Jim’s dead

I’m sorry to see that James Garner has died. Just last week, when I was laid up, I watched a few episodes of the Rockford Files on Netflix — sometimes one just has to reminisce about the 70s, whether we liked them or not.

One thing: Garner was a terrible actor. He always played the same character, himself, in every show he did, but that was OK, because he had such an amiable personality. You knew exactly what you were going to get.

Another, completely irrelevant thing: watching 70s TV was really weird. Nowadays, in a drama, if somebody is going somewhere, there might be a brief shot of them going out the door, cut, they are at their destination. Travel is implied. On the Rockford Files, they go out the door, there is a long lingering scene of the car tooling down city streets or out through the California country side, finding a perfectly open parking space, guy gets out, walks up to destination. Watch it now and geez, you feel like they must really have loved their cars 40 years ago. Half the show feels like an advertisement for Pontiac, or a leisurely travelogue.

But Garner at least made it a pleasant hour.


  1. mykroft says

    I hadn’t realized he had such an interesting life before he got into acting. Served in WWII and in the Korean War, earning two purple hearts (one for being wounded in the butt from friendly fire). Ironic that his original last name was Bumgarner.

  2. says

    I wouldn’t say he was a terrible actor, but that he had a limited range. Still think of him as Brett Maverick.

  3. says

    I wasn’t alive in the 70s so there you go. I think that I have seen the Rockford Files before, but I don’t think I made it through an episode. So boring.

  4. kenn says

    You do realize that dramas in the 1970s were 50 minutes in length, right? Since then, the networks, desperate for ad revenue, have pared them down to 42 minutes. Shows like the Rockford Files had more time for the lengthy car travel you don’t seem to care for, and yet the stories still worked, mostly because the writing was far superior to anything out there today.

    As for Garner being a “terrible actor,” try watching “The Americanization of Emily.”

  5. twas brillig (stevem) says

    Support Your Local Sheriff, was brilliant. And Garner the masterpiece of the film. Agreed, he did not fulfill his job of acting as characters. But he did films where the character was written to be Garner. That is the distinguishing feature of those “old” movies. They had _stars_, acting was a minor issue, film was to display the star _playing_ a character; not _being_ the character.

  6. blf says

    The Grauniad reminds me of something I totally forgot — sorry, Mr Garner! — his starring and excellently-played role in the brilliant Support Your Local Sheriff.

  7. HolyPinkUnicorn says

    My favorite movie with him as the star is probably Tank. (I like The Great Escape too, but it’s a big ensemble cast.) It’s entertaining in it’s pure absurdity. Garner plays an army sergeant major who moves to a new post and immediately clashes with the evil southern sheriff in charge of the small town outside post.

    Oh, and Garner also owns a working M4 Sherman tank which he brings with him to his new post–as senior enlisted were apparently wont to do in the early ’80s–and eventually uses it to fight the sheriff and his cronies. Yes, it’s Wile E. Coyote logic from start to finish, and Garner remains the good guy even when he drives the tank through town and starts firing live ammunition at police. But what would basically be terrorism in real life is just good movie fun with Garner.

  8. kevinalexander says

    IIRC many shows had the long travel sequences. It’s stuffing, saves on paying for dialog and anyway the plots weren’t so complicated that more dialog would help.
    Not sure if Rockford could solve any Midsomer murders but he would have made them more fun.

  9. says

    Oh, I agree — the more leisurely pace wasn’t necessarily a detriment. But it is to many people (see #5) — I’ve tried showing older documentaries to students in classes, and they are driven to distraction by the slow build and prolonged exposition.

  10. kc9oq says

    The quick-cutting style is prevalent in theatrical films as well. The producers must think today’s audience doesn’t have the attention span for a more leisurely pace. Maybe they’re right; however it’s a shame since it’s cheapening the filmmakers’ art. Orson Welles once remarked, “A long-playing full shot is what always separates the men from the boys. Anybody can make movies with a pair of scissors and a two-inch lens.”

    There is another reason: TV networks are packing more and more commercials into the shows. In the 70s an hour of programming comprised a minimum of 45 minutes. Today, many hour-long shows contain barely over 30 minutes of programming, so there’s less air time to present the story. Also, the quick cuts give the networks more opportunities to cut away to a commercial.

