James Garner was nominated just once for an Academy Award, for 1985’s “Murphy’s Romance.” Many columnists called his nomination, as Sally Field’s romantic interest in the May-December love story, the biggest surprise of that awards season.
As the book “Inside Oscar” recounts, one writer for the Los Angeles Times wrote that Garner “would win if it were a popularity contest.”
But he lost the Oscar for actor in a leading role to William Hurt from “Kiss of the Spider Woman” in what was an incredibly competitive year. That race also included Harrison Ford from “Witness,” Jack Nicholson from “Prizzi’s Honor” and Jon Voight, “Runaway Train.”
Academy Award or not, Garner was admired, respected and loved by audiences who knew his work from television (“The Rockford Files” and “Maverick”) along with movies such as his reported favorite, “The Americanization of Emily.” He also was honored with Emmys, Golden Globes and a Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild.
After learning that he died Saturday night at his home in Brentwood, Calif., it seemed time to recall something he said in 1994.
He was 66 and having a very good year.
Garner was up for an Emmy for the TV movie “Breathing Lessons.” That summer he, Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster had starred in a big-screen version of “Maverick” and he had agreed to do six two-hour “Rockford” movies to air on CBS. MCA/Universal also had just released a selection of old “Rockford” shows on videotape.
Garner knew that women his age — heck, women two decades younger — were viewed differently in his business.
“I think that’s awful when they say, ‘She’s 40, she’s over the hill,’ when, oh boy, their talent is really getting good then, and I think their beauty is, too. I remember seeing Lana Turner then, at 40, and gosh, what a knockout. I see some wonderful actresses today who are having trouble getting work because they’re 40 years old, and that’s not right,” Garner told critics that summer while promoting “Maverick.”
If, on this anniversary of the moon landing, you want to remember Garner, you can track down “Space Cowboys” starring Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and Garner as retired U.S. Air Force test pilots who return to training years after demonstrating they had the right stuff.
If it’s romance, you cannot go wrong with “The Notebook,” fearturing a pair of actors then in their 70s (Garner and Gena Rowlands), a pair in their 20s (Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams) and a love story that transcends time and, miraculously but only occasionally, memory loss. It was branded sappy in some circles when released in June 2004 but its heartfelt charms are impossible to resist.
The big-screen version of “Maverick” featured Garner as an upright lawman named Zane Cooper who crosses paths with Gibson’s Maverick. As we said at the time, the new “Maverick” owes much to the old “Maverick,” but it’s also a horse of a different color. Far sillier, it ups the ante with slapstick, plain schtick, and a barrage of one-liners. In a word, this “Maverick” is goofy fun.
Here is the press release SAG issued when it named Garner as recipient of its accolade, awarded on Feb. 5, 2005:
(Los Angeles, California September 22, 2004) – Screen Actors Guild (SAG) announced today that James Garner, one of film and television’s most distinguished actors, will receive the Guild’s most prestigious honor — the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award for career achievement and humanitarian accomplishment, presented annually to an actor who fosters the “finest ideals of the acting profession.”
A former vice president and board member of Screen Actors Guild (SAG), Mr. Garner will be presented with the award at the “11th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards” which will premiere live on Turner Network Television (TNT) on Saturday, February 5, 2005 at 8 p.m. ET/PT, 7 p.m. Central and 6 p.m. MT.
A three-time Screen Actors Guild Award nominee, an Academy Award nominee and two-time Emmy Award recipient, Mr. Garner has long been regarded as one of America’s foremost actors, continually maintaining his popularity over time.
In making today’s announcement, SAG President Melissa Gilbert said, “James Garner is more than just one of America’s finest actors. He is a man who has served his peers, his community and his country with integrity and quiet generosity. One of my favorite responsibilities as SAG president is calling each year’s Life Achievement Award recipient to tell them we are honoring them. This year was extra special for me because James Garner’s performances have made me laugh and cry for as long as I can remember. He epitomizes class, style, wit and depth. He serves as a role model for all of America’s actors. This award is most deserved.”
Easily transitioning between film and television, Garner has headlined many projects in both mediums during his prolific career, earning numerous honors and creating a host of memorable characters.
Audiences world-wide have been delighted over three decades by Garner’s portrayal of wry detective Jim Rockford, whom he introduced in the 1974-80 series “The Rockford Files” and brought to television again in seven top-rated movies beginning in 1994. The role earned Garner an Emmy Award in 1977 and two consecutive SAG Award nominations in 1995 and 1996.
