In Praise of James Garner

He deconstructed genres by deconstructing modern masculinity

The Rockford Files have been permanently closed.

James Garner, star of the iconic 1970s private-eye series, died of natural causes at his California home on Saturday, July 19, 2014. He was 86.

Numerous obituaries recounted the details of Garner’s life and work, and they make a great story. Born into a hard-scrabble Oklahoma existence, Garner lost his mother when he was 4 and was sent to live with relatives at the age of 7 after his father’s small store burned down. His father later remarried but his second wife, in the words of Garner’s brother Jack (also an actor), was “a damn no-good woman” who physically abused her step-children. At the age of 14, James had a violent altercation with her and left home. Drifting from Oklahoma to Texas to California, he worked a succession of odd jobs before reuniting with his father in Los Angeles, where he briefly attended Hollywood High. While there he became friends with a man named Paul Gregory, who was eight years older but whose background was strangely similar— like Garner, he was a Midwestern kid (Iowa in Gregory’s case) of Cherokee Indian ancestry dispatched to relatives during the Depression. Gregory became an agent and producer, and in 1953 he hired Garner for a small non-speaking role in his stage production of Herman Wouk’s “Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.” From these inauspicious beginnings, Garner fashioned an award-winning career that spanned more than half a century.

That career included star turns in a number of important and successful films— “The Great Escape,” “The Americanization of Emily,” “Victor / Victoria”— and in smaller, more oblique movies (“Support Your Local Sheriff!”) where Garner’s deft timing and quick, quiet wit were often on display. But in all likelihood he will mainly be remembered for two ground-breaking television series: Maverick, which aired on ABC from 1957 to 1962 (though Garner himself left the series in 1960 over a contract dispute), and The Rockford Files, an NBC series from 1974 to 1980.

Both shows systematically subverted their respective genres. Debuting at a time when television was awash in Westerns, Maverick’s original protagonists were two brothers, Bret (Garner) and Bart (Jack Kelly), with decidedly unheroic interests: they were gamblers and drifters more concerned with the next hand than with displays of manly rectitude. The Rockford Files visited the same inversions on the private detective series, then nearly as ascendant as the Western had been in 1957. Rockford was no Mannix. He didn’t have a comfy office with a comely secretary; he didn’t have a car phone. (Though he did have an answering machine.) He lived in a crummy trailer marooned in a Mailbu parking lot. He ate tacos for breakfast. Like Bret Maverick, he had an instinctive aversion to the heroic. (“There are no heroes” in the private eye business, he once explained to his father. “They die young.”) He owned a gun, of course, but preferred to leave it in its assigned place— his cookie jar. When one incredulous client asked why he wasn’t carrying, Rockford’s reply was as swift as it was sincere: “Because I don’t want to shoot anybody.” He was more grifter than paladin, an observation underlined by the fact that many (if not most) of his closest associates were ex-cons— as was Rockford himself.

What anchored all this insouciance— and subversion— was nothing more or less than Garner’s natural irony. Like a blues vocalist who instinctively bends his notes, Garner knew that convention usually hides more meaning than it releases. His line readings, curlicues of inflection, were the verbal equivalent of a wink and a nudge. In one late episode (“The Big Cheese”), two thugs burst into Rockford’s trailer and announce that “the Boss” wants to see him. Rockford is unimpressed. “Really?” he asks. “ ‘The Boss’?” An excellent A.V. Club piece on the series was headlined “In The Rockford Files, James Garner played a private detective who was in on the joke.” It was an apt title.

But the ultimate target of Garner’s irony wasn’t the hackneyed vocabulary of hardboiled fiction. It was the narrative conceit at the center of that fiction: its image of the male will, and of the redemptive power of that will when manifested in violence.

The first half of Garner’s career unfurled in a fraught time for American masculinity. As the country pivoted from World War II to the Cold War ‘50s, its beau ideal of manhood seemed securely in place. Captured in the iconic figure of John Wayne, this American Man was half-Davy Crockett and half-G.I. Joe, an amalgam of democratic informality and solitary competence. Self-reliant and laconic, he distrusted words and the feminizing culture they belonged to; his nature rightly expressed itself in wariness and action. The great mission of this figure was to impose order on a potentially chaotic universe. When chaos emanated from the unruly emotional lives of women and children, he did so through a stern but benign exercise of his natural authority. When it involved the predatory behavior of the wicked, he was ready— never eager, but always ready— to invoke the bloody sanctions of lethal force. The implied premises were clear enough: we get order when we respect the prerogatives of a properly male identity; when other identities threaten this order, it can be restored only by acts of saving violence— the right to initiate which is itself one of those very prerogatives.