  11. says

    He was a wonderful actor, loved him in Grand Prix. I think he might have been a ‘lazy’ actor? Perhaps preferring roles that fit his persona/style and not having to stretch those acting chops all that much?

  12. tfkreference says

    I agree he was playing himself. Once on the Tonight Show, Johnny Carson asked him what he would like to happen on the show. He replied, with the same exasperation that Jim Rockford would have, “Just once, I’d like to walk into the trailer without finding thugs waiting for me.”

    As for the pace, is a measure of the times. kc9oq’s comment reminded me that Citizen Kane is interminable (and I’m not bored by Rockford), and before that there was Melville.

  13. PaulBC says

    I remember watching it fairly often (probably in afternoon reruns a few years after it ended) but I can’t remember the plot of a single episode. Definitely driven by Garner’s personal charisma more than anything as you say. It was a detective show, but maybe it would have worked about as well if he had been a plumber. I don’t remember anything particularly harrowing about the plots.

    On the Rockford Files, they go out the door, there is a long lingering scene of the car tooling down city streets or out through the California country side, finding a perfectly open parking space, guy gets out, walks up to destination.

    That’s an interesting observation. I’ll have to take another look and see if I can spot what you mean. It reminds me a little of something (probably from Kurt Vonnegut’s “shape of stories” lecture), that many tales collected by anthropologists seem to involve nothing happening at all. A guy wakes up and eats some breakfast. Then he goes out to see how his cows are doing, etc. You can wait all you want for the plot twist but it isn’t coming. Vonnegut may come off as a chauvinist for the stories of Western civilization, but without the judgment, you can make the larger point that people tell stories and enjoy them for all different reasons.

    It also reminds me a little of (what I’ve heard but don’t have a reference for) that it took filmmakers some time to come up with the innovation of the cut, because they didn’t think the audience would follow the abrupt transition. It sounds like the director of the Rockford Files had some lingering doubts.

    That or they just had more videotape than plot on any given week, or maybe as you suggest it really was an extended product placement.

  14. sprocket says

    I’m the guy who thinks Support your local Sherriff is funnier than Blazing Saddles. I agree with #4. he had a limited range. But his timing and inflection were impeccable and actors with a greater breadth of characters couldn’t match it. Perhaps it doesn’t make him great, but I don’t think it makes him terrible.

  15. ironflange says

    I loved him, and so what if he just played himself? That’s worked well for other actors, like Jack Nicholson and Kirk Cameron. BTW, did anyone watch Nichols way back when? Great show, only lasted one season, but it had an early example of a deliberate final episode.

  16. PaulBC says


    But it is to many people (see #5) — I’ve tried showing older documentaries to students in classes, and they are driven to distraction by the slow build and prolonged exposition.

    Yeah, there is probably a generational divide (kids today!), but actually I appreciate seemingly pointless repetitive elements more now than I did when I was younger. I have fond memories of watching “Ultraman” though it was even apparent to me at the time that the plot was repetitive to the point of being ritualistic. Even the same words were uttered “Using the beta capsule, Hayata becomes Ultraman.” then later, the announcer would point out that if Ultraman’s light stops beeping, he will never return to his home planet. At the time, I might have made some snotty kid comment about the predictability, but now I sort of feel that was the whole point. I’m not sure I want to watch it again, though, to try to confirm my nostalgic verdict. I’ll probably be disappointed.

  17. says

    He was a really nice guy to fools and idiots. When Fire In The Sky was being filmed he attended a racing event at Douglas County Speedway. There was a line, as you would expect, for autographs and such which he gave his full attention to between races. A coworker of mine decided he would invite Mr. Garner to his family barbeque. It wasn’t “Mr. Garner, I’d like to invite you to my barbeque”, it was “Jimmy, you need to come to my barbeque”. Mr. Garner looked past him to me, as my pain was humorous, then looked back to him and said “You damn well better be serving beef”. I walked home, I couldn’t even muster the courage to ask for an autograph after that.

  18. chuckonpiggott says

    Have to second Kevin @6. See if Netflix has “The Americanization of Emily”. Was really nice film. Julie Andrews quite sweet as well.

  19. PaulBC says

    Mike #20: It sounds like he played the same character in real life as TV. Maybe that’s why people were under the mistaken impression that he was actually one of their best buddies. (Amazing he was never elected president with personal credentials like these.)

