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
.) 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. Ravenswood, WV
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.