Life Achievement Award: Solid as a Rockford

Garner's maverick career, from cowboy to grandpa, is a 50-year journey

As the legend goes … one day back in 1953, James Garner, having suffered knee injuries in the Korean War, was driving down La Cienega Boulevard when he happened upon the offices of former schoolmate Paul Gregory, now a Hollywood talent agent.

By Garner’s own admission, were it not for the fact that a parking space opened up right in front of the building, he might never have stopped.

Garner signed with Gregory and, in short order, was cast in a non-speaking role in the Broadway production of “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,” directed by Charles Laughton.

That led to a $150-a-week contract with Warner Bros., a supporting part co-starring with Marlon Brando in Joshua Logan’s “Sayonara” and, in 1957, one of the two television roles with which he would become closely associated, in Roy Huggins’ comic western, “Maverick.”

“I got into that by accident, too,” Garner laughs. “They were looking all over town for somebody to do ‘Maverick.’ I was in Japan doing ‘Sayonara’ at the time. The studio couldn’t find anybody. They were looking at the ‘Sayonara’ dailies and said, ‘Let’s just use him.’ I was cheap and that’s how I got the role.”

Flash forward nearly half a century and that once-inexpensive contract player from Norman, Okla., is now a Hollywood vet and about to be the recipient of the Screen Actors Guild’s 41st annual Life Achievement Award — an honor Garner admits he’s flabbergasted to be receiving.

“When your peers give you something like this, it’s just outstanding,” Garner says in that trademark nonchalant rasp. “It’s not at all the kind of thing you set out to achieve.”

It was “Maverick,” of course, that turned Garner into a full-fledged star, but he departed the show in 1960, amidst a contract dispute with Warners that showed Garner could be as much of a nonconformist as the character he played.

“When Warner Bros. breached my contract, I wanted out. I wanted to be in control of my career and when you’re under contract to a studio, you’re not. They can make you do anything and they can ruin your career as fast as they can help it.

“My lawyer said to me, ‘What do you want? A new contract? More money?’ And I said, ‘I just want out.’ The reasoning is simple: If I’m going to have a failure, I want it to be my failure. If I’m going to have a success, I want it to be my success. And being under contract to a studio, you can’t guarantee that.”

Though “Maverick” ran for two more seasons sans Garner, the actor had little cause for regret. Almost immediately, his movie career took off, with leading roles in William Wyler’s “The Children’s Hour” (1960), John Sturges’ “The Great Escape” (1963) and two pairings with Doris Day: “Move Over, Darling” (1963) and Norman Jewison’s “The Thrill of It All” (1963).

Thus the tone was set for a career marked by the deceptive ease with which Garner has segued between screens large and small.

“Success is success, whether you have it in television or you have it in movies,” muses Garner. “I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve had some success in both. I never saw the difference. I always figured work is work. You know, you do the best you can in whatever medium you’re working in. I never looked up to or down on either medium. Hell, we’re actors — we do movies, television and commercials. We just try not to do delicatessen openings.”

Yet if Garner seemed to particularly flourish on TV, it may be because there’s something so warm and inviting about his laid-back Midwestern persona that welcomes him into America’s living rooms. And so, in 1974, he took the title role in “The Rockford Files,” as a Los Angeles private investigator whose outgoing answering machine message became a key component of that era’s pop-culture soundtrack. The series ran for six years, earning Garner five Emmy nominations and one win in the process and giving an early break to such future superstar TV writers as Steven Bochco and David Chase. It also introduced Garner to a whole new generation of fans and, as recently as 1999, the show lived on through a series of high-rated TV movie specials.

“If you look at it, he’s not a hell of a lot different from Maverick,” Garner says, reflecting on the character’s enduring popularity. “They’re anti-heroes, both of them, and, for an actor, that’s probably the most fun kind of leading man to play.”

In the post-“Rockford” years, Garner has hardly been content to rest on his laurels. In Martin Ritt’s “Murphy’s Romance” (1985), he was the glue holding together a wafer-thin comedy about the attraction between a spunky divorcee (Sally Field) and a widower pharmacist. And when Garner was nominated for the lead actor Oscar for his performance, the nod seemed an overdue tribute for the many years over which Garner had endeared himself to audiences.

