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Sunday, 27 January 2019

Book review - The Garner Files

This is a memoir by James Garner (and Jon Winokur) with an introduction by Julie Andrews (published in 2011).

Garner died three years after its publication, in 2014, aged 86.

He began by observing that he’d avoided writing this book because he reckoned he was pretty average and didn’t think anyone would care about his life. He was browbeaten into writing it and he also felt it would allow him to acknowledge those who’d helped him along the way. ‘Here’s this dumb kid from Oklahoma, raised during the Depression, comes to Hollywood, gets a career, becomes famous, makes some money, has a wonderful family… what would I change? Nothing. I wouldn’t change a thing.’ (page xi)

As far as work went, in his early years he was a drifter. Then he went to Korea, got wounded [‘in the butt, how could they miss? (p27)], ‘I wasn’t a hero; I just got in the way a lot.’ (p30).

After stage acting he was hired as a Warner Bros actor, and he was being paid $500 a week. Eventually, he was called in to test for a new Western series. ‘They’d looked at just about every actor in Hollywood to lay a gambler wandering the frontier in the 1870s, but they picked me, probably because they… figured, Hey – we’ve already got this guy under contract, we might as well save money.’ (p51) He wasn’t happy about taking the role of Bret Maverick, he wanted to play in movies.

Jack Warner preferred recycling stories they’d already paid for, so the Maverick pilot was adapted from a book the studio had already purchased. Garner found himself wearing cast-off clothes from earlier movies to fit in with stock footage ‘re-adapted’ – standard operating procedure at Warners then. I can recall noting several recycled storylines in such series as Maverick, Cheyenne and others.

Garner was a little peeved (‘a little?’ I can hear him say) that he was still being paid $500pw when Maverick had displaced the big shows, Ed Sullivan and Jack Benny, which were making $25,000pw.

His view of the Bret Maverick character: ‘… quick-witted and quick on the draw, though he tries to avoid gunplay. But he’s no coward… exactly. He just believes in self-preservation… he only cheats cheaters… He’ll come to  your aid if there’s an injustice involved, and he’ll always stand up to bullies.’ (p58).

It took eight days to make a Maverick episode, starting on Tuesday and finish late Monday, usually. Since the episodes were being aired every seven days, they were inevitably going to run out of shows. ‘So they got the idea of adding a brother who could alternate with Bret.’ (p55)  Stuart Whitman and Rod Taylor were auditioned for the Bart Maverick part, and it went to Jack Kelly for $650pw…!

Warner Bros made 124 Maverick episodes and Garner was in 52. When he left the series, they tried to get Sean Connery, even flying him over, but he said ‘no’. Finally, they brought in Roger Moore (already under contract to Warners); he agreed to do it provided they’d release him from his contract at the end of the year; reluctantly, they agreed – and Moore went on to become The Saint.

He writes about many of his acting friends, and writers and directors, and offers plenty of insights into the profession in those days. He talks about his car racing with actors Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, and golf tournaments. And a lot of anecdotes, too; such as the on subject of autographs. ‘Paul Newman told Garner he stopped signing them forever the night he was standing at a urinal in Sardi’s and a guy shoved a pen and paper at him. Paul didn’t know whether to wash first before shaking hands… Gary Cooper wrote cheques for everything – gasoline, cigarettes, groceries, meals in restaurants – because he knew most of them wouldn’t be cashed. Coop figured he might as well get paid for signing his name.’ (p182)

He’s rightly proud of some of his film work, notably the TV movie Promise (1985) with James Woods, which dealt with the subject of schizophrenia. He comments, ‘I’m sorry to say that 25 years later, schizophrenia is the worst mental health problem facing the nation. Asylums have been closed, and government spending on mental health has been cut to the bone. There are new medications for schizophrenia, but though more expensive, they’re not much more effective than the old ones. And there is still no cure.’ (p195)

What caught my eye was his attitude to writers. ‘You can put the best actors and the best directors in the world out there, but they’re nothing without the written word. The script is sacred. I don’t improvise, because the writers write better than I do.’ (p171) ‘I didn’t get into the business to be better than anyone else. They give too much credit to actors, and I don’t think they should be singled out. It’s the writing. When it’s done right, acting isn’t a competition, it’s a collaboration. The better my fellow actors are, the better I am. If I get an acting award, I think I’m stealing it from somebody who deserves it more than I do…’ (p184)

Stephen J Cannell tells of a time filming Rockford. In five and a half years of the show, they’d never rewritten a line for Garner, but on this occasion he’s upset, he can’t get the line right. Cannell and Chase, the writer, suggest they can break the lines up, give some of it to Noah Beery. Garner said, ‘Change this line? Steve, this is a great line. I just can’t remember the goddam thing!’ So they never changed it (p231).

‘Every Christmas he gave each of the writers their scripts bound in beautiful red leather with gold lettering on the cover’ – David Chase (p233).

At the back of the book are comments from family and friends, reminiscences, a listing with comments of his films and TV work.

A fitting memoir – and memorial.

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