Sunday, 20 July 2014

Jim Garner

A publicity biography planted in a newspaper said on the night of his TV starring debut on Sunday, September 15, 1957:

He was understudy to John Hodiak in "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial," he was a tough gunslinger doing battle with Clint Walker in the "Cheyenne" series, spent 14 months in a combat regiment in Korea, got the Purple Heart, studied business administration at Oklahoma U., was in the Merchant Marine on a seagoing tug, out of New Orleans, he's 6'3", weighs 200 lbs., shoots golf in the 70's and has brown eyes.

His show was an instant hit. J. Don Schlaerth of the Buffalo Courier-Express got this reaction, published almost two months later on November 17th:

At Alfred Hitchcock's recent Hollywood party, comedian Jack Benny, a shrewd and high-strung individual in real life, expressed concern over the 7:30 to 8:30 ABC-TV show seen locally on Ch. 2.
“Sure I’m worried about it.” Benny snapped. “Who wouldn’t be. People want Westerns right now. I don’t know what can be done about it except to put on good shows. We’re working harder than ever to do just that. I hope well be able to outride that horse,” he quipped with a tense smile.

Benny outrode the horse. But the star on the horse ended up having a pretty lengthy ride in show business.

The star was James Garner, who passed away last night at the age of 86.

Benny knew show business, but his response was only half right. The show didn’t succeed because westerns were popular. It succeeded because of Jim Garner. Over the years, he had a knack of picking roles where he played relaxed, likeable guys who had a sense of humour about themselves. He demonstrated the same thing in a series of commercials for Polaroid cameras that were so convincing, people thought the actress portraying his wife was his wife (she was the then-unknown Mariette Hartley).

Here’s the earliest entertainment column I can find about him. It’s from the North American Newspaper Alliance, and dated November 25, 1957.

James Garner Tops New Crop Of Actors

HOLLYWOOD — This has been a most profitable year for Hollywood in at least one important respect — the discovery and rapid development of fresh new talent. That goes for both motion pictures and television. But if you ask anyone in the behind-the-scenes know here to pick the one outstanding newcomer for 1957 you get an unwavering answer: “James Garner.”
A tall (6-3), lean, broad-shouldered twenty-nine-year-old roving Jack-of-all-trades from Oklahoma, Garner never had the slightest notion about professional acting until he drifted into Southern California 18 months ago. On a hunch, based on his looks, Warner Brothers signed him, put him into two feature pictures — “Darby’s Rangers” and “Sayonara” (in which he steals the show from Marlon Brando) and now he’s occupied on a regular basis starring in the TV weekly hour-long western, “Maverick.”
Since his debut over the airways two months ago, Garner has become such a favorite with Sunday-night audiences that he recently accomplished what Hollywood sages insisted was “the impossible.” He knocked both Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen off their proud first-place rating pedestals and took over the bulk of the viewing audience — the first time the twin killing was achieved since these two popular toastmasters began battling each other.
Hudson Wins
Earl J. Hudson, former nationally prominent chain theater operator, who has been heading ABC’s TV operations on the West Coast for the last four years, as responsible in a large measure for the sensational Sunday-night upheaval. Among those who heard the dour warnings about any program attempting to displace Sullivan or Allen — much less both—Hudson paid no attention. After carefully scrutinizing Garner and the western's format, he decided to make his daring move with “Maverick.” Bowing Sunday, Sept. 22, the series has been climbing steadily ever since.
Success of “Maverick,” which is not titled for an unbranded steer but for Garner’s character name, is traced mainly to the fact that it has been written into an extremely adult type of sagebrusher. Garner's bold man of the plains smokes and drinks — not to excess of course—and he plays cards and romances the ladies occasionally. What’s more, the folks out front seem by the Trendex reports to like his worldly interpretation so well that a sweeping analysis and revamping of most of the other western stalwarts (about 20 in the running) is already under way in the various TV camps.
It was during the Japanese location phase of the feature picture “Sayonara” that Warners’ TV division decided to go ahead with the “Maverick” series. One look at the footage from Japan convinced the studio and ABC-TV executives that Garner was the man to play the part. So, when he finished his marine captain role with Brando, he was flown home ahead of the company and placed before the cameras as Bret Maverick, reamer, fighter, lover, gambler.
From Garner’s personal-life standpoint, it was a natural. The Garner who left his Norman, Okla., home at sixteen, joined the Merchant Marine, then the Army and in between drifted from one coast to the other, slipped into the Maverick character as though it had been tailored for him.
“This Maverick deal is just like doing the story of my early life all over again,” Garner remarked a few days ago. “Until I landed in Hollywood, settled down and fell in love with the girl I married, I was a roving character.”
Friends and working associates are impressed immediately by Garner’s determination and especially his outspoken self-confidence.
While preparing for his first start in the series last August he was laughed at when he predicted in all seriousness: — “I’ll clobber both Allen and Sullivan within three months. If I don’t do it by then we'll change the character and the plot. But I know it can be done.”

Garner announced on March 19, 1960 he was quitting “Maverick” because Warner Bros. stopped paying him ($1,500 to 1,750 a week, depending on the source). The company said it had suspended him because a writers’ strike meant there were no episodes to shoot. The whole thing went to court. It didn’t hurt Garner a bit. He won the suit, went into movies and then became one of those rare people who had more than one huge TV hit in their career. Many people know him best for a six-year run as Jim Rockford on “The Rockford Files.”

He once admitted to the Orange County Register in 1997 “I never wanted to be a star; I just wanted to be a working actor. When I started in this business at 25, I gave myself five years.” It was 43 years when he did the interview. And he kept going. He co-starred in the 2004 romantic weeper “The Notebook.” Still he carried on, with roles on camera and on mike. A 50-plus-year career isn’t bad. It’s within Jack Benny territory, in fact. Not bad for a guy who started as TV newcomer in a freshman western. Charm can go a long way.

1 comment:

  1. Funny story about the CHEYENNE episode: Garner's real name was James Bumgarner. Jack Warner was watching the CHEYENNE rushes and suddenly perked up. "Who's that?" he asked, and was told, "Oh, that's Jim Bumgarner." "Throw the 'Bum' out and give him a 7-year contract," said J.L.