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The Progressive Sensibilities of James Garner

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James Garner and Diahann Carroll at the 1963 March on Washington by Creative Commons
Watching The Rockford Files television reruns from the 1970s, there was something reassuring in recent years knowing the show's star, actor James Garner, was still around.

Garner, who died this past week at the age of 86, had been through cardiac bypass surgery in his 60s and in recent years had also suffered a stroke.

To my mind, that late '70's show about the scrappy, ex-con detective was perhaps the best TV drama ever made. No doubt many talented people, including a talented writing staff, were involved in the series. The show also featured many well-known (or about to become well-known) guest actors, from James Woods to Jill Clayburgh, Lauren Bacall, Joseph Cotten, Rita Moreno, and many others. But, ultimately, it was Garner's performance as the cool, shrewd Jim Rockford that made the show special.

It might surprise some to know that The Rockford Files also occasionally tackled important social topics. In one particularly prescient episode from 1978, Jim Rockford exposed a corporate domestic surveillance operation that was using secret computer networks to collect massive amounts of private information on Americans. Run with hardnosed, even murderous efficiency, by a ruthless corporate boss played by Jackie Cooper, the fictional episode ended with a real-life warning, set on a black screen, from a member of the U.S. Privacy Protection Commission.

The message (decades prior to Edward Snowden's NSA expose): "Secret information centers, building dossiers on individuals, exist today. You have no legal right to know about them, prevent them, or sue for damages. Our liberty may well be the price we pay for permitting this to continue unchecked."

In another episode, the series offered a damning expose of the abuses of civil liberties possible under the U.S. grand jury system. After being repeatedly jailed and victimized by a zealous prosecutor commissioned by a grand jury, Rockford, innocent of any crime but wrongly suspected of knowing something about the disappearance of a union official, delivers a sharp courtroom rebuke to the grand jury's abuse of his civil rights. Again, the episode ended with a real-life warning, set to black screen, that such civil rights abuses were currently possible under the American legal system.

Garner himself was a progressive-minded individual. He was one of the group of celebrities, including Marlon Brando and Harry Belafonte, who famously joined the March on Washington in 1963 for civil rights, marching hand in hand with actress Diahann Carroll. In recent years, he expressed his low opinion of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the President who led it. He also never thought much of Ronald Reagan, recalling in his 2011 memoir that Reagan, with whom he had worked in the Screen Actors Guild, never impressed him as very intelligent or qualified for elected office.

Over the years, Garner was known to give money to various liberal and political causes, including some of the more "left" Democratic candidates such as Dennis Kucinich. But he had no pretensions to being a political expert, more than once turning down efforts to recruit him to run for office. He recalls in his memoir how California Democrats once approached him about running for governor in 1990, but quickly lost interest when he made clear the only opinion that mattered to him on the abortion issue was the one of the woman considering one. The professional liberals apparently did not consider his bluntness politically savvy.

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The Americanization of Emily

Tellingly, Garner's favorite film among the many he made was "The Americanization of Emily," a 1964 comedic drama with a script by Paddy Chayefsky. Turner Classic Films describes it as a "vanguard anti-war film, poking fun at mindless patriotism years before such films were fashionable or popularly accepted."

Set in London during WW II, Garner plays Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Madison, a self-proclaimed "coward" who sees little virtue in celebrating war. Charlie is assigned as an adjutant to a Navy admiral who as it turns out later happens to be a bit daft. With D-Day approaching, Charlie's main concern is his own personal survival, which means staying as far away from the D-Day invasion as possible.

But life is complicated for Charlie, as he's involved with an English woman, Emily Barham (Julie Andrews) who works for the motor pool. Emily has already lost her husband, father, and brother in the war. Put off at first by Charlie's unapologetic devotion to his physical survival, Emily later comes to better appreciate the content of his "cowardice," which in fact isn't cowardice at all but integrity.

In one scene, Charlie tells Emily's mother what he really thinks of the business of war, expressing his disdain for those who "make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields, who perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifice." His brother died at Anzio, he explains, but there was no special heroism to it. And now his mother pretends her son died a "brave death," he reveals, telling the world how proud she is of him. Consequently, his youngest brother can't wait to enlist.

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"What has my mother got for pretending bravery is admirable?" Charlie asks. "She's under constant sedation and terrified she may wake up some morning and find her last son has run off to be brave."

Ironically, for all his efforts to avoid combat, in the end Charlie finds himself recruited into the admiral's scheme to film the first sailor to die on Omaha Beach (good publicity for the Navy!). In a twist of fate, Charlie with his camera winds up the first man to land on Omaha Beach. He is struck down by a German shell and later reported killed. When it turns out he has survived, the military and the press laud him as another "war hero." He's not happy about it.

Shaped by Childhood Hardships

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Mark T. Harris is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. He is a featured contributor to "The Flexible Writer," fourth edition, by Susanna Rich (Allyn & Bacon/Longman, 2003). His blog, "Writer's Voice," can be found at

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