The security of this ideal was more illusory than real, however. By the late 1950s, it had been unsettled by the corporatism and conformity of post-War, Eisenhower-era America; neither Davy Crockett nor G.I. Joe seemed at ease in a gray flannel suit. The ‘60s assailed it even more directly. Feminists rejected the idea that women were naturally subject to male authority; they agitated for greater female autonomy in every aspect of modern life— economic, social, personal, sexual. The Counter-Culture offered its own critique of male identity, questioning the soulless ambition it detected behind our democratic-capitalist order, wondering whether the self-reliance of the traditional ideal was not in fact a psychotic refusal of human intimacy. And the Vietnam War raised corrosive doubts about the identification of masculinity with violence.

The culture’s response to these challenges was complex. In some quarters there was retrenchment, a vehement doubling-down best represented, perhaps, by Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” pictures and Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” franchise. The message of these movies seemed pretty straightforward: male authority was under attack, civilization was at risk, what was needed wasn’t neurotic self-doubt but heroic self-assertion: not less male violence, but more. (To be fair, Eastwood is a far more complex figure than this snapshot suggests. Early films such as “The Outlaw Josey Wales” begin a criticism of machismo continued by later pictures such as “Unforgiven” and “Gran Torino.”)

It was in this highly contested landscape that Garner offered up his own version of masculinity. No one ever mistook him for a proto-metrosexual; his athlete’s physique and rugged good looks were squarely in line with the Gary Cooper – Rock Hudson – Paul Newman image of male beauty. Nor was he an early version of that other alternative design, the “sensitive guy.” He was something different: a decent guy. Garner’s unrushed, polite manner suggested an openness to the presence and judgments of others, just as his obvious intelligence indicated a mind more interested in understanding the world than subjugating it. His belief that others have rightful claims to press allowed him to see social life as transactional rather than adversarial, and this, in turn, freed him to approach it with a different set of evaluative categories. What usually mattered to his characters— Rockford, for example— wasn’t the gender or class or race or ethnicity of other persons, but whether they were honest and loyal human beings: attributes necessary for social cooperation, and equally available to all of us.

Given these attitudes, it’s no surprise that Garner’s characters were uneasy with violence. Force, as Simone Weil said, is what makes a human being into a thing, and nobody who accepts the humanity of others wants to see them turned into things. To be sure, Rockford was no pacifist. Almost every episode involved fisticuffs and gun play of one kind or another, but such things were never his preferred approach; he would usually go out of his way to avoid physical danger. When one client offered him a job that sounded a bit too scary, Rockford was quick to decline, prompting a puzzled response from his prospective employer. “I don’t understand. I was told you were very reliable.” Rockford’s answer? “Reliable, yes. But chicken.” His investigative methods favored ruses and scams, usually built on fast patter and smooth lines. Words, so despised by the traditional ideal, were Rockford’s stock-in-trade.

Garner’s implied critique of American masculinity wasn’t just a matter of personality. The Rockford Files, in particular, embraced it as a conscious theme. Many episodes explore confrontations between Rockford and men whose personas are more conventionally masculine. The most revealing of these is probably “The Man Who Saw The Alligators,” a 1979 episode written by David Chase, a staff writer for the show who would go on to create The Sopranos. Chase’s script is an almost Jacobean revenge drama, in which “Anthony Boy” Gagglio, a hit man from New Jersey who blames Rockford for the prison sentence he just completed, sets out to locate and murder him. Gagglio, played with truly terrifying intensity by George Loros, is single-minded, cold, implacable— the very emblem, in other words, of many traditionally male attributes that Rockford eschews. Trapped in an isolated vacation home, fighting for the lives of two friends as well as his own, Rockford adroitly plays for time and in the end defeats Gagglio, but not before the latter engages in a final conversation with his younger brother. (Who, he knows, has betrayed him.) The conversation reveals the superficially detached and disciplined killer to be, in fact, an incoherent bundle of anxieties and paranoia. Remember when you were a kid, and I told you about the alligators under the bed? he asks his brother. “They’re really there.” Gagglio’s macho is a thinly stretched mask over fear and rage, and we are invited to extend this insight to machismo in general.

