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Appreciating James Garner: TV's Best Unhero

James Garner plays Jim Rockford in <em>The Rockford Files</em> in a 1988 photo.
DPA /Landov
James Garner plays Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files in a 1988 photo.

I didn't know, watching Isaac Hayes push James Garner around on The Rockford Files, that I was seeing a special character continue an important television legacy.

All I knew, as a devoted fan of Garner's put-upon private eye, was that Jim Rockford seemed like a kind of hero you never saw anywhere else on television.

Perpetually strapped for cash and working a case that wasn't likely to change that situation, Rockford was a wrongly imprisoned ex-con who cloaked his heroism in a cynic's quips and world-weary attitude (Hayes was a physically intimidating fellow ex-con who always mispronounced his name as "Rockfish").

"Rockfish" rarely pulled a gun or won a fight with his fists — which could be a little frustrating to those of us weaned on more, say, direct TV private eyes like Mannix or Shaft. Instead, he maneuvered among a seedy universe of corrupt cops and crooks, lame hustlers and earnest victims, using his street smarts and an unerring sense of justice to save the day.

He wasn't an anti-hero as much as an "unhero"; a regular Joe with a sardonic sense of humor who stepped up when he was needed.

And the creation of that type of character may be one of the most enduring contributions to television made by James Garner, who died Saturday at the age of 86.

As Garner himself admitted, Rockford was actually the second time he played an unhero on television. The first was Bret Maverick, the role which made him a star in 1957.

He was a gambler and expert with a gun, but Maverick rarely solved his considerable problems with action, either. Unlike so many straight-arrow Western heroes of the time, Garner's Maverick was a wise-cracking rake who knew the wrong side of the tracks quite well, but could nevertheless be counted on to make the right choice when the chips were down.

The part became a subtle way to poke fun at more conventional Westerns while still delivering the "good guy vs. bad guy" stories that fans and the industry demanded — a sly two-step that Garner would often walk in a career filled with great TV and movie performances.

But Maverick also became a classic role thanks to Garner's easy charm and quick wit. Some of that came from his down-to-earth approach to acting; claiming that he stole much of his technique from Henry Fonda while working alongside him as a bit player in a 1954 stage production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, Garner boiled his creative process down to a few short phrases in a 2005 People magazine interview.

"I'm a Spencer Tracy-type actor," he said, referencing another famously down-to-earth acting legend. "Be on time, know your words, hit your marks and tell the truth."

Of course, Garner's acting achievements ranged far beyond two singular TV roles. A native of Norman, Okla., James Scott Bumgarner had a tough childhood with an often-absent father and abusive stepmother; he served in the Korean War and knocked about Los Angeles until a friend who was also a talent agent got him the Caine Mutiny job.

James Garner is Bret Maverick in this undated photo.
Anonymous / AP
James Garner is Bret Maverick in this undated photo.

Before long, Maverick made him a star, though he would eventually leave the series after a legal dispute. But roles in great movies followed, including parts in 1963's The Great Escape and the 1964 World War II film which made a star of Julie Andrews, The Americanization of Emily.

Other acting high points took his charismatic, unheroic approach to new levels. Some samples: a reunion with Andrews in the 1982 film Victor Victoria, playing a man who falls in love with a woman masquerading as a man; and an Oscar-nominated role for 1985's Murphy's Romance as a crusty guy who woos Sally Field.

Even his portrayal of Nabisco CEO F. Ross Johnson in HBO's business-centered 1993 farcical dramedy Barbarians at the Gate felt a little like the unhero-turned-villain — as Garner's charming executive eventually backed a leveraged buyout that would earn him millions and leave thousands of Nabisco employees jobless.

His commercials for Polaroid with actress Mariette Hartley left people convinced the two were married in real life – a mistake both actors had to correct for years after the ads stopped airing. In truth, Garner was married to Lois Clarke from 1956 until his death.

Off screen, Garner could also have a similarly incongruous relationship with Hollywood and acting itself. He famously sued over circumstances related to compensation for his work on both Maverick and The Rockford Files; he also spoke plainly on his unsentimental view of show business.

But it was his sterling work playing the unheroic hero which made James Garner a valued guest in many TV homes throughout his career, giving us all a new kind of good guy to root for.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.