The Story of James Garner, by James Garner with Jon Winokur
Reviewed by Brian R. Wright
As I was growing up in Overland Park, Kansas, my dad would share a number of little aphorisms and gems of deep thoughts that he was fond of… such as Charles Lindbergh’s line, “One man with courage makes a majority.” or “That’s what makes horse races, son,” or “Eat the vegetables, Brian, it all gets mixed up inside anyway.” One of his more memorable sayings occurred often when we’d watch a movie or TV program that might have artistic pretensions: he’d say, “Sells soap.”
Well, several years later, James Garner was an occasional guest on the renowned Johnny Carson Show, and I remember he used the exact same phrase in regard to some TV series or movie, perhaps it was one of his own, that is: “Sells soap.”
I always rather resisted this expression coming from an actor, because it carried a tinge of bitterness—and from my dad, it could be a general putdown of any show that had truly fine qualities. So I wondered whether Mr. Garner had been victimized somehow in the making of one production or another. [I learned from the book that when he was under contract with Warner Bros. for Maverick and some feature films they had him do, he was only making $500 a week! Care to take a stab at what Warner Bros. made from the show?!! That’s what I call justification for bitterness. And he had to do pretty much whatever they wanted him to do, e.g. promotions, interviews, what have you.]
But let’s start at the beginning. I really didn’t know that Garner, whose birth name was Bumgarner was born and raised in Norman, Oklahoma, and had a pretty screwed up and abusive parental situation, which led him to leave home at the age of 14. He pretty much drifted around until the service—he was the first Army enlistee from Oklahoma to go to Korea, where he earned two Purple Hearts [that substory is quite harrowing]—taking jobs:
“I worked in food markets and clothing stores. I cut trees for the telephone company. I hauled Sheetrock. I was a dishwasher, a janitor, a dockworker, an oil field roughneck, and a carpet layer. I worked on a line cleaning chickens. (God help you if you accidentally nicked a gizzard.) I was a hod carrier on a construction site—that’s the guy who brings bricks to the bricklayer in a box at the end of a pole. I was also an insurance salesman, but not a very good one….”
One thing you realize starting from his teens and even quite late in life when he was famous, Garner had a temper and especially did NOT like bullies picking on people who couldn’t really defend themselves, or picking on him. Several times when a man would act the aggressor, Garner would make short work of him with a punch or two, sending more than one, sometimes big men, offender to the hospital. Indeed the physical aspects of his work were very demanding. Here he shares regarding Rockford Files (1974-1979):
People have no idea how physically punishing it is to do an action series. You’re producing 22 one-hour movies every year. You’re on the set 15 hours a day with no time to do anything else but get a few hours of sleep before you have to start all over again. Wore me down to a nub. You show me a leading man who’s done a drama series for more than two or three years and I’ll show you somebody who’s beat to a pulp. Our legs are gone, our backs are gone, and generally our brains are gone, too. (I just barely managed to hold on to mine.)
He goes on to state that during the six years he did Rockford, he had seven knee operations. [He finally decided to replace both knees.] One day in the final season, 1979, he bent over with stomach pains, which were diagnosed by the studio doctor as ulcers. He wound up in the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, for weeks, where they told him he had to stop working. Which is why Rockford had to be cancelled by NBC in 1979 with 10 episodes remaining [they claimed he was malingering!].
Garner also stood up to the bigwigs of his industry, occasionally in a large and very risky manner. That’s something else most viewers probably don’t realize, the degree to which the studio hierarchy and network ownership—even after the so-called demise of the studio system—take advantage of the creative talent, actors in particular.
He sued Lew Wasserman and Universal for ‘creative accounting.’ [“Universal tried to tell us that despite taking in $120 million in revenues from syndication and foreign sales (of The Rockford Files), the show had only earned less than $1 million in profits.”] Hardly anyone takes these studios and big producers to court, because it’s expensive and it can damage your career. The initial settlement Universal offered was a joke; Garner dis-covered a specific fraud that Wasserman desperately did not want known and was prepared to go back to court. But cooler heads prevailed, he accepted the settlement:
“It’s been reported that I walked away with between $9 million to $20 million. I can’t legally comment on that, but I can say that for a week or two afterward, [my wife] Lois had to keep telling me to wipe the grin from my face.”
And what’s great is his success inspired other actors and artists to pursue the corrupt money men more often. The book covers all his great movies and experiences—from auto racing to golf to politics (a self-defined liberal)—and of all of them, I have to say my favorite is The Americanization of Emily. But I watch Grand Prix about as often. Plus, of course, I’m a huge fan of The Rockford Files, it was practically a religion for my wife and I, and whoever we entertained as guests on Friday nights, to sit down at 9:00 p.m. to watch it.
Another thing to appreciate is his saying it like it is. He’s free with his praise for all the great ones—directors, actors, writers, producers—he’s worked with but even if he regards them positively he’ll still offer a frank, uncomplimentary assessment, if warranted:
- “Jack Warner was rude and crude—the most vulgar man I’ve ever met.”
[And conspicuously Garner and his wife got up and moved to another table after listening to one raunchy ‘joke’ after another… Garner telling his agent, “Don’t you ever put me where that man is going to be again.” (Which got around town.)]
- “Charlie Bronson was a pain in the ass, too. He used and abused people, and I didn’t like it.”
- “Somebody asked me if Steve [McQueen] was “trouble.” Steve was trouble if you invited him for breakfast. He didn’t like anything. Like Brando, he could be a pain in the ass on the set. Unlike Brando, he wasn’t an actor.”
- “Natalie Wood just seemed like a lost soul to me.”
It winds down to a noble soul with a to-die-for body of work. [And I haven’t even mentioned Support Your Local Sheriff!] Go through the Outtakes chapter at the end, where sooo many people he has known and worked with or been with do their reminiscing about the man. He’s suis generis, and this book does a WONDERFUL job of making him a personal friend. Here’s how he winds up the reflection on his life:
“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.'”
Well, maybe we can, too.
PS: Here’s a revelation from Big Jim that we the people could have used decades ago to remove the stigma and end the seemingly eternal law enforcement reign of terror and destroyed lives: “I smoked marijuana for 50 years. I don’t know where I’d be without it. It opened my mind to a lot of things, and now its active ingredient, THC, relaxes me and eases my arthritis pain. After decades of personal research and observation, I’ve concluded that marijuana should be legal…” — page 200. Well, duh.
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Garner had bottomless charm and class, always easygoing, natural and unpretentious. (And of course …GORGEOUS 😉
I loved his shows and still miss him.