Arts: The maverick who went full circle: James Garner had all it took to be a fifties film star - except the snobbery about television. Now he's back, as his best-known character's father. David Thomson on a Hollywood great

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The Independent Culture
IN AMERICA, there are a few actors who don't do television. This is a strange kind of snobbery, granted that movies make their inevitable way to the small screen as video cassettes where, in most cases, the leading actors do very well on residual earnings. They are not too proud then to take the checks. But still they do not work directly for television because the screen is small and the image insipid? Because its show their performance may be broken up by sordid advertisements? Because the shooting schedules are so tight? Or just because the legend persists, that television is somehow undignified, nouveau riche and lower-class?

The reasons for this superiority are the harder to understand in that it came into being in television's famously golden age, the 1950s, when there was a quantity of live drama on the American tube that leaves today's viewer wistful. But it was in the 1950s that the shrinking movie business saw so many of its 'greats' relegated to television where the money was less, the material often wretched and even stardom had a 'Sale' tag on it. So movie people were afraid of television and left its empire to people like Lucille Ball, Jack Webb, Jackie Gleason, James Arness, David Janssen, Danny Thomas and Andy Griffith, actors who had never properly made it on the big screen.

Yes, this is a piece about James Garner. So don't get impatient. Behave like a serious reader who understands context.

Now, in the late Fifties and early Sixties, you might have found some young hopefuls on television. Jack Nicholson had small parts on Dr Kildare. Dustin Hoffman did Naked City and The Defenders when he was lucky enough to get a call. Robert Redford worked for television whenever he could, and Warren Beatty was a regular on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. But once those guys had made it as movie stars, they swore off television religiously. Years later, Beatty even withheld Reds from network screenings because it would have to be cut to fit the time-slots. There are great actors who have been more completely in denial: Marlon Brando has only ever done only one thing ever for TV playing the American Nazi, George Lincoln Rockwell in Roots: The Next Generation; and, as far as I can discover, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have never done anything for the small screen.

So let us now turn to the admirable James Garner. He is 66 this year; he is one of the most versatile of actors, especially deft at comedy; and he does TV. Does he ever. One reason why Mr Garner is so good is that in defiance of those loftier American actors he has believed in working all the time.

Consider this: from 1957 to 1960, Garner was Bret Maverick that entailed approximately 75 one-hour episodes. Keep count, even if you weren't old enough to see the original Maverick. Then, from 1974 to 1980, he was the private eye Jim Rockford insinend on The Rockford Files that's another six seasons with, say, 25 hour-long shows a season. What's that? Right, that's So that's 225 hours of prime-time exposure. More or less, that's the equivalent of 110 movies. The equivalent, more or less, of 110 movies. How many movies have Brando, Beatty, Redford and Pacino made? Come on, quicker than that Brando 33, Beatty 19, Redford 28, Pacino 19.

All right, you're starting to get a little defensive now. You're going to ask whether the workhorse Garner could have played Michael Corleone, the man in Last Tango, John Q McCabe or Bob Woodward? Those are fair questions, but then you've got to you must tell me whether, in addition to 225 hours of prime time, Beatty, Redford et al could or would have done close to 40 movies, the Polaroid commercials and then played the flamboyant tycoon in Barbarians at the Gates in 1992?

It's about time James Garner got had some respect. He was born in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1928, to parents named Baumgarner. So he grew up in the dustbowl and the Depression. When His mother died, when he was five, insandend he acquired a stepmother, Wilma 'a nasty bitch,' he called her. She would ride?? him and beat him, and when he got out of line as a kid he was made to wear a dress and take the name 'Louise'. As a young teenager, he had one life-and-death brawl with Wilma where in which he reckoned that one of them was going to have to kill the other. Then the family intervened, and the boy was held down so she could give him a thorough whipping. He went away (in 1944), he joined the Merchant Marine, and he later served in the Korean War where he won a couple of Purple Hearts. When he came back to America, he was in Los Angeles, and he reckoned he might try to be an actor.

He was not a kid any more: three years older than James Dean would have been, Garner was signed on at Warner Brothers (Dean's studio) in 1956. And he began to make movies, a couple as the tall, dark squire to Dean's one-time girl, Natalie Wood. These movies were minor affairs, and Garner looked no more interesting than dozens of other would-be he-men, until Maverick. That series had set out with a straight face, to be as solemn and tough as Gunsmoke or Wagon Train, with Garner playing a wandering gambler. But something happened. The series was blatantly re-processing old movie scripts. Garner realised he was playing a guy called 'Bret' not even Brett. So he began to play the remorseless lines for laughs that early, comedy rose to his surface and helped him take charge. By the 1958-9 season, Maverick was the sixth most watched show on American television and Garner was famous. Actors did not rule such series, of course. The enterprise of Maverick owed a lot to its creator, Roy Huggins, and to its first director, Budd Boetticher. But it's clear that Garner's own style helped reveal what the show might be.

