The James Garner Secret

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

James Garner as Maverick.

When I was a kid my big brother loved the TV Western Maverick. It’s been running on a cable channel and I’ve enjoyed catching up with it. The series introduced the American audience to James Garner as Bret Maverick (who often shared adventures with his brother Bart, played by Jack Kelly).

Garner became an instant star, and it’s not hard to see why. He was masculine without being obnoxious; handsome but not too pretty; charming but not cloying. Most of all he was a natural, relaxed actor (though he put in a lot of hard work to get that way!)

Which all led to a storied career. He created not one, but two, iconic television characters—Maverick and Jim Rockford. He transitioned easily to movies, and was at home in light comedy (The Thrill of it All; Victor/Victoria), action adventure (The Great Escape; Hour of the Gun), romance (Murphy’s Romance), and showed considerable dramatic chops in the experimental Mister Buddwing.

By all accounts, he was as decent a fellow as there was in Hollywood. Married to the same woman for 57 years. Not a party animal or public boor. A true professional who showed up on time and knew his lines.

In the 1970s he did several commercials. I was starting my stint as an actor in Hollywood then, and in a commercial acting class the teacher held up Garner as the quintessential pitchman. “You just believe him,” she said. “It’s all about trust.”

So we students all had to pick an ad out of a magazine and memorize the copy, then spout it as naturally as we could. I still remember my product: The Pentax ME camera.

The exercise paid off. I nabbed several commercials, which helped pay my bills and later gave me nice residuals all through law school. (Remember the guy at that picnic who pours everyone some Pepsi? Yep, that was me. And I’m sure you recall the handsome lad sliding a tray of hamburgers in a McDonald’s serving window. Me again!)

Which brings me to today’s clever writing segue. James Garner’s “secret”—which applies to writers as well as actors—was that he was always himself within the role. He knew his parameters, and that was his zone. That’s also what my favorite actor, Spencer Tracy, said about his acting style. He would see himself as Spencer Tracy as a priest, or Spencer Tracy as a bride’s father…or a fisherman or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Which is why, when we write, we must put ourselves into our fiction by seeing ourselves as the characters.

How does your Lead character feel at each stage of the proceedings? The answer is the way you would feel if you were that character.

That goes for any of the cast, including the bad guy. Why does he do these things? That’s backstory. What’s going on inside him? It’s what would go on inside of you if you lived that same past.

When you tap into these things, you get a James Garner effect—readers will trust your story. (It is also, by the way, how you get at that elusive thing agents and editors call voice.)

In an interview Garner once said, “When people see me in something and say, ‘That’s just you, that’s not acting,’ it’s the best compliment I can get.”

He also said, “I’ve had to work hard at that easy-going manner you see on the screen.”

Working hard to get natural. Good advice for writers, too.

What’s your favorite James Garner role? Mine has to be The Great Escape, especially the moment where Garner insists on taking the blind forger (Donald Pleasance) with him. The outcome of this plot line gets me every time.

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59 thoughts on “The James Garner Secret

  1. Interesting. I’ve never seen him in movies. Seen a few of the Maverick episodes, but mainly I know him as Jim Rockford, since the 70’s & 80’s were my era for watching TV. 😎

    • I have loved all of James Garner’s roles in film and television- from Maverick to The Notebook I met his daughter Gigi through some mutual friends in 1982 and we hung out for a while. When I first went to her home in Brentwood, I was quite nervous about meeting this guy, hoping he wasn’t home: but he was. He was warm, gracious, and funny. And he was exactly the same person that he always was onscreen. I was there to pick up Gigi for a Sunday at Venice beach, and when he saw my old 1600 BMW parked in his drive, he said, “Why don’t you kids take the Pontiac?” I got to drive Gigi to the beach in Jim Rockford’s Trans Am.