  20. mfd1946 says

    Though I appreciate your tribute to the late James Garner, I (for whatever it’s worth) vehemently disagree with your assessment of him as a “terrible actor.”

    Garner definitely did not simply play himself on the screen — and I mean the movie screen because, despite my advanced age, I’ve never seen any episodes of “Maverick” or “The Rockford Files,” which seem to be what he is being remembered for most in the commentaries immediately following his death.

    No less an authority than the late, great director Robert Altman (worth a hell of a lot) declared Garner to be one of the finest actors, period, in the history of American filmmaking, and for me Altman was right on the money.

    Proof can be found in “The Great Escape” — a great ensemble movie to which Garner contributed an extremely varied and subtle characterization. One might also check out (to cite just a few examples) “The Americanization of Emily” opposite Julie Andrews, the Cinerama racing epic “Grand Prix” (in which he, unlike others in the cast, did his own driving while acting), and “Murphy’s Romance” with Sally Field (his one Oscar nomination).

    As Altman pointed out, Garner’s kind of deft, often apparently light acting style seems to make people think that what he was doing was extremely easy, as though I or anybody’s brother-in-law could do it just as well. But this is far from the truth, as any knowledgeable actor or director will attest.

    It’s like saying that because Fred Astaire had the ability to make his dancing in his films look like a piece of cake tossed off on the spur of the moment (whereas it actually involved long, arduous preparation). Garner can be called a kind of acting Astaire. There haven’t been ten people in all of American filmmaking who could match his style, wit, and charm while at the same time being fully capable of being entirely serious and dramatic when the occasion called for it.

    I know that RIP is, of course, a meaningless acronym, since one must be alive in order to rest or to attain peace. Nevertheless…RIP, James Garner.

  21. Scientismist says

    “The Americanization of Emily” made my 21st birthday a memorable occasion. My family took me out to dinner, then delivered me back to campus, because they figured my friends would have planned a party for me. But they had all piled in my roommate’s car and gone to see a re-release of “Fantasia.” Since I was on my own for the evening, I walked to the local theater which was showing “The Americanization of Emily,” a film I probably would have otherwise missed. Fifty years later I still love that movie, and recommend it highly. “I want you to remember that the last time you saw me, I was, unregenerately eating a Hershey bar.” And Garner’s scene with Emily’s mother is heartbreaking, and beautiful.

  22. says

    Honestly, I never really watched “The Rockford Files” growing up, though what I caught of Garner’s portrayal was appealing. However, oddly, I do have one memory from college permanently entwined with that show…

    At University of Pennsylvania, one of the upper level undergraduate physics lab classes I had was proctored by one of the grad students I had gotten to know from interning in the Tandem Van de Graaf nuclear physics lab behind the main math/physics/astronomy class building. I remember one of the labs was relatively easy to perform and this guy (whose name escapes me) described it as a “Rockford Lab”.

    This was because a few years earlier when he had been an undergrad, this was a lab which was quick enough to complete that he and his roomies could get back to their place in the afternoon in time to watch Rockford Files. So, in my mind, whenever I have some relatively easy task to do, I always think of that phrase “a Rockford Lab”…

  23. says

    Garner’s speech about the futility of war in The Americanization of Emily was one of the great movie speeches.

    His best series (and I loved both Maverick and Rockford) was his middle one, Nichols. Didn’t last long.

    I like Kaley Cuoco’s comment about Garner, referring to his coming on board the series she was in before Big Bang Theory, Eight Simple Rules, after John Ritter died. She said “James Garner is like a peaceful river through our chaos”.

  24. seversky says

    My tribute to James Garner is just this, I would watch anything he was in, just because he was in it.

    As for being a bad actor, no. He had a limited range as others have said but he had that rare skill of making what he did do look so easy and natural, which is not to be underestimated. Could he have played great character or classical roles like an Olivier or a Guinness? No, probably not. But could either of them have played Maverick or Rockford the way he did? No, I don’t think so.

    I also noticed the car fetish in those old shows, although, to be fair, that gold Firebird was REALLY cool. I read that Garner did most of his own stunt driving on Rockford because he was a really good driver himself and the stunt driver they brought in originally to sub for him wasn’t as good.

    The other thing about the car fetish is that in the 70’s there were no cell phones. Notice how much of modern shows are built around cell phone conversations?

