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The Unexpected Hero

ABOUT FIFTEEN YEARS ago, a female colleague and I were discussing the appeal of Tom Cruise. He was winding down his run of the most successful string of hits in the history of American film. My thoughts on his appeal tended to focus on the visceral: the thousand-watt smile, the laugh that was actually endearing in those days, the intensity and drive in his eyes, and how his body seemed to never sit still. He was also relentlessly competitive, and gave off an aura of fearlessness. There was something dangerous about him, and he had a charisma that was equally apparent to men and women.

But my colleague said I had missed the most important aspect of his appeal to women: he wasn’t perfect. The quintessential Tom Cruise character had all of those dazzling qualities, but he was also flawed. He was wounded, vulnerable, even fragile; and it was this buried sadness that made him so alluring. The description of the breathtakingly exciting man who is carrying around some deep hurt is also an apt description of the most sexy and charismatic actors of my youth, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. Indeed, most of the sexy men doing manly things in movies for the last fifty years fit this model. (I do not think it applies to the previous generation, but that is another story.)

And then there is James Garner. The lead in dozens of films and the star of two of the most successful TV series of all time—Maverick (1957-60) and Rockford Files (1974-80)—Garner created a very different and unusual kind of hero. Actors may not be the smartest people in the arts, but they usually have an understanding of their persona and its appeal. Garner is no exception. He understands that he created a kind of hero who thinks that aggressive and assertive masculinity is unnecessarily risky, and only a means of last resort. His dazzle is less rooted in being dangerous than in his ability to talk or charm his way out of danger. He is the hero who saves the day with minimal displays of machismo. As for internal damage, Garner’s characters are at ease, happy, healthy, sane. His self-deprecation reflects his self-confidence. What’s dazzling is how he thrived in a world of action and jeopardy without displaying the accoutrements of the hero, making him a unique kind of male on the American landscape.

For a man who seemed so comfortable with himself, Garner’s autobiography makes one wonder how such a person could have emerged from his childhood James Baumgarner was born in 1928. His half-Cherokee mother died when he was five. His alcoholic father bounced between Norman, Oklahoma, where Garner and his two older brothers were raised largely by female relatives, and Los Angeles. His father was irresponsible, inconsistent, and unreliable. But he wasn’t abusive: that was left to his second wife, “the redhead,” who beat Garner and his brothers regularly. She terrorized one of his brothers sexually and made Garner wear dresses in public. At the age of fourteen, after years of violence, Garner snapped, grabbed her in the middle of a beating, threw her to the ground, and began to strangle her. He is quite certain he would have killed her if he hadn’t been pulled off. Thirty years later he still worried that she might come back into his life and shoot him. But after that explosion the marriage ended, to the great relief of all three brothers.

Garner then moved back and forth between Norman and Los Angeles. He was in and out of high school in both places, had a stint in the merchant marine, went to University of Oklahoma to play football, was injured, joined the army in time to spend a year fighting in Korea, and in his mid-twenties tried some acting. Small Broadway parts were followed by his career-making break as the lead in the TV western series Maverick. Bret Maverick was a professional gambler and card shark—smart, funny, immensely likable, able to fight when necessary, but preferring words and charm.

The only problem for Garner was that he chafed at anchoring the biggest show on television and making only $500 per week, while Jack Benny, Steve Allen, and Ed Sullivan were making fifty times as much on less successful shows. But Warner Bros. had him under contract and was not interested in his sense of justice. Astonishingly, he quit the show after three seasons, sued Warner Bros., and won his release. He would do the same thing in the late 1970s with The Rockford Files, dropping out of his hugely popular show, suing Universal Studios, and winning his claim that he was entitled to money that was being misused by various executives.

Garner had been warned since his Maverick days that these “rebellions” would derail his career. They never did. His autobiography has scores of anecdotes on how he moved comfortably between movies and television, more successful in the latter, but always finding work. And at the end of the day, he is immensely proud that he stood up to the people and corporations that tried to control and take advantage of him. That sense of fairness translated into a lifetime of political support for various liberal causes (he describes himself as a “bleeding heart”).

And accidentally, the political became the personal: the second time he ever saw his one and only wife was at an Adlai Stevenson rally. She had a daughter with polio, and he happily embraced both of them. Married two weeks later, they would have a daughter together, and despite some alcohol problems on his part, they are still married. The autobiography chronicles all this, not to mention a near fist-fight with Charles Bronson, who had tried to cheat an “extra” in a poker game on the set of The Great Escape, his appreciation but dislike of a preening Steve McQueen, and some near fights with Lee Marvin over the latter’s abuse of women and alcohol.  

So the actor who created Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford was pugnacious and unafraid of confrontation, and his body bears the scars. Maverick and Rockford eschewed violence whenever possible. In his best and favorite role as Charlie Madison in The Americanization of Emily, Garner played a self-professed coward during World War II who sees heroism and valor as the source of war and evil. And yet Garner has been no stranger to violence. He was almost beaten to death when he challenged an ex-Green Beret during a road rage incident. He was wounded twice in Korea, though one was by friendly fire. He put his body through hell doing his own stunts, especially on The Rockford Files, and has had nine knee operations, multiple fractures and broken bones, a quadruple bi-pass, and lives with painful arthritis. He was an excellent athlete in three sports.

Other paradoxes about Garner emerge in the autobiography. He made a living as an actor and was certainly a celebrity, but was painfully shy with the public. He could barely manage press junkets and personal appearances, and stage work terrified him. There is also the matter of drugs. Garner sounds like an old fuddy-duddy when complaining about explicit sex and foul language in the arts, but he briefly dabbled in cocaine, courtesy of John Belushi, and he has been a life-long user of marijuana, celebrating its emotional support and physical help with his arthritis.

Garner was never a great actor, and never pretended otherwise. But it is frustrating—in this otherwise enjoyable book—when he adamantly denies any self-consciousness about his methods. His favorite actors—Spencer Tracy and Gene Hackman—were clearly very thoughtful about what they were doing, but Garner disdains acting classes, laughs when actors talk about their art, never does any preparation for a role, and describes what he does best as simply reacting and listening. And while he always seems to be just a regular kind of likable guy, his best work (The Americanization of Emily, Marlowe, The Great Escape, Victor/Victoria, Murphy’s Romance, Barbarians at the Gate) makes clear that he is plying a craft and doing it well.

My favorite anecdote in his book involves Gary Cooper. Garner recounts how that Hollywood legend never paid for anything with cash, but only with checks. If he were getting a tank of gas, a quart of milk, or pack of cigarettes, he always bought it with a check. Cooper explained that people almost never cashed his checks, because they wanted to keep them as autographs. You can see almost any of Garner’s memorable characters tipping their hat to this mix of the roguish and the clever.

Harry Chotiner teaches film at New York University’s SCPS.