Tom Selleck is fond of saying that every actor should take “star lessons” from James Garner. Having worked with Garner on “The Rockford Files” very early in his career, Selleck noticed that Garner realized the star’s demeanor had a ripple effect on the set, establishing a tone for everyone else’s behavior.
Whatever his personal qualities, the actor – who died over the weekend at the age of 86 – was the quintessential star on screen, someone who moved with apparent ease between comedy and drama, film and television, before that was quite as fashionable as it is today.
This was exemplified by signature TV roles like “Rockford” and “Maverick,” but that barely scratches the surface of the Garner persona, which combined square-jawed, matinee-idol looks with self-effacing qualities and easy-going charm.
Small wonder Garner remained in demand long after the phone normally stops ringing for many leading men, sliding into senior citizen and grandpa roles, a la “The Notebook.” More than anything, Garner gave off the impression of someone who was comfortable in his own skin – good company, even when the parts and programs weren’t especially interesting.
Beyond the series that will surely be mentioned in appreciations, his work in a few splendid TV movies shouldn’t be overlooked, including “Promise,” co-starring James Woods; and “Barbarians at the Gate,” a brutally funny and acerbic account of the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco, written by Larry Gelbart for HBO. As for films that might otherwise be forgotten, Garner cut a dashing figure as Wyatt Earp and Philip Marlowe in the late ‘60s in “Hour of the Gun” and “Marlowe,” respectively.
For whatever reason, major movie stardom eluded Garner, despite no shortage of opportunities, which explains why his TV work came to professionally define him. Yet whatever projects one chooses to remember from a career that spanned more than 50 years, the thought of Garner’s passing leaves an oversized pair of shoes to fill – if only because so few performers, past or present, have appeared to share his knack for bearing the weight of stardom quite as gracefully.