It’s time to bid a fond farewell to somebody I never met. He’s been gone for a few weeks, but a combination of not having the time, not knowing what to say, and doubting that I knew him well enough to say anything have kept me quiet until now.
James Garner died July 19, and I had a few people tell me the first person they thought about when they heard of his death was me. Not surprising. I own “The Rockford Files” collection on DVD, and have watched all of the episodes a few times now. Even when flipping the channels, if I come across “Rockford,” I’m hard-pressed to keep on channel surfing.
I haven’t seen much of the old “Maverick” TV series, though I get the idea that Bret Maverick had a lot in common with Jim Rockford. Take care of business and avoid the rough stuff — a different type of hero, as one remembrance called Rockford. Works for me. For every man who would love to be the rough-and-tumble master of his own destiny, few of us can be so bold.
I enjoyed “Rockford” when it was on the 1970s, but I don’t think I had the appreciation for it until I saw it pretty often while visiting my mother in the late ’90s. I thought then that the show came across as authentic, save for the fact that so many of the escapades ended up with beatings and gunfire.
Jim Rockford’s existence would have been made possible by the countless dull and tedious tasks that a private investigator might have to perform. The more unusual cases, yes, they might be interesting enough for an audience.
Garner received two Purple Hearts for his service in the Korean War, and I hope he forgives me for chuckling at the thought of one of his wounds coming when he was shot in the behind while trying to jump into a foxhole. Classic.
One thing I didn’t learn until after his death was that the smell of garlic, which Garner detested — led him to alert his superiors of the presence of enemy forces in Korea. He disliked garlic so much, was so sensitive to its presence, that he caught some whiffs of it while on guard duty and passed the information along.
This excerpt is from “The Garner Files,” his 2011 memoir:
[A]rmy chow was bearable as long as I could keep the onions and garlic out of it. I cannot stand onions and I’m very sensitive to garlic. I can taste tiny amounts of it, like when they’ve cooked another dish with garlic before and don’t wash the pan. If I get even a hint of it, I might throw up in my plate. This violent aversion may have saved my life: like our South Korean allies, the Chinese and North Korean troops lived on a diet of fish heads, rice, and garlic. One night while on guard on the line, I caught a faint whiff of it coming from the direction of the enemy positions. I couldn’t see anything, but I knew there was someone out there and they were coming closer. Once I sniffed them I could hear them, too. It turned out to be a patrol heading straight for our position. They were just the other side of a rise when I passed the word down the line. We were ready for them and stopped them in their tracks.
My interest in Garner carried over to movies, though I wasn’t surprised that I enjoyed him more on TV roles. He could be every bit the leading man, but he was a little bit too much like the rest of us, I think. Still, I’ve enjoyed his work in pictures.
Before he was James Rockford, he was The Scrounger, a prisoner of war in the film “The Great Escape,” whose role in planning a large-scale escape from a POW camp was to scrape up items that would be needed to make documents to aid the prisoners when they fled the camp. He picked the pocket of a German officer, and after giving the resident forger a good look at the papers the wallet contained, gave it back to the soldier — for a price. Anybody have a problem thinking of Rockford using that guile to survive?
As I have looked at Garner’s film credits, over the years and again on his passing, I’m eager to see more of his work. I can’t recall seeing a bad James Garner movie. Am I blinded by some sense of loyalty to the man, maybe because there is a connection to my mother, who died in 2004? Maybe.
But I think of any number of movies — “Victor/Victoria,” “Cash McCall,” “Murphy’s Romance,” “Support Your Local Sheriff,” “Move Over Darling,” “Skin Game,” … OK, enough already — and I don’t remember disliking any of them. Different roles, certainly. But it tells me that Garner was judicious in the roles he chose, a pattern that I wish more of today’s stars would embrace.
For the record, one of my favorite Garner movies was a made-for-TV film in 1984, “Heartsounds,” about a doctor who suffers a heart attack and gets a frightening view of what happens when doctors don’t put the patient first. Mary Tyler Moore co-stars as a journalist. Gee, another connection.
Garner further succeeded where other celebrities fail — or don’t try to go: He seemed to keep his private life away from us. I can recall his penchant for the Oakland Raiders — or were they the L.A. Raiders at that point? — but I’ll chalk that up to nobody being perfect.
He was obviously a fighter and didn’t mind settling some old scores now and then, and I don’t mean with his fists. In fact, one of his stated reasons for writing “The Garner Files” was to set the record straight on a number of issues, personal and business.When Garner was being cheated out of money owed over syndication rights from “The Rockford Files,” he was determined to get justice, and he did. In court.
As a result, I say goodbye forever curious about the kind of man Garner was. Friendly, approachable under reasonable circumstances, deeply committed to his family? Jim Rockford was, by necessity, pretty good at keeping his guard up. I wonder how much Garner differed in real life.
At any rate, I enjoyed the side of James Garner that I got to know, and look forward to seeing the films of his that I haven’t seen yet.