James Garner Tribute

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Tavis pays tribute to the Emmy-winning film and TV actor with a rebroadcast of their 2004 conversation, just before the opening of The Notebook.

People magazine christened James Garner the "last real man"—and for good reason. During a presence in movies and on television for more than 50 years, he perfected the manly persona. It was the TV series, Maverick, that brought him recognition, and he struck gold with The Rockford Files, for which he won an Emmy. He also starred in more than 50 films, including Murphy's Romance, for which he received an Academy Award nomination, and The Notebook.

Born in Oklahoma, Garner dropped out of high school at 16 to join the Merchant Marines. He worked in a variety of jobs and received two Purple Hearts when he was wounded twice during the Korean War. He had his first chance to act when a friend got him a non-speaking role in a Broadway stage play, and he began to learn the craft of acting by reading lines to the lead actors. This play led to small TV roles, commercials and, eventually, a contract with Warner Brothers.

It was said that Garner shined in any medium and lost none of his sparkle with age.


Tavis: James Garner’s career spanned more than 50 years. Television, of course, made him a star starting with “Maverick” which I loved and then the “The Rockford Files” which my dad loved.

But he also distinguished himself in memorable movies like “The Great Escape,” “Murphy’s Romance,” “Victor Victoria” and, of course, “The Notebook.” I had the honor of talking with James Garner back in 2004 just before “The Notebook” was set to open.

[Begin previous conversation]

Tavis: You have had such a wonderful career, almost 50 years in this business, and there’s a lot I want to talk to you about. But I would be remiss if I didn’t start with “The Notebook.” And I have struggled trying to figure out – and every now and then, I have this problem.

Not often, but every now and then, I have trouble trying to figure out how to describe what a movie is, to share with the audience what the movie is without giving too much of it away. And on those occasions where I don’t think I can do a good job, I yield to the star.

James Garner: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know what kind of job I can do either. It’s really a beautiful, beautiful love story. And, of course, it’s complicated early. It goes from teenage to old age and it’s love found, love lost, love found, love lost. It’s just as touching a love story as I’ve seen in many, many years and I’m so proud to be in it.

But it has the complication near the end. She has Alzheimer’s after they finally get together and get married and whatever and she has Alzheimer’s. She writes this notebook and makes me promise to read it to her every day so she never forgets. That’s what I do. I do a lot of reading [laugh].

Tavis: I’m fascinated by your playing this particular character because with regard to love found, love lost, love found, love lost, I don’t know – respectfully, if I’m wrong, you’ll correct me here – I don’t know that you can relate to that in part because you been married to the same woman, Lois, for 48 years.

Garner: Yep. As I told you earlier, we think it’s gonna work [laugh].

Tavis: After 48 years, you think it might work.

Garner: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: What’s made it work for almost 50 years?

Garner: Well…

Tavis: And they say these Hollywood marriages, these things in Hollywood never work.

Garner: I don’t think they’re marriages. I think they want to legitimize having affairs.

Tavis: Whoa, okay, okay.

Garner: Well, that’s what it looks like. You’re married a month and you go to another guy and then your best friend takes over and you take over from this guy. You know, they’re all going with the same women and marrying the same women and then it’s all over.

I don’t think young people today want to commit. And when you get married, you make a commitment to that person and they say, you know, until death do us part. A lot of them don’t even get to the D in death [laugh].

But the secret, I think, to a long marriage is respect. You have to respect your partner. You have to think of them in almost everything you do and how it will affect them. You know, I’ve had chances to go crazy, you know, and you got to think, well, what’s that going to do to Lois? So you say, no, I’m not gonna do that. So, anyway, respect and commitment.

Tavis: Indulge me, if you will, I beg, on some of these questions ’cause I’m so fascinated to have the opportunity to talk to a legend. And there are so many things you’ve covered and done in your career that I want to ask you about, so I’m gonna make the best use of this time.

Looking back on it now, you played, as I mentioned earlier, two characters that made you world famous, “Maverick,” “The Rockford Files.” Is it a good thing or a bad thing to have a character that you are so associated with that it makes it – you know where I’m going with this?

Garner: I have a pretty good idea about typing yourself…

Tavis: If you could have done it over again, would you?

Garner: You know, getting caught in just that.

Tavis: Yeah.

Garner: I’ve been very fortunate and, of course, it was my own decision to – I started in television. I did a couple of movies while I was doing that. I did “Sayonara” and a couple of other movies.

But then after I did the television, I moved to movies during the 60s, then back to television in the 70s, then back to movies and off and on, you know, television, movies, that sort of thing in the 80s and 90s and now I’m back to television with “8 Simple Rules,” plus throwing in a movie or two.

This is a pretty good movie. I don’t usually do that. I don’t usually come out and say this is a really good movie. I didn’t do that for – well, I don’t remember.

Tavis: You don’t usually do interviews. That’s why I’m glad to have you here.

Garner: Well, that’s true.

Tavis: You don’t do a lot of these.

Garner: I don’t like to do interviews [laugh].

Tavis: A few more minutes and I’ll let you go.

Garner: Well, my wife says, “You’ll do him ’cause he’s great.”

