Thursday, April 7, 2011

Happy birthday, James Garner!

Norman, Oklahoma native James Scott Bumgarner has always maintained a formidable presence here in the House of Yesteryear, and if I had to trace the origins of James Garner’s enduring popularity it would have to be on those Friday nights long ago when my father and I would bond around a TV set watching the actor’s classic crime drama series The Rockford Files.  Nowadays The Old Man spends most of his TV time staring at programming on The History Channel or TruTV, but there was a time when he tolerated what he calls “scripted television” and never more so when he engaged himself in the weekly misadventures of a down-and-out shamus one writer once called “the Jack Benny of private eyes.”  Jim Rockford became a real hero to me—a man who often had to fall back on a reservoir of charm and wit to extricate himself from ticklish situations; a guy ballsy enough to ask the thug giving him a pummeling: “Does your mother know what you do for a living?”  He became a role model for yours truly; an individual who’d joke his way out of trouble because he really didn’t want to resort to the physical stuff (he’d do so only as a last resort…and he wasn’t above sucker-punching anyone if he thought he could get away with it).

During the commercials on Rockford Dad would reminisce about Garner’s earlier TV success on Maverick—it was, as I’ve no doubt mentioned here on the blog in the past, the only TV series he watched during the 1950s, going over to his older brother’s “crib” on Sunday evenings and settling in for an hour’s worth of entertainment while eating dinner off TV trays.  (I’ve always marveled at the irony that the popular TV oater was sponsored in its early seasons by Kaiser Aluminum…and that’s where my father ended up working for nearly a decade at the company’s plant in Ravenswood, WV.)  My father has always possessed sort of a puritanical mindset toward the boob tube, you understand, believing that viewing it in excess would rot one’s brain (though if you read this blog on occasion, there’s a good chance he may have been right about this); I joke about this sometimes when he’s engrossed in an edition of World’s Dumbest Criminals Take it in the ‘Nads but he doesn’t quite see the humor in my observations.

One of the shows that was a weekly ritual for me in my first year at college was Bret Maverick, a revival series that starred Garner in the role that made him a small screen legend (of the West, no doubt) and one that I never understood why it was pulled from NBC because the series got fairly respectable ratings (at a time when General Sarnoff’s offspring was a perennial cellar dweller in the Nielsens).  I remember watching the show’s final episode, an outing entitled “The Hidalgo Thing” in which Bret is running the con to end all cons at the expense of his friend (and bidness partner) Tom Guthrie (Ed Bruce), who’s trying to reclaim his former job as town sheriff in a hotly contested election.  As the episode winds to a close, the individual who’s supposed to be the focus of Maverick’s elaborate scheme steps off a stagecoach with Bret’s partner-in-crime Kate Hanrahan (Marj Dusay)…and is revealed to be none other than his brother Bart, played by Garner’s former Maverick co-star, Jack Kelly.  To me, it was the only way they could have ended the series, but I didn’t learn until years later that the show’s producers had actually intended to add Kelly to the cast in the second season (NBC, of course, put the kibosh on that)…so whenever I catch the episode in its current rotation on Encore Westerns it’s always sort of a bittersweet memory for me.  Years later when Mom and Dad happened to watch this particular episode (the series was rerun on NBC in the summer of 1990 due to the writers’ strike) I had Dad pay particular attention to the ending, promising that it “was a pip.”  (He wasn’t disappointed.)

I sort of have to apologize for letting this essay get away from me—it was supposed to be a birthday tribute to an actor (who turns eighty-three years old today) whose work I’ve long been a fan of and instead it’s become more about me.  But I guess there’s no getting around the fact that although he’s probably not aware of it, James Garner was at the center of many of a memorable TV and movie watching experience between my father and I; Garner’s Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971) are the only two movies I don’t mind watching with Ivan, Sr. on the commercial-saturated AMC, and any time my Mom starts asking either Dad or myself if an assigned task or chore has been completed our response is invariably: “I’m workin’ on it.”  So the happiest of natal anniversaries to you, Mr. Garner…the highest compliment I can pay you is that you’ve always had a special place at the table here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

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Yvette said...

