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Onyx reviews: The Garner Files by James Garner

People know James Garner mostly from his roles as Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford, the private detective who lived in a shabby old trailer on the beach, liked to hang out with his pop, and took cases for $200 a day plus expenses. His acting career began when he was placed under contract with Warner Bros, which meant he got paid a weekly salary. The upside was that it meant a steady income. The downside was that he had to be in whatever TV show or movie they wanted him to do, along with public appearances. He had no say in the matter whatsoever.

Garner's memoir is not a tell-all expose, though he does dish on the people he met and worked with over the years. He has good things to say about most of his colleagues. He reserves his disdain for himself—he is perhaps his harshest critic—and for people who didn't show up on the set on time and those who didn't honor the script. He has no use for ad libbers, reasoning that actors weren't writers, and that writers knew about the big picture of the script, whereas actors were focused on their individual characters. He takes pride in the fact that neither he nor anyone else ever changed a word from any of the scripts during The Rockford Files' six year run.

He had no formal acting training and fell into the career instead of setting out to be an actor. One of his first parts was in a touring play where he had no lines. He spent his time on stage observing the other members of the cast, watching the choices they made and how they acted and reacted. His philosophy of acting is fairly simple: learn your lines, show up (on time) at the set, hit your marks and speak the truth. Though he denies that the characters he played were himself, he feels that he brought himself into every part he played so that he could deliver an honest performance.

Though best-known for his TV roles, Garner had a great deal of success on the big screen as well. He was part of the ensemble cast of The Great Escape, has an Oscar nomination for Murphy's Romance, and shared the screen with the likes of Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood, Doris Day, Henry Fonda, Lauren Bacall, Tab Hunter, and just about anyone else you'd care to mention over the past fifty years. He had no desire to direct (he directed one episode of The Rockford Files after the original director had to drop out at the last minute), but enjoyed producing later in his career. He never wanted to play bad guys or heavies and preferred parts that had a sense of humor. He claims that stage fright kept him from acting in plays, but Carol Burnett says he was a natural when he appeared on her show in front of a live audience.

He also had a lively life outside of acting. He has been married to the same woman for over fifty years, and has two children. He attended the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech. He raced Formula One cars and participated numerous times in the Baja 1000 cross country rally. Golf was one of his great loves, though he recognizes that the sport also brought out the worst in him: he was a great thrower of clubs. He played on many of the great courses around the world and competed in Pro-Am tournaments where he acquitted himself well. Arthritis now prevents him from playing. He says, somewhat wistfully, that if he'd know how long he was going to live, he might have taken better care of his body. Doing his own stunts wreaked many hardships on his body. He stopped counting at 200 stitches, has had his knees replaced more than once, and has broken half the bones in his body. (He also broke two of Doris Day's ribs when he threw her over his shoulder while filming a scene. He didn't find out about it until much later.)

Though he doesn't feel that people who know him only through his roles really know him, it's hard not to see him as Jim Rockford. He rarely went looking for a fight, but he didn't shy away from using his fists to make a point when all other approaches failed. He didn't drink much after his thirties, but he admits to a sixty-year addiction to cigarettes and a fondness for marijuana. 

He is a Korean War veteran who was awarded the Purple Heart though, in typical Garner fashion, he minimizes his injury by turning it into a joke. He came from a simple background in Oklahoma around the time of the dust bowl and it appears that his simple upbringing stayed with him throughout his life. He was the kind of guy who would sacrifice some of his salary so that others on his crew could get more money. He always knew his crew's names and the names of their children. He thought that it was important that people have fun while working and he encouraged a light atmosphere on sets. He has no interest in acting awards because he doesn't take the job that seriously. He is unapologetic about his politics—he's a lifelong Democrat—but has little use for actors who go into politics.

Though the book was written with the assistance of a co-author, the style is direct and unadorned. It sounds like Garner from beginning to end. The text is somewhat chronological, though it does jump around occasionally when he switches gears to discuss other topics. A nice addition to the book is a section where many of the people he mentions as being important in his life contribute short anecdotes about him. He annotates the filmography at the end, often scathingly, critiquing either the film itself, his performance or his experiences with other actors or directors.

He is a self-proclaimed curmudgeon and discusses some of the disadvantages of a life of celebrity, but he comes across as a charming man who stood up for others, had a wide circle of friends and enjoyed life to its fullest.

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