Tavis: Well, you tell your wife I said thank you. You served in a war, were decorated with the Purple Heart a couple of times as a result of fighting in that war. Take me back to those days and then try to juxtapose, if you can, what you think of this war that we are in today.

Garner: Well, I wanted to get in World War II. And the day I was 16, I joined the Merchant Marines ’cause that’s one of the few things I could do at my age.

Tavis: You kind of fibbed about your age, as I recall.

Garner: No, I didn’t fib about it because, at 16, if you had your parents’ permission…

Tavis: With your parents’ permission, you could get in. All right.

Garner: And I got in the Merchant Marines and then I found out that this country boy who had never been to sea…

Tavis: Oklahoma?

Garner: Yeah. Did not like the ocean very well [laugh].

Tavis: You liked being on land, huh?

Garner: We didn’t get along too well. I think I lost 35 pounds onboard ship just ’cause I couldn’t keep anything down. But I did very little of that and then I went back to high school and then I was in the National Guard in about ’48, I think it was, and I tore up a knee doing maneuvers.

So they gave me a medical discharge and then I went and had the knee operated on. The government should have paid for it, but they didn’t ’cause I wanted to play high school ball again.

And then in 1950, they drafted me and I told the doctor, I said, “Hey, doc, what about my knee?” He said, “What about it?” I said, “Well, they operated on it.” He said, “Well, they must have fixed it. Next!”

So I went over as cannon fodder into Korea. They just needed people to stuff up the gap. We were in the first group of replacements over there. Anyway, you learn a healthy respect for war and I’m not happy with what’s going on today.

You know, our sterling president – I shouldn’t get into this. Everybody’s gonna kill me, but I’m not happy with him. If he had ever been in a war, he wouldn’t have been so eager to send other people into war. It’s like a Christian crusade over there. I mean, he’s having his own crusades. You don’t mess with the Middle East. I mean, those people, they do it different. They think different.

That’s why they hate us so much, you know, and they’ve always hated. Since the Crusades, they hated the whites or whatever you want to call it, the Christians coming in there and trying to change their religion. You know, I just think it’s terrible, what’s happening.

Tavis: You’re confirming for me what I’ve heard from any number of people who’ve known you for years and what I’ve read about you is that you are very, very politically astute.

I’m told that, over the years, whenever your friends have tried to encourage you to consider running for office – we got a guy now who’s the governor of this state who started in Hollywood. We just lost a president who starred in Hollywood. And, James Garner, you did a TV show that lasted for a little while that I liked where you played a politician.

Garner: Oh, the judge?

Tavis: The judge? No, the one where you played – where your ex-wife, you took over her place on the City Council. It’ll come to me in a second here. It was a short-lived TV series. You don’t even remember it. You were good in it, but I’ll tell you what it was in a second.

Garner: Well, when they’re that short-lived, I don’t know if I can remember them [laugh].

Tavis: Lois is watching, your wife. She knows what I’m talking about. It’ll come back to me in a second. But why have you resisted all these years becoming more “politically” involved even though you love this stuff? And you know it very well, obviously.

Garner: Well, I’m not that well-informed, but I’ve had a chance in 1962 or 63, they wanted me to run for Congress in the 27th District on the Republican ticket. They called my business manager and he kind of giggled and said, “Well, he’s out on location. I’ll get back to you.”

And, of course, he called me and we laughed and then he called them back and said, “No, Mr. Garner doesn’t want to do that because he’s a Democrat.” But it told me something about the whole electoral process is that they don’t care what you do think or if they think you can win the election.

The reason they chose me for – Steve Allen was the opposition and I’d beaten him in the ratings. So, therefore, I ought to beat him in an election, you know. But that’s the way they think. They don’t care really what you think or do, and that’s politics.

Tavis: My time with you is so tight and so limited. I didn’t get a chance to talk about your love for race cars. I’m from Indianapolis.

Garner: Oh, are you?

Tavis: So you know the…

Garner: I was just back there a couple of weeks ago.

Tavis: You know the 500 very well. Let me close with this question. It’s very clear, with all due respect to this wonderful new project you’ve got out, “The Notebook,” and your wonderful work on “8 Simple Rules,” you don’t have to get up and go to work every day. You’re a legend in your own time, history will record that. Why you still getting up and going to work every day?

Garner: ‘Cause my wife gets up and goes shopping [laugh].

Tavis: I can’t end on a better note. Miss Lois, you encouraged him to come and do this, so you take that in the spirit of love that he offered it.

Garner: Before we get off of the…

Tavis: Yes, sir.

Garner: The electoral process, they wanted me to run for governor about eight years ago and I didn’t want to do it. I wasn’t going to get in…

Tavis: Now you wish you had.

Garner: No, no, no.

Tavis: Hey, Arnold won.

Garner: No. I think I could have won easy, but I don’t think that they ought to have somebody like me or Schwarzenegger as governor. That’s no way to run a state.

[End previous conversation]


Tavis: James Garner died this weekend here in Los Angeles at the age of 86. He was truly one of a kind and his legacy will live on in his television and his movie roles. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: July 23, 2014 at 12:54 pm