  2. Great post!
    I share your great fondness for James Garner.
    In “Rockford Files” Stephen J. Cannell’s great writing and JG’s inspired acting created an emotional authenticity and accessibility for me. While I did not “know” him when Mr. Garner passed the pang of loss I felt was akin to that of having lost a friend. I cared.
    This is the kind of engagement I seek between my readers and the characters in my books. Your thoughts and observations on JG and writing resonate for me.
    Apart from writing craft thinking about The Rockford Files makes me smile. Among many other strengths the series featured outstanding costar roles and comedic brilliance . Stuart Margolin as Angel (laugh out loud clever) , Isaac Hayes “hey rock fish“, Rob Reiner (QB King Sturdevant), Tom Selleck as “Too perfect” Lance White and the cutting but kindly treatment of satirical foil “Sky Aquarius”. Great stuff!
    I loved this post, Jim. Starting my day with a smile and useful thoughts to aid my writing efforts.
    Thank you!

    • Glad you mentioned Stuart Margolin, Tom. He was delightful. He and Garner had teamed up for a short-lived Western called Nichols. They clicked, and that chemistry carried over to Rockford (which, as you note, was elevated by the oversight of the great Stephen J. Cannell).

    • I so enjoy One Special Night Jsmes Garner made with Julie Andrews.
      I watch that over and over again.
      He made the story warm and comfortable a want to watch again
      And again.

  3. Great post, Jim. Thanks for the advice on voice.

    Murphy’s Romance. My wife and I have watched that one together several times.

    And The Rockford Files. I remember being hooked on that series, specifically being on dates, but insisting we get back to a TV in time to see the show. You know, priorities.

    On a separate subject, I enjoyed Rationality, your short story on Patreon. Always the surprise ending we didn’t see coming.

    Thanks for the post.

    • Ah yes, what did we do in the days before DVR?

      Garner was understatedly brilliant in Murphy’s Romance, for which he received his only Academy Award nomination. He might have had more if he didn’t make acting look so darned easy!

  4. Wonderful post, Jim. Love James Garner, and his example to we writers, which extends to his professionalism and all-around good-guy aspects, too, IMHO 🙂

    My favorite Garner role is also as Hendley the Scrounger. His easy con of the hapless camp guard Hans is a classic. “Poor, mixed up kid.” His affection for and efforts to protect his friend the forger are great emotional moments, too, and who doesn’t love seeing him, McQueen and the other American make hooch for the 4th of July celebration in camp?

    I’ve loved him in everything I’ve seen him in, but that role was my favorite.

  5. An enjoyable visit with a longtime icon. My favorite was The Wheeler Dealers (1963) which I stumbled across several months ago on TCM, and laughed through all the great lines over again. Your point is a great reminder to put myself in the roles of my characters. Sometimes it comes naturally, others I have to work at it. But the result of doing so is always positive. Especially when I, a very hetero male, put myself in the feminine mind and body of a voluptuous Sumerian queen. Look out.

    • Dan, thanks for mentioning The Wheeler Dealers. I have never seen it, and will try to track it down.

      BTW, putting yourself into a “voluptuous Sumerian queen” is very much a Robert E. Howard move!

  6. Murphy’s Romance ties with Victor/Victoria. His facial expressions as he whiplashed through questions if Julie Andrews was female or male were hilarious. When he finally surrendered and didn’t care about her/his gender, it was a classic cinema moment where love triumphs all.

    Remember the Polaroid commercials with Mariette Hartley?

    Thanks, Jim, for fun memories.

    • I do indeed remember those commercials, Debbie, for we studied them in my commercial class.

      And yes, Garner had a way with facial expressions. One of his comic gifts.

    • And it’s not always easy for an actor to mouth the speeches of Paddy Chayefsky. Garner does it well, as does George C. Scott in The Hospital and William Holden and Peter Finch in Network.

  7. You absatively stole my greatest James Garner moment — the Great Escape one with him and Donald Pleasance. Best two moments, IMHO, for their wonderful careers, because as viewers we rooted for them both. I will now need to find that movie somewhere and watch it again. Good post, James.