The show was explicit in depicting the social possibilities created when inclusion replaces domination. This was particularly obvious in its treatment of women. Rockford seemed perfectly at ease with professional women and with their demands for greater personal (and sexual) freedom. His lawyer was a woman, and a serious love interest— wonderfully played by Kathryn Harrold— was a psychologist. Rockford once upbraided his father for referring to a woman as a “strumpet” because she had lived with a man without benefit of marriage. “Did I hear you right?” he asked. “When did you start bucking for the Cotton Mather award?”

Even more daringly for its time, Rockford refused to treat homosexuals as objects of sport or derision. “The Empty Frame,” an episode from season five, revolved around an obviously gay couple. But their sexual orientation was never the focus of the story; it was offered as just another fact about them, then shrugged off and taken more or less for granted.

Garner’s version of masculinity— rueful, self-deprecating, relaxed— fit seamlessly into this new world of tolerance and inclusion. It would be hard to overstate its appeal to someone like me, a skinny kid growing up in a rough-hewn place (the North Carolina foothills), whose vocabulary was vastly more developed than his biceps. If being a man meant being John Wayne or Charles Bronson, I was clearly destined for something less than manliness. But Garner’s example gave me hope. It signaled a way of being masculine without becoming a macho jerk, of shaping a self that didn’t confuse integrity with antagonism.

In the A.V.Club piece mentioned earlier, the writer perceptively notes that Rockford, while it featured many noir elements, seldom embraced noir wholeheartedly. I don’t think this was simply a matter of the series’ insistent humor, nor of Rockford’s living at the beach and not, like Philip Marlowe, in Los Angeles proper. I think it derived ultimately from the same decency that informed Garner’s masculinity— from a genial determination to judge human life a great good thing. In the credits that precede each Rockford episode, there’s a shot of Garner with his face lifted into the sun and a satisfied, almost rapturous smile. A golden glow covers the frame. When we accept ourselves and others for what we are, it suggests, we release grace and goodness — and light.

So bon voyage, Jimbo. If there is another side, I hope to see you there. And I’ll bring the tacos.


3 thoughts on “In Praise of James Garner

  1. I just discovered this post. I was a fan of James Garner since the first Maverick episode in 1957. I was 12 at the time. Jim Garner morphed from a little girl’s crush into my male role model and hero from then until his death. He was a genuinely decent man – much like Jim Rockford in that respect and in his feelings about masculinity. He was an extremely kind and generous man, whose friends complained that he was too kind-hearted for his own good. His brother Jack once said, “If I could choose anyone in the world to be my brother it would be him. He’s so good hearted. He not only takes care of the family, he wants to take care of everyone. Many people have benefited from Jim’s success.”

    I guess you can see why I admired him so very much. He shaped my idea of what a real man is, and I’m very grateful to him for that although he would be embarrassed about it. He was also a very self-effacing and humble man. He never thought of himself an anything but a “barefooted country boy” from Norman, Oklahoma – where he was much loved and respected.

    Your piece about him was very well said and appreciated.


    1. Hi Suzanne,

      Thanks for your comments on the Garner piece and on the “Individualism” post at Salon. I’m happy to hear you enjoyed both of them.

      Your remarks about Garner chime with pretty much everything else I’ve read or heard about the man. He seems to have been as benevolent a person as human frailty will allow— someone whose interactions with others were almost invariably positive and benign. In his memoir A Margin of Hope, the critic Irving Howe mentions that goodness is, finally, as big a mystery as evil. Howe was talking about Lionel Trilling and Richard Hofstadter, but I think his statement rings true of Garner as well.

      I’m sorry you have to endure the governorship of Mike Pence. (Here in North Carolina, Pat McCrory isn’t too much better.) You are right about the strategy behind these regimes. Much of it is powered by the Koch Brothers through ALEC; the idea is to strip out social protections and infrastructure in order to minimize the tax burden on corporations and the wealthy. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Sam Brownback in Kansas are other notable examples of this approach. One can only hope that, state-by-state, citizens will begin to realize what’s being done to them in the name of “liberty,” but I’m not optimistic this will happen anytime soon. Walker survived a recall in Wisconsin, and Kansas recently reelected Brownback even after he had effectively bankrupted the state. The rhetoric of these people plugs into the cultural anxieties of rural and suburban whites in a very powerful way. As long as this is the case— and as long as these anxieties carry the day in the voting booth— it will be hard to dislodge the Pences and McCrorys of the world.


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