    Actually, the other thing that stuck in my mind was how many times in Rockford he tore a page out of payphone phone directories when he needed a character’s address or number and didn’t have anything to write on.

    And, no, he never got to be President but he did get to play an ex-President in My Fellow Americans alongside Jack Lemon and Dan Aykroyd although it was not one of his favorite roles and he didn’t think too highly of the director.

    My take on him is that under that genuinely amiable exterior was a mature, tough-minded and consummate professional who had no illusions about himself or other people and that’s why people liked him.

    I’ll miss him but at least we have his legacy on film.

  25. cgm3 says

    Whether a guy playing himself over and over, or an actor of sublime subtlety, I’ve enjoyed all of his performances. A few that haven’t been mentioned (and maybe are new to some of you):

    He was the voice of the antagonist in the animated Atlantis: The Lost Continent.

    One of the “overage , failed astronaut candidates” in Space Cowboys with Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, and Donald Sutherland.

    The American major in 36 Hours abducted by the Nazis so Rod Taylor’s character can convince him it’s years after WW II has ended and he has amnesia that can only be cured by recounting everything he can remember before the “lapse”… including the plans for the Normandy invasion.

    In Sunset, he plays an aged Wyatt Earp come to Hollywood to advise a movie about the O.K. Corral in which ‘Wyatt Earp’ is played by Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) and the two of them get drawn into a murder mystery.

    In My Fellow Americans, he and Jack Lemmon portray former US Presidents — and bitter political rivals — from opposite parties who accidentally uncover evidence of corruption by the current president and go on the run together. At one point, they try to evade pursuit by joining in a gay pride parade; when one of the participants tells Garner, “I didn’t know you were gay”, he responds, “I’m not” — glances at Lemmon as he waves in the other direction — “but he is.”

    He was a lot of fun to watch.

  26. boadinum says

    Oddly, I was watching a Youtube video of QI, hosted by Stephen Fry, where one of the guests did a spot-on impression of Colin (Donald Pleasance) from “The Great Escape”, This led me to think of Colin’s pal Hendley,and then to wonder what James Garner is up to these days. Moments later I checked the news headlines and discovered that James Garner had died.

    It’s a miracle! OK, no it isn’t.

    He was not a great actor, but not horrible either. He brought a certain warmth and honesty to his roles.

    We’ll miss ya Jim.

  27. weatherwax says

    The Rockford Files was one of the few shows I loved as a kid that I still enjoy as an adult.

  28. What a Maroon, oblivious says

    Some of my favorite James Garner performances were his Polaroid commercials with Mariette Hartley. They had such a great chemistry together that people assumed they were married.

  29. cicely says

    I am Sadness.
    I loved him in The Rockford Files, and Support Your Local Sheriff! is one of the few Westerns I can stand.
    In fact, I can’t recall anything I watched him in, that wasn’t enjoyable.
    Mr. Garner may have had limited range as an actor—I lack the Sophisticated Tastes to be able to tell—but if so, he played the hell out of it.

  30. magistramarla says

    I have always loved James Garner and anything that he happened to be in.
    Another actor of the same ilk is Richard Dean Anderson (MacGyver, Stargate).
    He also seems to usually play characters whose personalities mirror his own, but that makes him all the more endearing to me.
    I don’t think that we can call actors such as these “bad” actors, but good character actors who successfully fill a niche and make a damn good living at it.

  31. says

    I saw an episode of Burn Notice once, and it reminded me of The Rockford Files. Lots of fun and I say that as a compliment to both Campbell and Garner.

  32. naturalcynic says

    Sigh. Maybe I’m not a “Natural” Cynic. Maybe I just caught it from Brett Maverick.

  33. greg hilliard says

    I look at Garner like an old friend, someone you never mind showing up in your living room. Michael J. Fox is another actor like that. You know what you’re going to get, and they always deliver.
    As for the driving, “Moonlighting” in the ’80s was the opposite. Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd were always stuck in California traffic, where they bickered and bantered.

  34. forestdragon says

    I don’t have much of an opinion regarding Garner’s acting (not having watched much that I can recall) but as a long-suffering captive of my father’s movie-watching as a child, I can firmly say that John Wayne was the one that couldn’t act worth a damn.

