When news of James Garner’s passing broke on Sunday, the obituaries flooded in. “James Garner, Witty, Handsome Leading Man, Dies at 86,” went the one from the New York Times, and all of that is true. Garner’s wry wit and unassuming handsomeness were Middle American archetypes, and his characters often walked that fine line between clean-cut good guy and cool heel: a sweet spot in American narrative. But what truly distinguished Garner, and his most iconic character, Jim Rockford, was a streak of anti-authoritarian decency that ministered to a broken post-Watergate world.
Garner’s career spanned the ages. His first real role of prominence, of course, was in “Maverick,” and his characterization of Bret Maverick, a gambler who wasn’t averse to bending the rules, laid the groundwork for much of his strongest work. The show presented traditional Western adventure with believable romantic dynamics and doses of a wry, almost postmodern sense of humor. “Maverick” was a smart Western and a smart TV show at a time when the medium didn’t always embrace such things.
Yet despite the length of time Garner spent on “Maverick,” he is probably best remembered by today’s audiences for his portrayal of Jim Rockford on the iconic “The Rockford Files,” a show that was an excellent example of Right Place, Right Time, Right Talent.
After all, many, many television shows and movies had already been made about iconoclastic, haunted private investigators. From shows like John Cassavetes’ iconic one-season masterpiece “Johnny Staccato” to movies like Garner’s own “Marlowe,” a 1969 adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel that would inspire Rockford’s signature going rate: “200 dollars a day, plus expenses.” The hard-boiled, hard-luck private dick was already a prevalent trope in the American cultural narrative long before “The Rockford Files” came to pass. But “Rockford” was special.
The show itself found James Garner, the actor, in middle age, some years removed from his big run in feature films in the 1960s (which themselves evidenced a considerable range, from frothy comedies with Doris Day and Tony Randall to brooding films like “The Children’s Hour” and the anti-war romance “The Americanization of Emily”). Garner’s film work largely dried up in the early 1970s, and as is the case with so many actors thrust into that predicament, television provided a refuge and an avenue to reinvention.
When “Rockford” came out in 1974, the prevailing national mood was cynicism. The Watergate Affair, the Vietnam Debacle, and other non-negotiable changes in the cultural firmament (everything from an uptick in nuclear family dissolution to a decrease in the buying power of the common currency) primed the American viewing public for a very specific sort of anti-hero. One who waded through the everyday detritus of day-to-day compromises, world-weary yet, despite it all, demonstrated a sense of honor, compassion, and goodness that evoked the best aspects of the mid-century American Everyman. That was Jim Rockford.
Concomitant with all of those positive traits one saw in Jim Rockford, the character, was a staunch anti-authoritarian streak. Not the anti-authoritarianism of a campus radical, obviously, but one much more recognizable and noble in Middle America at the time. A desire to “live and let live,” and a need to be left alone as much as possible in the pursuit of one’s own happiness. For many viewers at the time and today, Rockford’s revulsion at quotidian small-mindedness struck a chord. He was them, or at least, understood them.
Rockford came by his distrust of authority honestly: he served a stint in prison, allegedly for a crime he didn’t commit. Living on the ocean in tony Malibu in a mobile home, he was the scourge of his neighbors, who saw his domicile (and the shootouts and other shady happenings that happened on the premises) as detracting from quality of life.
And, predictably enough, he had a checkered relationship with the LAPD. While he frequently used Dennis Becker, a friend from his own pre-prison police days, to check license tags and files for closed cases for him, he nonetheless had an adversarial relationship with the police in Los Angeles and elsewhere, who didn’t care for private eyes and didn’t really care for him either.
Likewise befitting the tone of the times, Rockford found himself repeatedly at loggerheads with movers and shakers throughout the LA area and elsewhere. Rockford’s reopening of “closed cases” to revisit the evidence that powerful people wanted buried struck a chord with network television viewers, common people who understood they were lied to all the time, by everyone from celebrities to public officials.
Jim Rockford found the corruption over the course of the show’s five-and-a-half seasons, in industry after industry, ranging from professional sports and rock and roll music to meat packaging and the mob, and he fought it, generally prevailing in one way or another but rarely getting paid properly for his efforts. He routinely would get stiffed on payouts, sacrificing his body to fulfill someone else’s needs.
And in the case of Garner vis-à-vis Rockford, life imitated art. Production ceased in the 6th season when his body broke down from doing all of his stunts for the series. A few years after that, he entered into a protracted suit against Universal for contract breach and bad faith dealings. And so “Rockford” ended (except for the TV movies in the 1990s), puttering out into a miasma of middle-aged injuries and industry grievances.
It was time for it to end anyway. The show, the setting, the colors, the glorious use of brown interiors and jackets and Firebirds… all of it was a Polaroid in time. If “The Rockford Files” had stuck around into the 1980s, it would have had to change, to become less gritty and more cutesy, or imbue some of the social messaging we got from Magnum PI (a show indebted to “Rockford,” but radically different and a function of its own place in time).
To be sure, James Garner’s career did not end with the close of “The Rockford Files” TV show in 1980. In fact, it drew new life. From comedies like “Tank” and “My Fellow Americans” to dramas like “Murphy’s Romance” and “The Notebook,” Garner continued to work right up until the point that his health would no longer permit it. Somewhere along the way, Garner had become quietly iconic, a performer who could step into any role and imbue it with that Garner Touch, taken for granted while he lived but is now being more fully recognized as something that we may never see again.
James Garner was described by at least one eulogist as a “reluctant hero” type, and that is apt in that Rockford (and Garner’s characters often) would prefer to deal with the world as it should be, not as it is. But they are stuck here on this mortal coil with the rest of us, and even though they may save us, they will be stuck paying the price. They were driven by a need to set things right, to ensure that a greater moral good prevails despite personal costs imposed.
From Maverick and Rockford onward, what distinguished Garner the most was how his characters always seemed to be in plausible situations. His low-key, laconic delivery ensured that, projecting permanence and cinching his continued viability. Long after Garner lost his leading man looks, he retained his leading man credibility.
A.G. Gancarski writes from Jacksonville, Florida.