Monday, August 06, 2012

James Garner's autobiography

A Review from Classic TV History

“Didn’t enjoy working with Tony Franciosa, who kept abusing the stunt men. He purposely wasn’t pulling his punches in fight scenes, and he kept doing it despite my warnings to stop . . . so I had to pop him one.”

- James Garner, The Garner Files

The succinct sketch of John Frankenheimer that James Garner offers in his long-awaited memoir, The Garner Files, is probably as valuable an observation as any offered in A Little Solitaire. Garner, who starred in Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, thought the director was something of a humorless control freak, who “didn’t want anyone with an opinion” in the cast. But Garner admired Frankenheimer’s encyclopedic attention to detail and his ability to command a production as huge and potentially dangerous as Grand Prix.

A number of my friends, of both the real and Facebook varieties, have been praising and quoting from The Garner Files. I assume that’s because Garner is one of the few living stars from whom many of us would really want to hear at some length, and also (more importantly) because Garner does not shy away from, and indeed even seems to relish, naming and shaming anyone who ever pissed him off. It’s a long and entertaining list, one that includes Charles Bronson (“a pain in the ass”), Glen A. Larson (a “thief”), and Lee Marvin (another “pain in the ass”), among others.

In The Garner Files, Garner comes across as a straight shooter, smarter and more introspective than the most of characters he played. He is, for instance, quite conscious of how the laid-back, “natural” quality that was his trademark was in fact carefully constructed. (Garner’s theory is that his studied casualness emerged out of a process of getting past his stage fright.) The book ends with a section of testimonials from Garner’s family and friends, which include major movie stars as well as racing pals and “below the line” crew members. That kind of victory roll would constitute an exhibition of appalling arrogance in almost anyone else’s memoirs, but Garner has allowed his friends to tell stories on him. Some of them are flattering, but others hint at Garner’s fallibility and his legendary temper. (The words of Rockford Files co-star Joe Santos, in their entirety: “Garner says he’s easygoing, but he’s lying. He’s angry and desperate, just like I am. That’s why Rockford has always worked so well, because Jim is coming from a very passionate, driven place.”)

Garner is so resolutely forthright that his book is worth reading, but it’s hardly one of the great or even very good autobiographies. Garner acknowledges his collaborator, Jon Winokur, with typical generosity, but that doesn’t prevent the book from coming to a dead stop whenever Winokur takes over to fill in the basic facts about Garner’s movies and television projects. The sections on the star’s two major TV series, Maverick and The Rockford Files, feel especially ghost-written, and add little or nothing to the stories told in Ed Robertson’s books on those shows. Garner comes to life a bit more when discussing his favorite films (The Great Escape, The Americanization of Emily, Grand Prix), but I sense that his real passions are for boring shit like golf, auto racing, making money, and (to use his oft-repeated term) “decking” people.

Garner presents himself as a defender of the little guy, and I don’t doubt the truth of that. But he also seems to have enjoyed maneuvering himself into situations in which he could punch out people and – because the punchee was behaving badly in some way – still hold onto his image as a good guy. One such person, a golf course heckler, turned out to be aRockford fan with alcohol and drug problems, who cried after Garner knocked him down. (Again, full credit to Garner for leaving those details in, even if they are presented with a not-my-fault shrug.)

Garner’s particular ethics of violence may make him less of a bully than some of the bullies he criticizes (including Frankenheimer), but he strikes me as a bully nonetheless, a hothead who cultivated his temper and unloaded on people whenever he knew he could get away with it. Is a wealthy, powerful, and well-liked movie star ever likely to find himself in situations where he has to hit someone? Was socking Tony Franciosa really an act of standing up for defenseless stuntmen (note the oxymoronic aspect of that phrase) – many of whom probably later found themselves on sets where Franciosa had the power to fire them and Garner wasn’t around to intercede – or was it just an ostentatious display of machismo? I still love the television James Garner, the pragmatic, risk-averse “reluctant hero” (Garner’s own term) who made Maverick and Rockford so distinctive and down-to-earth and compulsively watchable. But after reading his book, I wonder whether I would like the real James Garner.


pattinase (abbott) said...

It's best to never read autobiographies of our heroes or hear them speak on talk shows. It never turns out well.

Cap'n Bob said...

He wasn't that handy with his fists when another driver punched him out after a fender bender.

Ron Scheer said...

Enjoyed this, thanks. I now understand why I don't like the roles where he plays a sour, angry man. That was no acting.

Dave Plante said...

Yeah, Cap'n Bob! I was/am a big Rockford fan and I remember reading, many years after the actual incident, about Garner being pulled out of his car in traffic and getting bitch-slapped. I think this assault happened in the late 70's/early 80's.

Funny he didn't mention that incident in the book, huh? Getting manhandled by another dude is definitely corrosive to one's ego and I guess he probably buried that experience as deep as his mind would allow.

I haven't read the book, but from what Ed's comments revealed, he seems a bit of an ass in real life. Still doesn't take away from how much I enjoy him in The Rockford Files, though.