At the same time, his movies Darby's Rangers, Cash McCall, Up Periscope were meekly repeating the cliches kidded in that Maverick mocked. No one seemed to notice the variance. For movies, Garner was the chattel of Warners, but for television his wrath at being underpaid for Maverick exploded. He quit the show, and grew in stature. Even His movies got better as a result: he was with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in The Children's Hour; he was one of the stars starred in a big hit, The Great Escape; and there was a run of worthwhile parts 36 Hours, a clever war story; The Americanis; Grand Prix, where he rather scooped his friend, Steve McQueen, in the hustle to do a race-car movie; playing Wyatt Earp in Hour of the Gun; and Support Your Local Sheriff, a delicious parody of stalwart Earp-ism, and definitive proof that Garner's rugged good -looks came alive when his tongue was in his cheek.

He had the materials for sophisticated comedy, if anyone had known what that was. He was in the league of Cary Grant, but Grant had wisely retired when he saw that his kind of movie was going out of fashion. So Garner went back to TV and The Rockford Files where he played a kind of Philip Marlowe figure for the 1970s hip, laconic, honorable, honourable, but familiar with the underworld (Rockford had served time in jail before his new career as a detective).

Only once, in its first season, was Rockford in the top 20 shows. But it had a very loyal audience who treasured the quality of the writing and the world-weary humor humour of Garner himself. He won an Emmy for his portrayal, in 1977, and by the time he was 50 he was a potent model for allegedly mature Americans. No other TV hero was as smart, wry or humane. That popularity led into the Polaroid to commercials. For a few years in the late Seventies, Garner and the actress Mariette Hartley did a series of ads for what was the new craze Polaroid cameras. They were a couple from 1930s romantic comedies: he was supposedly explaining the gizmo to her, but he got it wrong, and she began to laugh at him. These were 30-second spots, but they were written, shot and played like episodes in an on-going movie and they were sexy and hilarious. People began to watch TV to see the new ads, and now, without question, Garner was as assured, as fussy and as vulnerable as Grant.

In real life, there was more iron in his soul. He went to court with Universal, the company that owned Rockford, because they were screwing him?legal??. They said the series was in debt when it was a money machine. Not many actors choose to rock the boat, but Garner had no doubts. He won and he has continued to name and scorn the scoundrelsis Sheinberg dead? those notably Sidney Sheinberg of Universal who tried to wrong him. It became known that Garner would not be intimidated. He got into fist fights, and again he won. There was a John Wayne in this Cary Grant, and he began to gather to himself a rare level of trust and popularity. No one dared blackball him. In the Eighties, he was even asked by the Democrats to run for governor of California. He refused, but he is a scathing enemy of the right wing.

There were problems: he had suffered several injuries doing Rockford, and there was heart trouble to come. But in the 1980s, he settled comfortably into middle age. For the big screen, he did Altman's HEALTH , Murphy's Romance (for which he got won an Oscar nomination) and Sunset, where in which he played Earp again to Bruce Willis's Tom Mix. (He later declared he wouldn't work with Willis again, because the younger actor he didn't take the job seriously.) But, once more, his best efforts were for television, where he was actor in and producer of a series of films: Heartsounds, in which he and Mary Tyler Moore were a married couple, and the husband has a series of heart attacks; Promise, where he played a man who looks after a younger brother who is a schizophrenic (James Woods); and My Name is Bill W, in which he and Woods played the men who founded Alcoholics Anonymous. These TV movies were sincere and old-fashioned, but their interest in ordinary maladies and problems was supported by top-class production values. They are examples of the way television can treat issues that now terrify movies. Moreover, Garner was as good and efficient a producer as Clint Eastwood (another actor who had learnt his business in TV).

They aren't exceptional as movies; they're simply honourable productions. But Barbarians at the Gate is a real movie, an exhilarating black comedy about the RJR-Nabisco take- over, with Garner giving a superb performance as a businessman who loves to wheel, deal and spend money. It is a movie that makes Wall Street look simple-minded and house-trained, and a performance of greater depth and wildness than the one for which Michael Douglas won an Oscar. Whereas, all that happened to Garner was that TV Guide called him the best actor in the history of television.

That's no small claim, and Garner's is a great career. Now he's back on the big screen again as Mel Gibson's father in Maverick, a movie that could have used him as a challenging producer rather than just a tolerant co-star. It is said that his health is less than grand. So it's about time that people hailed him, and thanked him. Just because he works so damn hard shouldn't blind us to the fact that he's brave, smart, witty and someone whose experience and truculent wisdom show in every sigh and smothered smile.

James Garner is actually the way they used to make stars.

'Maverick' (PG) opens at the Warner West End (071-437 4343) and across the country on 15 July.

(Photograph omitted)