When an older actor or actress passes away, the most common obituary line is something like, “We don’t have movie stars like him [or her] anymore.” George Clooney seems to have partially blunted this annoying tendency (how does a society continue to survive without Audrey Hepburn?), but James Garner, who passed away over the weekend at the age of 86, really was unique.
For starters, Garner moved back and forth between television and film with an ease that today would be surprising. This is perhaps finally changing with the arrival of high-end television, but Garner was equally at home in shows like "Maverick" and "The Rockford Files" as he was in big movie roles. He starred in romantic comedies and action films, as well as excellent dramas like The Americanization of Emily (1964), which is probably his best big-screen role, and which showed, as Clive James noted in an essay several years ago, his superb ability to smoothly and compellingly deliver dialogue. (The writer in this case was Paddy Chayevsky.) The same talent showed up in the wonderful HBO movie Barbarians at the Gate (1993), where he played RJR Nabisco’s F. Ross Johnson.
As for television, Garner will principally be remembered for two series. The first of them, "Maverick," was mediocre escapism, but "The Rockford Files" remains one of network television's most entertaining shows. Garner’s ease in both title roles was probably the result, as he once wrote, of one simple thing: “If you look at Maverick and Rockford, they’re pretty much the same guy. One is a gambler and the other a detective, but their attitudes are identical.” This held true for many of Garner’s characters—including his enjoyable Philip Marlowe, from a 1969 Raymond Chandler adaptation—and it probably explains both why he was never considered a great, multifaceted actor and why his career was so successful.
If there is one younger actor who approaches Garner’s combination of charm and humor it is probably Mel Gibson. (I suppose the word in the previous sentence, given the last few years, should be “approached.”) The difference is that most of Gibson’s charm comes from his anxiety and manic energy. Garner was much cooler and more at ease. You can see the differences on display in the film version of Maverick (1994), with Gibson in the title role, and which isn’t all that good; still, the two men have such distinct styles that they mesh well together. (Garner has a supporting role.)
You can also see his unique charm opposite Steve McQueen in The Great Escape (1963), another movie-star that he couldn’t have been more different from in terms of style, but who was able to delight and charm audiences in similar ways. Bruce Willis, in his best roles, gives off the same vibe that Garner does: Both appear entirely comfortable in their own skin.
Indeed, if you watch The Great Escape, or The Americanization of Emily, or Garner’s television roles today, what you really see is a man out in front of his time, largely because Garner doesn’t appear to be conforming to any outside standard of manliness. This is probably why he and Cary Grant have aged so well, and other stars, especially macho-types like John Wayne and Stallone and Schwarzenegger, have not. (Clint Eastwood would be the counter-example here.) Garner was funny and self-assured, and he always seemed more ironic and aware than anyone else onscreen. This is one way of ensuring that your work never feels dated, and it is why Garner’s numerous film and television appearances are still worth tracking down and watching.