Garner's progressive sensibilities seemed to reflect his personal character, rooted in a tough childhood and working-class background. As a Korean War veteran, wounded twice, he didn't care for violence and tried not to glamorize it in his onscreen roles. Offscreen, he had a reputation as an unaffected, modest man who treated others with respect. Indeed, the graciousness with which Garner was known to treat his many fans was a quality in stark contrast to a childhood spent with an abusive stepmother and alcoholic father (his mother died when Garner was only four, likely from a botched abortion, he said). As Garner once said about himself, "I cannot stand to see little people picked on by big people. If a director starts abusing people, I'll just jump in." This sensibility for fair play could sometimes play out in other settings, too. In the 1960s, he once witnessed a police assault on a German student protest and was threatened with deportation for publicly comparing the police to Nazis.
From television shows like Maverick and The Rockford Files, to films like "The Great Escape," "Murphy's Romance," "Marlowe," "The Notebook," and so many more, Garner established himself as one of those actors who brought a naturally engaging presence to the screen. In Maverick and Rockford especially, as Randy Barnett of Georgetown University Law Center observes in the Washington Post, Garner created characters that people felt they knew, something only the most skilled actors can expect to accomplish.
"Garner's two most famous characters set an example of manliness at two stages of life," writes Barnett, "smart, tough, funny, a little cynical and knowing but with a pinch of optimism and even naivete, respectful towards women, willing to stand up for himself or others when pushed, but only after first looking for a way out of conflict, a sense of justice."
In the 1960s, John Wayne once said he considered Garner the greatest male actor in the country, better than Marlon Brando, George C. Scott and others. He cited Garner's versatility in different genres as one reason. But Garner himself always downplayed his acting skills, even admitting terrible stage fright kept him from live theater.
In an age when the media fosters a celebrity culture that is both trivial and overblown, there was always the sense with James Garner that both feet remained firmly planted on the ground. In the end he was just a regular guy from Oklahoma, one no doubt with talent, good looks, and an exceptional career, but also just a man married to the same woman for over five decades, with daughters and friends from all walks of life that he loved.
Just a good man, like a lot of other good men.
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