American actor James Garner has died at his home in Los Angeles. He was 86.
Garner was perhaps best known for his rakish charm and eye-twinkling good looks. He was the sort of guy you wanted on your side in a jam, because he was the sort of guy who would know how to get out of that jam, whether it meant resorting to his fists or his wits.
Much has been made of how Garner ably hopped from television to film and back again (even if potential big-screen bosses worried he was too associated with his small-screen roles), but just as much could be discussed about how Garner so ably shoehorned his basic persona into just about every genre imaginable. If you want Garner in action mode, there’s plenty of room for that in his filmography. Want to see him outsmarting criminals in crime stories? He can handle that, too. And if you just want to see him playing romance or even comedy, he’s more than able to. Garner was a star, to be sure, but he was the rare kind of star who could make his essential James Garnerness work in just about any situation. He was versatile, but always somehow himself, a rare blend that many actors strive for but few achieve.
Want to get to know James Garner better? Here are five roles that will help you understand why he was such a beloved figure.
Garner’s big break came in 1957, when he was cast as Bret Maverick in the series named after the character. Not expected to be much of a hit when it debuted, Maverick instead became one of the most influential dramas of the era. Created by Roy Huggins, this Western is one of TV’s earliest examples of the antihero, as Bret lies and cheats his way across the Old West, though the series is careful to always keep his heart of gold intact. The series spawned a pretty good 1994 film, which also starred Garner as a mentor figure to the main character, played by Mel Gibson.
Where can I see it?: The whole series is available on DVD and for digital download from Amazon. But be forewarned: Not every episode has Garner in it.
2) The Great Escape
Garner hit the peak of his stardom with second billing in this classic 1963 war film. Watching the action-adventure movie today might underline just how many films have ripped it off over the years. The film holds up incredibly well, and Garner and star Steve McQueen make a great onscreen combo. (The film’s ensemble also includes Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson, among others.) Plus, the story of Allied prisoners of war escaping from a German camp during World War II is based on a true story, which gives all the action some gravitas.
Where can I see it?: The film is available on DVD and for digital rental.
3) The Americanization of Emily
Those looking to see the young Garner in a romantic mode should look no further than this 1964 film, which is also a terrific anti-war satire that preaches the virtues of cowardice. Assigned to adapt a popular novel of the same name for the screen, famous screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky took something that was melodramatic and played up the ridiculousness, until the story became a scathing parody of wartime values. It’s also the film that linked Garner with Julie Andrews, someone with whom he would reunite throughout his career and someone with whom he had great chemistry.
Where can I see it?: The film is available on DVD and for digital rental or purchase.
4) The Rockford Files
Though the studio heads who thought Garner couldn’t carry a movie because he was too much of a TV star were wrong, it’s not hard to see why they felt that way. The man took to television perfectly, and his second major TV hit, which debuted in 1974, showed why.that was the case. Garner was an expert at pulling the viewer into the action and acknowledging the ridiculousness of most television storytelling without quite breaking the fourth wall. He was the guy who crawled out of the screen and sat beside you munching popcorn on the couch. This detective show is one of the best TV dramas ever made, a wry, sly take on the private eye genre that has plenty of fun with the trappings of the format.
Where can I see it?: It’s on DVD, and it’s streaming on Netflix.
5) Murphy’s Romance
Garner was already slowing down by the time Rockford reached its end in 1980, and he spent most of the last decades of his career starring in smaller films (with the occasional Space Cowboys interspersed for good measure). This means he did yet more romances, and while 2004’s The Notebook is probably the best known of these films, check out the 1985 film Murphy’s Romance instead. Garner is more central to that film’s story (which is about an unlikely relationship that develops between his character and a younger woman played by Sally Field), and he’s so charming in it that he managed to score his only Oscar nomination for the role.
Where can I see it?: It’s available on DVD (though expensive), and you can also purchase it digitally.