They Also Served: James Garner

Actor, Stand-up Guy

There is no joy in Paradise Cove. The Mighty Rockford has moved his trailer out for the last time.

To one generation, James Garner will always be Bret Maverick, the shifty, cowardly (but charming) card shark of the Old West. For another era, he will always be the tall, handsome leading man with a killer grin, alongside such beauties as Julie Andrews, Doris Day, Shirley Maclaine, and Audrey Hepburn. Another, younger generation may see him as the grandfather on TV’s 8 Simple Rules or Duke in The Notebook, the film adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ novel. Some may recall him as the permanently exasperated cowboy hero of Support Your Local Sheriff.

In his long career, Garner played everything from a wheeling, dealing über-American in a Nazi POW camp (The Great Escape) and a raunchy widower hot on the heels of Sally Fields (Murphy’s Romance) to a cockroach (Private Insectigator) and the voice of God himself (God, the Devil and Bob). He even squeezed in a turn as another rather well-known private eye, Chandler’s Marlowe, in 1969.

But for me — and indeed, anyone who ever watched television in the seventies (or reruns ever since) James Garner was–and always will be–Jim Rockford, the fast-talking, constantly put-upon, cranky but amiable ex-con private eye who’d really rather go fishing with his dad than work.

I heard the news today, and I was floored. A world without James Garner?

In the next little while there will be tons of tributes, lots of heartfelt remembrances, and many more far better researched stories on this man. Hell, I may even write one of them of them myself.

But I only found out about twenty or so minutes ago, and I wanted to say a few things before I have to go to work. So right now this is all off the top of my head — or at least right from the heart.

Simply put, James Garner might have been the last of the Great Ones of his era, a principled and decent man in a business that had little call for them. He stood up for things that mattered. He was loyal to his friends. And he wasn’t afraid of saying what he thought. His autobiography from a few years ago, The Garner Files, was clear evidence of that.

I had a lot of heroes and influences as a kid. Roy Rogers, Hawkeye, Tarzan, Daniel Boone, Jean Beliveau, Batman, Mannix, Ken Dryden, the Hardy Boys — the typical Boys’ World scattering drawn from TV and cartoons and movies and books and comics and the world of sports. But of all of them, Jim Rockford was the biggest. And certainly the coolest.

The charm, the wit, the ability to talk — or try to talk — his way out of a fight. Rockford’s concern for people (which I later found out was pretty much how Garner himself conducted his own life). His car. An answering machine.

And he lived in a house trailer! On a beach! In California! And he kept his gun in a cookie jar! How cool was that?

That show — and Garner’s casual charm and simple decency — wasn’t a passing fancy, either. The message on my iPhone still says “This is Kevin. At the tone, leave your name & number & I’ll get back to you.”

Now that’s staying power. Or possibly arrested development on my part. The Rockford Files aired more than forty years ago, after all.

But I wasn’t the only one who spents countless hours glued to the tube, watching Jim and Rocky and Angel and Beth and Dennis and all the rest.

The accolades are already pouring in, but that’s hardly a surprise. Garner was possibly the last living actor to be liked by everyone. I mean, lots of actors are popular, but it’s not hard to find someone who doesn’t like Johnny Depp or Robert Redford or Meryl Streep or Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts or whoever.

But who in their right mind didn’t like Jim Garner?

Certainly not anyone I would like.

It’s somehow fitting, then, for a man so casually influential, that I learned of Garner’s death from a Twitter post by Allan Hawco, a fellow fan and the creator and star of his own private eye drama/comedy (Republic of Doyle) who, in a touch of class worthy of the man himself, admitted (in 140 characters of less):

"The very essence of Jake Doyle was inspired by his #JimRockford. Condolences to his friends & family. #RIPJamesGarner"

Maybe one day I’ll try to do something a bit better here, but for now all I want to say is that somewhere in P.I. Heaven, a parking place is reserved for a mid-seventies era gold Firebird.

So long, Jimbo. And thanks…


  • According to the usually mild-mannered Garner, as related in The Garner Files, he once punched television writer Glen A. Larson (creator of Magnum, P.I., Switch, etc.) so hard that Larson “flew across the curb, into a motor home, and out the other side.” Apparently, Larson (whom Harlan Ellison once referred to as “Glen A. Larceny”) had a rep for stealing scripts, including a Rockford script that Larson used for an episode of Switch. Garnerfiled suit with the Writers Guild, and won. Although that apparently didn’t stop Larson.
    When Larson later showed up on the Rockford set to make amends, he put his arm around Garner, and Garner angrily told him to remove it. Larson didn’t, and Garner slugged him and had him ordered off the Rockford set.


Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. July 20, 2014, 9:00 AM. For a more comprehensive, less knee-jerk tribute, check out James Garner 1928-2014: Remembering Rockford by Craig McDonald.

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