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Feature: Honoring James Garner

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   Sept. 22, 2004 at 7:26 PM
LOS ANGELES, Sept. 22 (UPI) -- When he heard that the Screen Actors Guild would honor James Garner with its Life Achievement Award, "The Rockford Files" producer Stephen J. Cannell said Garner was "an amazing star" and "just one of the guys" -- both at the same time.

SAG said Wednesday it would honor Garner, a former SAG vice president and board member, at the 11th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 5, 2005. In a statement, the union said Garner, a two-time Emmy winner, three-time SAG Award nominee and an Oscar nominee, was being recognized for career achievement as well as humanitarian accomplishment.

"James Garner is more than just one of America's finest actors," said SAG President Melissa Gilbert. "He is a man who has served his peers, his community and his country with integrity and quiet generosity."

Garner, 76, became a star in 1957 playing Bret Maverick in the TV Western series "Maverick." The same year, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association named him one of Hollywood's most promising newcomers.

Garner left "Maverick" in 1960 to pursue feature films -- a dicey move at the time, since the marketplace tended to regard TV actors as practically a different species from film actors. He co-starred with such top stars as Natalie Wood in "Cash McCall" and with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in "The Children's Hour" before joining Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough and Charles Bronson in the cast of the classic World War II drama "The Great Escape."

Garner shared the screen with Doris Day in the 1963 romantic comedy "Move Over Darling" and with Julie Andrews in the 1964 drama "The Americanization of Emily." He had a hit in 1969 with "Support Your Local Sheriff!" and returned to series TV in 1971, starring in the short-lived Western "Nichols."

In 1974 Garner began a seven-year run in what would become his signature role as private detective Jim Rockford on NBC's "The Rockford Files." Cannell, who co-created the show with veteran creator-producer Roy Huggins -- and went on to create such hits as "The A-Team," "Hunter" and "Wiseguy" -- told United Press International Garner was mostly responsible for the success of "Rockford."

"It was a well-written show but, please, without him being able to deliver on the comedy the way he did, in such a subtle way, it would have been nothing, in my opinion," said Cannell.

Garner was nominated for an Emmy for best actor in a drama series each year from 1976 through 1980, winning the award in 1977.

"He should have won every year, in my opinion," said Cannell.

Garner earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for "Murphy's Romance" in 1985. He picked up 13 Emmy nominations in all, including two as a producer on the 1989 Hallmark Hall of Fame special "My name Is Bill W." and the 1987 special "Promise," which won for best drama/comedy special that year.

Garner helped organize Martin Luther King's march on Washington for Civil Rights in 1963 and visited U.S. troops in Vietnam in 1967. He is a member of the National Support Committee of the Native American Rights Fund and a strong supporter of the new National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution.

He is a member of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame and the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. In 1993 he received the Western Heritage Award for Lifetime Achievement in Film and Television from the Gene Autry Museum in Los Angeles, and in 1995 he received an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree at the University of Oklahoma.

When Hollywood life achievement awards are announced each year, they are typically associated with more glamorous names than Garner's -- names such as De Niro, Streisand, Streep and Nicholson. Garner has managed to put together a distinguished career more or less inconspicuously.

"When Jim was young, even with 'Maverick,' he was so handsome and he had such an easygoing charm on camera that people didn't think he was working very hard," said Cannell. "Even when we were doing 'Rockford,' people were saying, 'That guy, he could do the phone book and it would be OK.'"

However, Cannell said Garner was a hardworking and versatile actor who could play heavies, cowards or "funny guys in spitball comedies" equally as well.

"Just about anything you want, Jim could play," he said. "Nobody ever gave him the credit that I always felt he deserved."

Cannell said Garner was influential as well, citing as an example the case of Tom Selleck, who co-starred in a few episodes of "The Rockford Files" before becoming a star on "Magnum, P.I." and came away impressed with the way Garner conducted himself on the set.

"When Tom became 'Magnum,' he definitely wanted to be Jim Garner," said Cannell. "He wanted to behave the way Jim did."

Cannell recalled a time when a crew member on "The Rockford Files" was hospitalized following a traffic accident, and Garner visited him three times a week on his way home from work.

"The crew would just kill for him, because they knew he cared about them," he said. "He was an amazing star and he affected all of us."

At the same time, Cannell said Garner never understood, for example, how it came to be that he was once named one of the sexiest men in Hollywood.

"He looked at me across (a restaurant) table and he said, 'You know Steve, I get up in the morning and I look in the mirror and I don't get it. I just don't get it. What do they see?" Cannell recalled. "It was that, quite frankly, that made him so easy to be with. He was just one of the guys."

In recent years Garner has played older men, co-starring with Gena Rowlands in the feature film "The Notebook" and joining the cast of the ABC comedy "8 Simple Rules" following the untimely death of series star John Ritter. Cannell suggested the new chapter in Garner's career was giving Hollywood a chance to re-evaluate him.

"He's getting older and he's in the character business, so now we're getting a chance to see how wonderful he is," said Cannell. "He is now getting the recognition that he didn't get when he was a leading man. All of us who worked with him are so happy for him, because this guy is a 10 on the scale of 10."

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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