    • “Colin’s not a blind man as long as he’s with me, and he’s going with me.”

      The way Garner delivers that line is perfect. Resolute. There will be no argument.

  8. I thought the Jim Rockford character was some of his best work (but then, I feel he did everything very well) because he and Jim were one. He was able to break through the fourth wall, he could get himself into and out of trouble, and that smart mouth kept us laughing. Additionally, he gave his all. I’ve read how much pain he was in but kept going, had surgery on both knees but kept going. And then you add the terrible way in which the studio tried to take advantage, so he had to fight to entertain you and I.
    I have a huge respect for Mr Garner. I only wished I had gotten to meet him.

  9. James Garner is my favorite actor of all time. My favorite role of his is, naturally, Bret Maverick. My exact reaction when I found out the day after he’d passed was, “What? He’s dead? Damn.” That was a great tragedy in Hollywood

  10. My vote’s for The Rockford Files also. When I was a young teacher, I got a job in Wrightwood (a mountain ski town above Glendale), and the town loved that fact that some of The Rockford Files shows were filmed up there. They loved James Garner.

  11. I agree with everyone else about James Garner being a wonderful actor and gentleman. According to Google, he made at least 42 movies besides his TV appearances. Along with the roles all ready mentioned, I loved him in The Notebook with Gena Rowlands and as Mark Twain in Roughing It, a delightful and fun film with some beautifully written life lessons.

    As thriller writers, it is a challenge to put our selves inside a serial killer or other villain, but you are right, it is worth the study and the work for the character to be authentic and believable. Goes back to the earlier post about character actions. “Would they really do that?”

    As always an interesting post with more writing gems. Thank you.

  12. I loved James Garner in all of his roles.
    The Great Escape was a drama favorite but his comedic best was in Move Over Darling and The Thrill of it All both starring Doris Day. They had great chemistry and you really felt they were married. In real life they remained great friends. Rest in Peace to both.

  13. James Garner is one of my faves, too. I liked him in The Great Escape …but I think my favorite role he played was in the last installment of the Lonesome Dove franchise. He played the aging Capt. Call. My favorite line is near the end of the movie, called Streets of Laredo. He’s sitting with a young Mexican girl he helped to rescue from her twisted killer of a brother. He sharpens a knife and hands it to her. She asks him why she needs the knife. He says, “Well…you might need to …cut a string…”

    The role he played was that of a tough old cowboy, but his tender heart of loyalty hitched a ride on his sleeve throughout the entire film. Perfect.

  14. Only James Garner story I have:

    My Dad was transferred from Phoenix, my hometown, the only place I’d ever known, in the middle of my Junior year of high school. We left the greatest place in the world to live, to a small town of about 3,000 in north-central Oklahoma. (Dad worked at the federal Indian boarding school just north of there.)

    My new classmates were friendly and took me, the new kid, in, and treated me well.

    One of the things you do in a small town after homework is done, the small public library is closed, the only movie theater is open Friday and Saturday nights (though not every week), and the only place in town to get a bottle of pop is the gas station on South Avenue, that closes at 10, is to cruise the streets with other kids who have to be home by 10:30. (Gasoline was 27 cents a gallon.) The only exception to this was Halloween night, when we pushed the tractors at the John Deere dealership into the streets, then ran like crazy.

    So we were riding around. Now, I don’t know how, but one of the girls in our group knew that James Garner was in town, and she knew where he was visiting. So, this girl led the charge. We drove to the house–everything and everywhere is very nearby in a small town–and she went up and knocked on the door.

    She was very diplomatic in the matter: she knocked and, when the lady of the house answered, our friend blurted out, “Can we see Maverick, please?”

    Well, you can pretty well guess we weren’t invited in immediately. In fact, we were never invited in. But the lady returned a few moments with six slips of paper, each of which read, “Thank you for being such a nice, respectful person. Maverick-James Garner.”

