An early Boyfriend of the Week – I posted his write-up in 2005 and you can go give it a look-see right here – Garner was one of my favorite actors as a kid, and probably the first real “crush” I ever had on a celebrity.
My first experience with him was in The Rockford Files, a never-missed-an-episode TV series at my house growing up. Even though I was too young at the time to fully understand most of the plots, I was utterly smitten with his brown eyes, his easy-going smile, and the way he could take a crack to that enormous superhero chin and keep on swingin’. As an adult going back to it several years ago, the series took on whole new charms for me, not the least of which was his character’s wonderful relationship with his father, Rocky, played with such perfect chemistry by Noah Beery, Jr., it was hard to remember they weren’t actually father and son in real life.
When I got older, The Great Escape became (and then remained) one of my top 5 most beloved, most watched films. I got a chance to see it on the big screen about five years ago, and I’ve never forgotten the thrill of that experience. Garner’s character, Hendley, AKA “The Scrounger,” was about as archetypal a role for him as any other. He often played heroes who were deeply flawed and highly accidental in their heroism, and Hendley, true to type, starts out a distant, disengaged American flyer, more interested in saving his own skin than pitching in to help save another’s. It doesn’t take long for his bunk-mate Colin, “The Forger,” to get through those defenses, though, and all the way under that skin — and in the end, Hendley nearly loses his life trying to save that of his friend.
Maverick, Rockford — even better, Jason McCullough from another favorite of mine, Support Your Local Sheriff! — they were all heroes like that: begrudging, but damn good at it when they finally got down to business. Instead of relying on guns or fists to get the job done, Garner’s characters frequently wielded razor-sharp wit and lady-killin’ charm, to pretty universally disarming effect.
Not unlike MacGyver in that regard, I have to say. No wonder I loved him as much as I did.
Garner was a hero in real life as well — he fought in the Korean War and was injured twice, earning two Purple Hearts. In the 1960s, he was a passionate advocate for civil rights, and later in life, of various environmental causes as well.
In his memoir, The Garner Files, he answered a question that seems more poignant to me now than ever before, so I’m going to share it with you. He wrote:
I’ve been asked again and again, “How do you want to be remembered?” I usually say I don’t care, but that’s not true. I want to have accomplished something, to have made a contribution to the world. It would be wonderful if just one person looked at my life and said, “If he could overcome that, maybe I can too.”
Beyond that, I think an actor can contribute by making people forget their troubles for an hour or two. Call it relief, escape, diversion . . . I think one of the greatest gifts is being able to make people happy. I like to make people happy.
So, if anyone asks, “How do you want to be remembered?” I tell them: “With a smile.”
Well, you got it, good sir, because I’m smiling right now. With a face like that, after all, who could resist? James Garner was the master of dry wit and disengaging kindness, and he was a real sweetheart to boot. He married his wife Lois two weeks after meeting her — smitten on the spot. Imagine that love. Think of that kind of love. They were together for 58 years, until the day he died.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to queue up a few episodes of The Rockford Files on Netflix, to keep that smiling burning all night long. If you have an hour, you should join me.