    Actually, watch any old movie (such as most of the ‘classic’ b&w movies starring all the people the old Warner Bros. cartoons caricatured) and you’ll see that most people back then didn’t seem to be able to act in a natural manner.

  35. trog69 says

    Surprised no one else picked up on P.Z.’s point and its relation to Mr. Garner. James Garner was a really great stunt driver. The act of speeding off, hitting the brakes and turning 180° and then continuing in that direction was called a “Rockford” after Mr. Garner perfected it.

    He said that the car in the Rockford Files was the best car he’d ever driven in his acting. Perfect ratio of car weight to engine performance.

  36. Rich Woods says

    that gold Firebird was REALLY cool


    I’d forgotten that! Possibly because I don’t drive now, but I very much wanted to when I was a kid and watched programmes like The Rockford Files (and Starsky and Hutch and The Professionals and The Sweeney).

    OK, it’s probably just as well I don’t drive like that.

  37. robro says

    A long time since I watched Rockford Files (and a bit after my main TV watching days). Was Pontiac a sponsor of the show by any chance?

    forestdragon @ #40

    …you’ll see that most people back then didn’t seem to be able to act in a natural manner.

    Interesting observation. FWIW, I’ve always felt exactly the opposite: actors of the 40s were natural while more contemporary actors seem to rely on mugging and antics (e.g. fast pacing). As I understand it, many of the old school actors went through the Actors Studio which was noted for it’s naturalistic, Stanislavsky method…at least, what they thought was naturalistic. I have a feeling this sort of thing can change over time.

  38. Clarence Rutherford says

    Did you know that Garner earned two Purple Hearts while in Korea? Wounded in combat twice, oak leaf cluster & all. He led an interesting life.

  39. Trebuchet says

    Garner could play himself over and over, and be enjoyable every time. Unlike John Wayne and many other actors who do the same thing.

  40. says

    “I remember watching it fairly often (probably in afternoon reruns a few years after it ended) but I can’t remember the plot of a single episode.”

    They were all mostly the same:

    Client shows up.
    They have the “$200/day plus expenses,” conversation.
    Rockford drives around, finds a clue.
    Does something to piss off small-town cops.
    drives around, notices he’s being followed,
    loses the tail via stunt driving.
    Finds another clue which reveals that everything he thought he knew is wrong.
    Gets in more trouble with small-town cops.
    Drives around some more.
    Notices he’s being followed again.
    Loses tail via more stunt driving.
    Finds another clue with another twist.
    Gets in yet more trouble with small-town cops,
    to the point where he’s due to be hauled off
    for multi-year prison sentence the moment he gets caught,
    real villain finally shows up, starts shooting at everybody,
    and thence gets caught (or, occasionally, killed)
    Client finds a way to get out of paying.
    Final scene with Rocky, Dennis, and/or Beth back at the trailer.

    and Garner made it work. I loved that show.

    What was particularly fun was seeing “Chinatown” years later, and it’s essentially a Rockford Files plot no matter that it’s set 40 years earlier and has Jack Nicholson playing the Rockford/PD character,…

    … except for where it goes seriously off the rails in the last 10 minutes of the film (i.e., the part where everything is supposed to resolve…)

  41. Cinzia La Strega says

    I really can’t agree that James Garner was “a terrible actor.” He always played the same general “character”, but that’s true of very many beloved “stars” (think Cher, Jane Fonda, etc.). The thing is, “himself,” was a pretty appealing and recognizable character. I was sad to read of his passing (although truth be told, I had assumed he had already died). I had a huge crush on him as a young girl even though he was old enough to be my father. Ah, mortality!

  42. Tetrarch says

    Garner’s complete naturalness was what made him a good actor– no mannerisms or self-consciousness that said “See how wonderful I am as an actor!!!” A rare quality.

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned “Victor/Victoria,” featuring him in one of his best roles as gangster King Marchand; he was also excellent as Dr. Bob in “My Name is Bill W.”

  43. keithb says

    You forgot the variation when he was running a con.
    “Is a con going well when the two guys running it get beat up?”

  44. Le Chifforobe says

    Burn Notice is one of my favorite shows ever! Its creator, Matt Nix, also made The Good Guys, a buddy-cop show that is a parody homage to ’70s detective shows like Rockford Files.
    Complete with Trans Am.
    Both of these shows are on Netflix.