Friday, April 07, 2006

Happy Birthday, Jimbo

[[E V E N T S]] * I probably won’t have much time for blogging over the next 24 hours, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to send out a happy birthday wish to one of my favorite actors, James Garner, who turns 78 years old today.

I was first introduced to Garner’s work in weekend reruns of the TV series Maverick, one of my father’s favorite shows and also one of the inspirations for my continuing interest in the history of the American West. I then followed the career of this Oklahoma-born actor (and former Jantzen swimsuit model) through a tumbling succession of memorable films--from The Great Escape (1963), The Wheeler Dealers (1963) and The Americanization of Emily (1964), to Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), Marlowe (an underappreciated 1969 film based on one of Raymond Chandler’s private eye novels, The Little Sister), Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971) and Skin Game (1971). Along the way, Garner starred in an unfortunately short-lived television series called Nichols, which found him in the role of a cowardly, apathetic drifter (not so different from the parts he’d played in Gunfighter and Skin Game) who, in 1914, leaves the army and returns to his small Arizona hometown ... only to be promptly blackmailed into taking the job of sheriff. The only good thing about Nichols’ failure was that it left Garner able to take the lead three years later in The Rockford Files, another series created by Roy Huggins, with whom Garner had teamed so successfully before in Maverick. Ranked by TV Guide as one the 50 best American television shows ever (and certainly the best detective series to grace the tube), Rockford cast Garner as a resourceful, smooth-talking, but distinctly unheroic Southern California private eye who never seemed to find a paying client. He was Bret Maverick for the 1970s, but with all of his horses under a Firebird hood and a pappy who showed up more often than not. I’ve recently been viewing all of the first-season Rockfords on DVD, and am reminded with each episode’s beginning (“At the tone, leave your name and number and I'll get back to you.”) why it was a must-see show for me during my teenage years. Heck, it still seems fresh and innovative.

After Rockford signed off for the last time in 1980 (only to spawn a sequence of TV movies during the Clinton years), Garner tried to return to his most popular small-screen role in Bret Maverick (1981), which imagined the former riverboat gambler semi-retiring to a backwater Arizona town. Sadly, the series lasted only a year, after which Garner returned to the silver screen, appearing in Victor/Victoria (1982, along with Julie Andrews), Murphy’s Romance (1985, with Sally Field), Maverick (1994, in which he played the role of an impatient marshal, while Mel Gibson--in his pre-zealot days--took over the part of brother Bret), Twilight (1998, with Paul Newman), and Space Cowboys (2000, with Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones). He also signed on for a few TV movies, including Barbarians at the Gate (1993), Breathing Lessons (1994), and Legalese (1998, which included the consistently stunning Mary-Louise Parker as Garner’s sexy and thoroughly ambitious junior law partner). Following The West Wing’s award-winning early success, Garner made another run at series television, co-starring with Joe Mantegna in First Monday (2002), about the U.S. Supreme Court, but audiences didn’t seem to care about debate in the High Court the way they did about political strategizing and character assassination in the White House. First Monday didn’t make it into a second year. Garner’s most recent TV role was as the classically crusty grandfather on 8 Simple Rules ... for Dating My Teenage Daughter, an unremarkable part he took on after the untimely, 2003 death of lead John Ritter.

I’ve never met James Garner, and I am sure that he isn’t to be confused with the easygoing, lovable characters he has so often portrayed. But he’s given me four decades of enjoyment on screens large and small, and for that, he earns my best wishes on 78 years down, and many more to come.

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