A lot of people are mourning James Garner today, with the actor passing away at the age of 86–but there are also, sadly, a lot of people trying to remember the guy. That’s kind of understandable. James Garner peaked as a movie star back in the ’60s and early ’70s. He was better known as one of televisions’s weirdest leading man. He had an unlikely streak as one of Hollywood’s most offbeat tough guys, with three television series showcasing Garner as a reluctant hero who’d spend most of any action scene trying to talk himself out of getting hit.
That began with Maverick, where Garner was a gambler who really hated all this gunplay in the Wild West. That show made Garner a big deal, but he returned to the small screen in the weird western Nichols in 1971, where he played two characters (one of which got killed off) who also hated guns. Garner then landed his iconic role in The Rockford Files in 1974, where he spent the rest of the decade in plaid sport jackets as a private detective who mostly wanted to be left alone.
But there was also some big-screen work, including Grand Prix in 1966–which Garner helped turn into one of our 5 Racing Movies With Actors Who Really Raced. Garner was famously athletic and known for doing his own stunts. That included racing cars. It would also lead to some health problems over the years. Garner was also famously cranky, and all of his television series were marked by contract disputes.
We should also note that Garner–who came out of tough times in Oklahoma–had also stayed married to the same gal since August 17, 1956. That’s not typical Hollywood.
James Garner did manage to make one big impression to the younger generation, though. He played the senior-citizen version of Ryan Gosling in The Notebook–and VH1 recently did a special about the film’s 10th anniversary, including this great story from director Nick Cassavetes about when the two actors first met…
[Ryan] says, “I was thinking about accents. There’s all kinds of South Carolina accents. One’s more rural,” and this and that. [Garner] goes, “I don’t do accents, kid. They’re stupid.” And [Ryan] goes, “Okay. What about eye color? I have blue eyes. You have brown eyes.” He says, “Everyone knows Jim Garner’s got brown eyes. Do what you want, kid.” [Ryan] says, “Okay, I guess I’ll wear contacts. What about hair?” And he says, “Do whatever you want, kid. Nice to meet you. See you later.”
Ryan looked at me and said, “Shut up–don’t even say a word.” So that’s just an example of two extremely different types of acting styles. Both are wildly successful.
We mostly like the part where James Garner says, “Everyone knows Jim Garner’s got brown eyes.” We’re pretty sure that most of the Notebook audience didn’t know that–but James Garner was a movie and television star back when those things were in short supply, so he had the right to assume some fame. Garner had fun, too, which brings us back to Grand Prix, which looked like this…