With James Garner’s passing, the list is dwindling down for truly heroic, three-dimensional Hollywood leading men.
James Garner’s death has hit me harder than I realized it would.
You see, some kids grow up enjoying comic books and the fantasy they offer—the story of the superhero that somehow saves the world. That wasn’t me at all; I was mesmerized by people such as Sir Edmond Hillary. Even the first adult book I read as a child was the one describing his heroic ascent up Mount Everest.
If I was going to enjoy fictional characters, it had to be about action and adventure depicted on television rather than comic books. The characters wouldn’t be superhuman but flawed men who were realistic—men who sweat and bleed but overcome their flaws and abilities in the end to make a difference, even if for only for one person.
The passing of great American actor James Garner signified an end of era when it comes to Hollywood leading men who exhibited three-dimensional qualifies. It’s a short list of cinematic studs: Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, James Garner—that’s the entire list.
Bogart died in 1957 before I was born but I never failed to catch his movies on the black-and-white cable movie channels. Of course, Casablanca is at the top of my list of favorite movies—how could it not be?
Stewart, who died in 1997, became one of my favorites the first time I saw him in It’s a Wonderful Life one Christmas Eve in the mid-1970s when it was a hidden gem shown only on public television.
Garner, for me, fell into another category than Bogart and Stewart, but he was just as important. He made his fame on the small screen and when it comes to television history he was definitely one of the all-time leading men.
Like so many of us, I grew up watching Garner play Old West gambler Bret Maverick and private detective Jim Rockford. Garner’s two most iconic roles weren’t cookie-cutter comic book characters with superhuman strength or ability to stomp out evil from the world and allow good to prevail. No. James Garner’s characters were quite flawed. Deliciously, hilariously, believably flawed. Garner played them as fearful when the time called for fear, as deceptively cowardly when the time called for it and, perhaps best of all, wanted nothing to do with “being the hero” when walking away from conflict had a much better result. But we loved Garner’s characters because he played them as smart—really, really smart and he’s as charming as any Walt Disney prince, a desirable, irrestible cocktail to be sure.
His characters used humor, logic and an undeniable sociological understanding of human behavior to get out of dicey and dangerous situations. Although they never liked to stick their neck out for someone, they always (reluctantly) did so in the end. They weren’t trying to save the world, but couldn’t pass up helping and saving one person at a time no matter their flaws and initial reluctance to do so. Garner personified quiet heroes, happy in the end to have made a difference. That’s all they needed.
I guess I’ve always been attracted to characters like that. It made me think about my favorite ones on television starting in the 1950s.
Garner’s Maverick leads that decade. During the 1960s, for me, it was Dr. Richard Kimble on The Fugitive. Garner again in The Rockford Files in the 1970s. The following decade it was Robert Urich’s character Spenser, the private detective in Spenser: For Hire who lived by a code and helped people no matter if they wanted it or not.
The 1990s saw Scott Bakula’s amazing portrayal of Dr. Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap, the scientist who reluctantly leaped through time and changed lives for the better. In the first decade of the new century, it was Mark Harmon at Leroy Jethro Gibbs, the special agent in NCIS who overcomes the tragedy of his murdered wife and daughter—to make a difference. The most recent added to my list is John Reese on Person Of Interest—a former covert federal agent and hired killer who tries to undo his deeds by saving others.
All of those unforgettable television characters are, in their own way, anti-heroes and have a lot in common with the traits portrayed on television by James Garner and that I always found appealing.
Maybe, it’s about redemption and helping people does that. Maybe, it’s about making a difference and sticking their neck out when life and circumstances dictate that they have no other choice even if they’re afraid. Maybe they’re the real superheroes after all. Mind officially blown.