Time has had no impact on Garner’s creative energy. He starred opposite Gena Rowlands in this summer’s critically acclaimed hit movie “The Notebook” and this fall returns to ABC’s “8 Simple Rules” as Katey Sagal’s father, having joined the cast following the untimely death of the series star John Ritter.
Other recent films include “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” (2003), “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (2001) and “Space Cowboys” (2000). Concurrently he starred in the CBS drama “First Monday” (2003), the Hallmark Channel miniseries Mark Twain’s “Roughing It” (2002) and the 2000 Showtime telefilm “The Last Debate.” He also co-starred in the four final episodes of “Chicago Hope.”
The CBS telefilm “One Special Night”, which set a 1999 ratings record, reunited Garner with Julie Andrews, his co-star in the feature films “Victor/Victoria” and his personal favorite, “The Americanization of Emily.” The same year, Garner’s performance in the TNT telefilm “Legalese” brought his third Actor nomination.
Among his roles in 1997 were HBO’s “Dead Silence” and the miniseries Larry McMurtry’s “Streets of Laredo”, the follow-up to “Lonesome Dove.” In 1996, he starred with Jack Lemmon in the Warner Bros. film “My Fellow Americans.” In 1994 he brought one of his unforgettable television characters to the big screen, co-starring with Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster in “Maverick.”
Garner has been honored for outstanding performances throughout his career. An Oscar nominee for his title role in “Murphy’s Romance” (1985), he received Golden Globe Awards and Emmy nominations for the Hallmark Hall of Fame Presentation “Decoration Day” (1990) and for playing business tycoon F. Ross Johnson in the miniseries “Barbarians at the Gate.”
Other accolades include both Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for his touching performance in 1993-94’s highest rated telefilm, the Hallmark Hall of Fame Presentation “Breathing Lessons,” as well as for his roles in the Peabody Award-winning telefilms “Heartsounds” with Mary Tyler Moore (1984) and “Promise” with James Woods (1986).
“Promise” won five Emmy Awards including one for Garner as executive producer. In 1989, the Garner-Duchow-produced Hallmark Hall of Fame Presentation “My Name is Bill W.,” also starring Woods, received seven Emmy nominations including nods to Garner for best supporting actor and executive producer.
In total, Garner has received one Academy Award nomination, 15 Emmy nominations with two wins, 13 Golden Globe nominations with four wins, two People’s Choice Awards and three Screen Actors Guild Award nominations. He also received a Clio Award for his Polaroid commercials.
Garner was born on April 7, 1928 in Norman, Oklahoma. His father, Weldon Bumgarner, was of European ancestry. His mother, Mildred, who was one-half Cherokee, died when Garner was five. He left home at 14, enlisted in the Merchant Marines at 16, and then followed his father to Los Angeles. After attending Hollywood High School he became Oklahoma’s first draftee of the Korean conflict. Injured twice, he was awarded a Purple Heart.
After the war, a small part in a Broadway production of “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial” led to a contract with Warner Bros. He made his television debut with Clint Walker on “Cheyenne” and his feature film debut in “Toward the Unknown.”
A noted performance as Marlon Brando’s friend in “Sayonara” led to the leading role in the immensely popular western television series, “Maverick”. Since then, he has starred in roughly 40 films, including “The Children’s Hour”; “The Great Escape”; “Grand Prix”; “Move Over, Darling” and “Support Your Local Sheriff.”
Garner joined the board of Screen Actors Guild in 1960 while starring in Maverick and was welcomed to his first board meeting by then Guild President Ronald Reagan. During three terms on the board, Garner served on the union’s television negotiating committee and was twice elected 2nd vice president.
Garner is involved with many humanitarian and civic causes. He helped organize Martin Luther King’s march on Washington for Civil Rights in 1963, and visited the troops in Vietnam in 1967. He is a member of the National Support Committee of the Native American Rights Fund and strongly supports the National Museum of the American Indian. He supports the Lupus Research Institute and Save the Children. He has been involved with the “Save the Coast” movement to stop offshore drilling in California.
In 1986, Garner was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. He was made Ambassador of Cultural Arts for the State of Oklahoma in November of 1989. He was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in March 1990.
In 1993, he received the Western Heritage Award for Lifetime Achievement in Film and Television from the Gene Autry Museum, and in 1995 he received an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree at the University of Oklahoma.
A gifted and ardent golfer, he serves on the National Advisory Board of the United States High School Golf Association and in 1990 won the Most Valuable Amateur trophy at the AT&T Golf Tournament. Also an auto-racing enthusiast, he has driven the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 on three occasions: 1975, 1977 and 1985.
Garner lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Lois. They have two daughters, Kim and Gigi.