    Of course, you would have thought we had met the Pope, the Queen of England, AND Mickey Mantle. We drove down to the station and had a bottle of pop to celebrate.

    I don’t know where the slip of paper is. But I remembered it when I near of Mr. Garner’s passing. He was such a nice person, even if we never did actually get to meet him.

  15. I Have been a fan of James Garner for many years. I’m from Oklahoma. and when I learned that James Garner was from Norman Oklahoma, I was more curious about him as an Actor. I have watched every series of Maverick. I know them by heart. His acting style has been one of my admiration for many years. I would guess my favourite movie was “move over darling” with Doris Day. All of the human emotions of sad, angering, love, and frustration; He was on target!
    I salute James Garner.

    Ronald D. Johnson, (USMC, Vietnam 1968)
    Major U.S. Army Retired

    He inspired me to achieve my goals.

  16. My two favorite Garner roles are as the pilot-turned-preacher-turned-astronaut in “Space Cowboys” and as the devoted husband in “The Notebook.” I have always thought the latter role might have been one of the toughest he ever had to play, considering the emotion he has to show, and also try to conceal, as he reads to his wife and tries, one more time, to break through the fog of her Alzeheimer’s so he can spend even a few minutes with the girl he married. My wife can’t bring herself to watch it.

  17. Thanks, all, for some great memories of an all time favorite. I was nodding all the way through all the comments. The Great Escape, Murphy’s Romance, Rockford, and the commercials with Hartley. One of the very, very few actors where I sigh with sadness at his passing every time I see his name. Maybe that’s because I’m sad we lost not just an actor but such a stellar person.

  18. The problem is that sometimes the reader thinks too much of you is in the role. I’m a middle-aged hobbit granny with vibes that attract lost tourists and timid children. However, I wrote a character in STAR-CROSSED who was a sociopath who brutalized and murdered men. I’ve had readers talking with me about the novel then begin to back away as they start talking about Cadaran. It always makes me laugh.

    • Well, good on you, Marilynn. I wrote about an alcoholic lawyer in Blind Justice, and a fellow came up to me and said, “I’m a friend of Bill W, too” (in reference to the AA founder). I’d never been such, but what a compliment for a writer.

  19. I never miss the movie Support Your Local Sheriff when it plays on TV.
    I think along with his good looks his voice was endearing.

  20. I loved James Garner in the Americanization of Emily. It was his favorite movie as well that he did. He was a fine actor. And I think, a fine man. He said he wasn’t easy going. Yes, I suspect he worked hard at that on the screen. I never saw his acting “show”.

  21. the Great Escape is also my favorite role of his. But it always makes me smile when the theme song from the Rockford Files comes on my 80s Pandora station 🙂

  22. I loved James Garner in “The Notebook” and “Space Cowboys.” He had the ability to make you believe in his own decency as well as the character he was playing.

    I need to watch “The Great Escape” again.

  23. If you are a fan of Garner’s work, I wrote the book “The Essential James Garner” with my brother. It is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s website through here: jamesgarnerbook.com

  24. James Garner was my mom’s favorite actor and also is one of mine. She always said that I reminded her of him which is a special compliment..
    For those who might never have see it, watch One Special Night with Mr. Farner and Julie Andrews as well as Victor Victoria. You will not be disappointed!

  25. Loved him as Sandra Bullock’s dad in ‘ The ya ya Sisterhood of the traveling pants’.

  26. People make too big a deal over an actor becoming a particular character, forgetting that perhaps the most important job for an actor is to serve the story. Instead of being concerned about immersing himself in a character or personality, Mr. Garner was more concerned about immersing himself in a plot or a scenario. He always succeeded in making us believe that any situation that he was in was important and worthy of our attention, even in comedic roles. He made acting look “easy” because he made situations seem genuine and easy to watch, making the characters around him better as a result.

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