I was saddened to see that James Garner passed away on Saturday night in his Brentwood home at the age of 86 by what can only be deemed natural causes. I had just watched The Great Escape over 4th of July weekend and was again reminded of what a cool, charismatic, funny and macho presence Garner was. Arguably his role as smooth talking scrounger Hendley in The Great Escape is richer than star Steve McQueen's Captain Hilts, who got to add some motor cycle chase scenes to give audiences something to remember him for. Garner was one of the last guys Hollywood had left. What I mean is that he is one of the last of that era's leading men who could do physical, funny and dramatic without breaking a sweat. He was a star with presence and personality not just fleeting fame. A product of a broken family and later a veteran of the Korean War and merchant marines, Garner had that real life experience that many young actors are missing today who simply got into the craft from an early age. He even went after both Warner Brothers and Universal in court, and won! Of his Great Escape colleagues, director John Sturges, producer Walter Mirisch, co-stars McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, James Donald and Donald Pleasance among others have all passed away while other dynamic personalities from the period like Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, John Wayne and Robert Mitchum have also ascended to the Hollywood party in the sky. I figure Kirk Douglas is the last of this strong willed, independent and status quo rejecting lot so I should probably write him to tell him how much I've enjoyed his work on and off screen.
I can't recall where I first saw Garner's work but I never really got into his TV stuff where he became a star on Maverick then cemented his legacy with The Rockford Files.
The Great Escape - Bob Hendley, the smooth talking, tool stealing, document procuring scrounger who looked so dashing in his white turtleneck while trying to escape a German camp. Word is that a rough cut showcased Garner's character to the point that Steve McQueen walked out on the production causing director John Sturges to fire the actor and rewrite the script to blend his character with Garner's. Of course The Cooler King stayed on and The Great Escape became one of his signature roles. McQueen and Garner would become friends, neighbors and racing competitors with McQueen often throwing empty beer cans on Garner's beautifully manicured lawn.
The Americanization of Emily - Charles Madison, a smooth talking naval officer aide with an aversion to combat falls for Julie Andrews and gets sent to fight. Great dialog from Paddy Chayefsky and wonderful chemistry with Andrews. James Coburn pops up as his buddy nicknamed Bus, which is just an awesome nick name.
Tank - Sgt. Major Zak Carey, a loving father and Army legend serving his final tour of duty at a small base in Georgia who runs afoul of the corrupt, local law enforcement. Uses his personal tank to break his son out of jail then goes on the run. Funny and random flick from the 80's post Garner's 2nd successful TV run with The Rockford Files' 6 year, 122 episode run which saw the star sue Universal for compensation and profits and walking away with an alleged $14 million bucks.
Space Cowboys - Tank Sullivan, Clint Eastwood credits Garner with paving the way for TV stars transitioning to film after suing WB to get out of his Maverick contract. Garner anchors a cast that includes Eastwood, Donald Sutherland, James Cromwell, William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones as a former test pilot turned reverend. The young version of Tank is played by Body Armor's Matt McColm too boot. The scene where Jones and Garner try to keep up with NASA's young astronauts lifting weights is a great one.
I just watched a documentary that interviewed Kurt Russell, an actor who always seemed like he was having a good time and went into semi-retirement to work on a vineyard. It reminded me of Garner who was known to consider acting a means to an end, playing roles big and small, never chasing status, just working and happened to get lucky and made it on a bigger level. The kind of guy who just comes off as a cool dude you'd like to kick back with and shoot the shit with.