Garner did a lot of Westerners, including an aging Wyatt Earp.
Though my favourite movie of his, also a Western, will always be Support Your Local Sheriff! Jason McCullough is mostly just passing through on his way to Australia, but he is smart and wisecracking and kind, though he does take shameless advantage of his deputy and can’t help insulting those who leave themselves open to insult. It’s a fun character in a fun movie, and while it doesn’t exactly pass Bechdel, its one major female character is relatively well-developed, for a ’70s Western. The movie as a whole is not spilling over with diversity, but it does touch on some aspects of the history of the era that a lot of other movies don’t, such as inflation and what the coming of law meant.
I kind of feel as though James Garner never really got his due as an actor because he tended to stick to type. Even in The Great Escape, there wasn’t as much to his character as any number of the others—though I still found him more interesting than Steve McQueen’s character, not a common or popular opinion I know but there it is. Alas, he was also in one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, the well-cast but remarkably misogynistic The Thrill of It All, wherein he’s a doctor who basically shames Doris Day into being a housewife. I haven’t seen it since the ’90s, and it definitely wasn’t one of my mom’s favourites, either.