I was a big fan of MAVERICK as well, Ivan. I'm probably your father's age, I suppose since I watched the original as well as the 'revival' though I don't remember much about them. Old Lady Memory being what it is.

I watched ROCKFORD as well, but I wasn't as faithful a fan as most guys seem to be. I think ROCKFORD was probably more 'a guy thing.' Though I did like it a lot. Liked Noah Beery and also, I think Rita Moreno had a part in a few episodes - right? She's terrific in just about anything she does.

Jeff Overturf said...

Who is the tall dark stranger there?
Maverick is his name...

One of the coolest guys ever. And teh "Support Your..." movies have a proud plave on my DVD shelf.

Happy B-Day Mr. Garner!

Randy Johnson said...

What did you think of Garner's other western, Nichols? I remember it fondly, but that may just be the intervening years. Forty or so I believe. The fact that I remember it must mean something.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...


I've only seen two episodes of Nichols -- the last one in which they replaced Garner's character with his twin brother and another episode whose plot escapes me at the moment. I'd probably have to see a few more episodes to really go on at length about my opinion of the show because I haven't seen that much and I would admittedly be a bit biased given that I'm such a big fan.

Java Bean Rush said...

I just watched MAVERICK the movie where James Garner has to take a back seat to Mel Gibson as the title character. It was funny, though. Did you like it?

Jack said...

The "Does your mother know what you do for a living?" line was actually lifted from Garner's film Marlowe (1969?). But hey, who do you think inspired Rockfish to go into the PI bidness in the first place?

Suzanne said...

I've been a Garner fan since the original Maverick. I was 13. He's been a role model for me ever since. Because of all this I'm a semi-insider and I know that the reason NBC cancelled Bret Maverick was demographics. Most of the audience was middle aged and they were still after the Yuppies. Idiots. What else can I say?

I think Nichols was doomed from the start for two reasons. One, it was sponsored by Chevrolet and the wife of one of the Execs hated it. She said, "This isn't Maverick!" No, it wasn't. The other reason was the ensemble cast. Bluntly, Jim wasn't on the screen in every shot and Garner fans didn't like that. Garner fans want GARNER. I'm the same way, but I did enjoy Nichols. I liked Rockford better though.

You might be interested to know that Jim has written his memoirs, and the book will be published by Simon & Schuster. Out in November.

Stacia said...

I was watching one of the TCM Garner movies today and he was handed a subpoena... and he just took it! I almost flipped out for a second, because Jim "You haven't lived until you've tried to serve me with a subpoena" Rockford wouldn't just TAKE a piece of paper like that.

Then I had to simmer down and realize that James Garner wasn't always the Rockfish. I should know this already, because I love him in "Victor Victoria" and so many other non-Rockford films, but old habits etc. etc.

Brent McKee said...

James Garner and "Maverick" are the reason why I play Poker today - five year old Brent was very impressionable over stuff like that. ("Nichols" was important to me as well as it provided me with my first adolescent object of lust - not Jim Garner but a very young Margot Kidder. But that's beside the point.)

A couple of years ago at the 2009 World Series of Poker, he not only started the first "First Day" of the Main Event (he got to say the traditional opening of the tournament: Let's shuffle up and deal!") but he also played in it - poorly.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...


I had difficulty enjoying the movie version of Maverick for a number of reasons, one of which you already stated in your comment: anytime James Garner has to take a back seat to Mel Gibson the world just makes a little less sense. (I disliked Gibson even before his recently public antics.) I like Jodie Foster but where fans of hers and I disagree is that she cannot do comedy...she's too serious. (Even in those Disney movies she did as a kid, she's not funny -- she's a tiny adult.) But I guess my biggest prejudice against Maverick (1994) is that I'm not fond of remaking classic TV shows into movies. I haven't seen one yet that I can honestly admit: "Okay, that wasn't too bad."


I was aware that Garner's memoirs are due to be published in November but I very much enjoyed hearing the info on why Bret Maverick succumbed to NBC's cancellation axe. (Though it is a little disconcerting to learn that even at the age of 18, I was "middle-aged." :-) )