Remembering Maverick: The Garner Files – A Memoir

I have made no secret that I was a “child of TV.” And one of my earliest and fondest memories was staying up to watch Maverick with my dad. When I was a bit older, my brother and I would play Maverick. We would wear our white jeans and the jackets from our black suits. I assume that I played Bret and my brother played Bart, but he thinks we probably switched off. That was because everyone liked the Bret character best. When I was in law school I tried not to miss an episode of The Rockford Files, which required a certain commitment since you had to watch live in those pre-VCR, pre-DVR days. Although TV watching was not considered cool and I should have been studying, I watched a good deal of TV in law school. But the only two shows I remember watching were The Rockford Files and Kojak. Years later, I watch Maverick reruns with my kids when they were young, and I taught then to sing the theme song, which we would all sing together in the car. I can still type the lyrics from memory without looking it up:

Who is the tall dark stranger there,
Maverick is the name.
Rides the trail to who knows where,
Luck is his companion,
Gamblin’ is his game.

Smooth as handle on a gun,
Maverick is the name,
Wild as a wind in Oregon,
Blowin’ up a canyon, :
Easier to tame.

Riverboat ring your bell,
Fair thee well Annebelle,
Luck is the lady that he loves the best.
Natchez to New Orleans,
Livin’ off Jacks and Queens,
Maverick is a legend of the West.

Which is why I so enjoyed The Garner Files: A Memoir by James Garner. It is a rich story, pretty obviously told in his own words (although he has a co-author), that stems from his colorful childhood though his long career. I learned a lot about Maverick and The Rockford Files. I didn’t know, for example, that the Bart character was added after the show premiered with Garner alone because they could not keep up the shooting schedule and needed to shoot two episodes at a time.

But I learned even more about the man behind the screen persona.  As Garner writes, when you are on TV, people think they know you. I didn’t really think this before, but I do now. Mostly it is his thoughts about himself and others, but also his experiences. I had forgotten about his clashes with studios. And as a self-proclaimed “bleeding heart” liberal, he is justly proud about being in the second row of celebrities to hear Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” at the March on Washington. But perhaps the most poignant passage for me was in the appendix of contributions from his family, friends, and coworkers. This statement by his daughter Gigi made my eyes moisten:

I’ll never forget the morning of the Sylmar earthquake [in 1971]. My dad happened to be in the shower when the house started shaking so violently that he was literally thrown out of it. Since I was going to work with him that day, I was already awake and was paralyzed with fear, watching the books fly off the shelves. But, as soon as I heard him running down the hallway to my room, I knew everything would be alright. My Dad was there to rescue me, as he went on to do many times throughout my life.

(Maybe it is because I have a daughter. Gigi has set up a website in tribute to her dad here, which you should check out. Hat tip to John Nolte at Big Hollywood.)

Besides recommending the book to anyone who shares my interests in Maverick, Rockford, or Garner, however, I want to comment on an observation with which he concludes his memoir:

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.”

Fair enough, but I think this seriously sells short what a TV actor can contribute. Having been involved in shooting a film with professionals, I saw how difficult acting can be and how hard actors work if they are any good.  But I think the toughest thing about the acting profession is the long stretches in which actors are not working, which even for successful actors is a lot, the life style they are expected to live when they have too much time on their hands, their loss of privacy that we all take for granted, and their justified insecurity about maintaining their careers. This is enough to reveal the weaknesses in anyone’s character as it so often does to these people who are flawed as we all are, but perhaps a little more so which explains why they took up acting in the first place.  While I shed no tears for them, neither would I trade my career for theirs.

But this is not my main point, which concerns the payoff of all this work. It goes beyond making people happy. By knowingly employing his distinctive skills and gifts, including the gift of his good looks, Garner created not one but two characters that contributed to popular culture in important ways. It comes through the book that men have told Garner his whole career that they watched Maverick as kid with their dads, like I did.

Garner’s two most famous characters set an example of manliness at two stages of life. Smart, tough, funny, a little cynical and knowing but with a pinch of optimism and even naivete, respectful towards women, willing to stand up for himself or others when pushed, but only after first looking for a way out of conflict, a sense of justice.   Developing such a character that people think they “know” is something only an talented actor (along with talented writers) in a long-running TV show can accomplish. Two hours on the screen in a movie is not enough to make that connection, to provide that example, unless the actor plays the same character over and over, like John Wayne or Garner’s friends Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood. But even their screen personas are not as particular as the Bret Maverick or Jim Rockford characters, who we get to observe in one situation after another. These characters are Garner’s most important “contribution” to others.

Very few actors, however talented or successful, ever get to make this contribution. James Garner is one of them. It is too bad he does not fully appreciate just how successful he has been.

UPDATE: One further thought. Another difference between developing a character in a TV series, or developing a screen persona like Wayne’s, Eastwood’s or McQueen’s is that theirs purport to be about the actor not the particular character and, as such, are invariably false. John Wayne was not John Wayne. But because, a character like Bret Maverick is fiction, it cannot be false. Like Sherlock Holmes, the character is who he is and is therefore true. For this reason any disjuncture between Garner and his characters does not detract in the slightest from them, as it might as one learns more about the true character of one’s favorite star.

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