Around that same time, Garner showcased his more dramatic side in a run of highly acclaimed telepics: winning another Emmy (this time as producer) for “Promise” (1986), in which he’s the older brother to James Woods’ schizophrenic; with Woods again, as one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, in “My Name Is Bill W.” (1989); and as a cantankerous widower in the touching “Decoration Day” (1990).

“I wanted to do projects that had more to do with the human condition,” Garner says. “Relationships rather than shoot-em-ups. I wanted people to deal with each other, so I looked for scripts that dealt with human nature.”

Now 76, Garner has few regrets — “I never wanted to do Shakespeare,” he says with a knowing smirk — and doesn’t even think about the proverbial “R” word: retirement.

“I don’t see any point in it,” he says. “You get old real quick when that happens.”

So, in the same year that sees him receiving an honor often reserved for the end of a career, Garner is also nominated for a SAG Award as supporting actor for his role as the young-at-heart senior reading his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife the story of “The Notebook.”

He is also back in America’s living rooms, as the grandfather on the ABC sitcom “8 Simple Rules” — as sharp, funny and self-effacing as ever.

Garner on Garner

On the occasion of his selection as the recipient of this year’s SAG Life Achievement Award, Daily Variety asked James Garner to offer his own take on some of the most noteworthy projects from his six-decade career:

“Sayonara” (1957)

Garner first attracted attention as a Marine Corps captain

stationed in Japan in Joshua Logan’s Oscar-winning

adaptation of the James Michener novel.

“I remember the first scene I did with Marlon Brando. We’re in the back seat of a taxi in Japan together. My hands were sweating and I was rubbing the sweat off. He said, ‘What’s the matter?’ I said, ‘I’m nervous.’ He said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Because I’ve never been in a good film before.’ From there, we got along great, and I learned a lot from him. We improvised about two-thirds of our scenes together.”

“The Great Escape” (1963)

As the Scrounger in John Sturges’ hugely popular action drama about WWII POWs, Garner held his own in an ensemble cast that included Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence and Charles Bronson.

“I loved it. We had great fun. It was wonderfully written and John Sturges was someone I really admired. The film has proven over the years to still hold its value.”

“The Americanization of Emily” (1964)

Paddy Chayefsky’s gently cynical anti-war fable, directed by Arthur Hiller, starred Garner as an American GI in England during the buildup to D-Day.

“That’s my favorite among the movies I’ve done. Paddy Chayefsky wrote a beautiful script and he talked about things that you weren’t supposed to be talking about at that time,

because of the situation in Vietnam. Everybody was afraid

of that film but it was great and said some wonderful things that needed to be said.”

The Rockford Files” (1974-80)

Though its physically demanding role and breakneck production schedule took its toll on Garner, the star has nothing but fond memories about his long-running series.

“Steve Cannell was wonderful. When the project was sent to me he wasn’t involved, he’d simply created it. I said, ‘I’ll do it, but I want that young man on board as a writer-producer.’ He didn’t want to do it at first but the studio talked him into it and he agreed to do it for one year. After a year, he said, ‘I’ll do it for as long as you want to do it, Jim.'”

“Murphy’s Romance” (1985)

Garner received his lone Academy Award nomination as the titular protagonist in Martin Ritt’s adaptation of the Max Schott novella.

“When they told me I’d been nominated, I was shocked. That type of role — there’s not enough scenery chewing to get that kind of recognition. I just don’t know how that happened.”

“Promise” (1986)

Garner’s first foray into producing was this acclaimed network movie, in which he inherits custody of his schizophrenic younger brother (James Woods). The telepic won five Emmy Awards.

“It was wonderful working with Jimmy Woods, and what a tremendous performance he gave. He’s such a creative actor. It’s wonderful to watch him get into character.”

“Barbarians at the Gate” (1993)

In the scabrous HBO satire, Garner played larger-than-life

RJR Nabisco CEO H. Ross Johnson, initiating a hostile takeover

of his own company from the inside.

“Another great script. Larry Gelbart did a tremendous job with it. The writing was so brilliant, to take about 1,000 characters from the book and narrow it down to about 15 or 20. I thought it turned out extremely well.”

“The Notebook” (2004)

Playing husband to Gena Rowlands’ Alzheimer’s-stricken wife

in this surprise box office hit, Garner is again generating

Oscar buzz for his performance.

“It was great to work with Gena and Nicky Cassavetes. He put together a hell of a cast and he’s a wonderful young director. I thought he did a beautiful job with that film.”