If all famous lives come down in the end to the lead sentence in an obituary, James Garner was put on Earth to play Jim Rockford, the life-sized private eye hero of “The Rockford Files.” There was more to it, of course, before and after, on big screen and small. (You may remember him most fondly from “The Great Escape,” “The Americanization of Emily,” “Grand Prix,” “Support Your Local Sheriff,” “Murphy’s Romance” or “Nichols,” his little-seen early-modern TV western — there are plenty of options, including a series of Polaroid commercials with Mariette Hartley.) But if that were all, it would be enough.
With a thick head of hair and a Cary Grant cleft chin, Garner, who died July 19 at age 86, was in many ways a more approachable and easy going version of the tall, dark, midcentury leading man — Rock Hudson come down to Earth. Indeed, he played twice opposite Doris Day, in “Move Over, Darling” and “The Thrill of It All” (both in 1963), only one film fewer than did Hudson. Garner had the authority of a person who put no stock in his authority, and the air of not taking life too seriously, which is perhaps why drama — which he could play, and often did — is not what we’ll remember him for. He was not made for tragedy, really, but to bounce back, like a punching-bag clown; many of his straight roles have more than a little comedy in them. (“Rockford” was comedy flat out.) Nor was he fashioned for villainy; there was too much goodness in him.
There was something about his handsomeness, as with his persona, that profited from a little creasing, from being worn in, that can make the younger actor look a little callow by comparison. He was waiting for age to catch up with him. Garner was 46 when “The Rockford Files” premiered in 1974. It was a case of wine uncorked at the perfect moment. It was the right role for the right guy at the right time.
Though created as a modern-day turn on the Old West gambler Garner played a decade earlier in “Maverick,” Rockford was also very much in the flip, half-weary, often exasperated, wisecracking spirit of Philip Marlowe. Garner had, in fact, already played that character quite effectively, in the fine 1969 “Marlowe,” based on Raymond Chandler’s “The Little Sister,” following Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell and Alan Ladd: a knight-errant among the palms, both quixotic and self-aware. He floats half-above the fray but good always for an ironic crack or slow burn in a tight place.
Like Marlowe, and all the best detectives, Rockford is not interested in the law, but in justice; and yet he is interested in justice in a very local sense. He is not trying to set the world aright, only to get a result for his clients, a little relief for his friends and some peace for himself. (In the opening credits, he’s famously never around to answer his phone.) In one sense, “The Rockford Files” is the story of a man who wants to be left alone, but whose lot in life is never to be. He is dragged into most cases seemingly against his will; he is knocked about, locked up again and again. If you prick him, he bleeds; if you sock him, his jaw will still be sore the next day.
Garner’s ease before a camera was a piece of the series’ location-rich naturalism. (If you want to get a good look at Los Angeles in the 1970s, its strip-malled streets, country roads, office blocks and cocktail bars, “Rockford” is your man; many scenes were played with Jim at the wheel of his Firebird Esprit and many stunts driven by Garner himself.) Because the performance and the production were so much in the real world, the series has stayed fresh across the decades.
Soon after it ended, in 1980, Garner went into the single-season “Bret Maverick,” which seems as much a sequel to “Rockford” as a revival of “Maverick.” And he played Rockford again in several TV movies, one of which — the 1996 “Punishment and Crime” — was written and directed by “Rockford” veteran David Chase, soon to create “The Sopranos,” and had Bryan Cranston as a co-star. A new era was about to dawn. Garner continued to find places in it to find his light; in his late 70s, he took on his first three-camera sitcom, joining the cast of “8 Simple Rules” after the untimely death of John Ritter. He did lovely work there, especially opposite Katey Sagal, without seeming to work at all.