“The Garner Files: A Memoir” (Simon & Schuster), by James Garner and Jon Winokur: Better not say anything nasty to his face about “The Garner Files” or actor James Garner might just haul off and deck you.
Garner has decked a lot of people over the years, from an abusive stepmother to an obnoxious fan. As the star of TV’s “The Rockford Files” explains in his amiable memoir, they deserved it. Once you’ve heard the story – and there are plenty to hear – it’s hard not to agree with him.
“Something funny happens as you get older,” writes Garner, now 83. “You don’t hold back so much.”
That might explain the many personal revelations in “The Garner Files.” He smoked pot for most of his adult life and even did a little cocaine with John Belushi. He’s a bleeding-heart Democrat who considers Adlai Stevenson the most intelligent man to have run for president, with Barack Obama a close second.
Garner calls his friend Steve McQueen an insecure poseur and not much of an actor. He labels Charles Bronson, another co-star from the 1963 movie “The Great Escape,” bitter and belligerent. Many other people in Garner’s life receive nothing but praise.
Laid-back charm and a sense of humour fuel such memories, two qualities shared by the characters Garner often played in a career of 50-plus years. In real life, pessimism and anger stemming from a hardscrabble childhood in Depression-era Oklahoma temper the charm but not the honesty and the humour.
Odd jobs and a combat stint in Korea marked his early adult years. Good looks, good luck and a friend in Los Angeles landed him in the acting business. The wry Western series “Maverick” made Garner a star in 1957 and, after a long run on the big screen, he won over a new TV audience in the 1970s as private eye Jim Rockford.
Garner would just as soon talk about golf or racing as acting. He rates only two of his movies as excellent (“The Americanization of Emily” and “The Notebook”). Some he considers pretty good (“Grand Prix” and “Murphy’s Romance”), but most strike him as average – and a few as downright awful. He’s proud, and rightly so, of made-for-TV movies like “Promise” and “My Name Is Bill W.”
Full of funny stories and observations, “The Garner Files” offers the kind of clubhouse banter you might expect from a hardworking, successful guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously – and doesn’t want you to, either.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks” (University of Wisconsin Press).