I'm not sure how long I've considered James Garner my favorite actor. I think my very first favorite actor was Chewbacca, and that was before I realized it was a guy in a hairy suit. From that point forward as a kid, I think my favorite actor was whoever was the star of my favorite TV show of the moment, so sometimes it was a cartoon. I was aware of The Rockford Files. I really liked the theme song, and I thought the tall guy in the sports coat who drove the gold car was really, really cool, but the plots were a little over my head. It went off the air when I was six. My affection for the show would come through later syndication. I think when I latched on to the idea that I really enjoyed watching this James Garner guy was in - of all things - Tank (1984).
It wasn't a great movie, but I was drawn to Garner's performance. I just had this sense that all of the characters in the movie - except for his Zack Carey - were running around trying to tell this story, and he was just there, reacting to what was happening, doing the thing that we'd expect someone to do when something like that happened. Even when it was as absurd as taking a tank and wreaking havoc, it all just seemed the natural thing to do.
That, to me, speaks volumes about James Garner's ability on both the large and small screens: he never seemed like he was acting.
This was particularly evident when we rented Victor/Victoria (1982) at about the same time. It was this incredible farce, filled with wild and crazy characters, and then there was Garner's King Marchand.
He was every bit as funny as everyone else, but the difference was that they all were telling jokes, and Garner just seemed to be saying the funniest thing he could think of at the time. Again, he didn't appear to be acting.
When I saw Murphy's Romance (1985) a year later, I was sold. I would watch James Garner in anything.
Originally, they wanted Marlon Brando to play Murphy, but Sally Field lobbied for Garner. Their chemistry is incredible in spite of - or because of - them being two very different styles of actors. Sally Field - despite her diminutive size - is a very "big" actor. She's almost like an animated Disney Princess
in her films: big eyes, big voice, big emotions, big movements. Subtlety is not her forté, and that's fine, because it works for her. By contrast, everything that James Garner says as Murphy Jones sounds like he's just responding to the situation he's in, as if he had no idea what was going to happen next. His movements were organic, and no bigger or smaller than they would be if there wasn't a movie camera around for miles. And it's perfect. Luckily, the Academy recognized that there was, in fact, work being done on Garner's part beneath that cool demeanor, and he was nominated for an Oscar for the role. (He lost to William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman, though, so . . . there you go.)
In his book, The Garner Files, he admits that he really had very little training as an actor other than what he received by just working as an actor. He describes himself as more of a reactor than an actor, and said this about his acting style:
"I could never teach anybody to act, because I don't have a clue myself. The class would last about thirty seconds, because I'd tell them to just be yourself. Put yourself in the situation the character is in. How would you react to it? That's all I know."
Now, it might seem that Garner was one of the world's best improvisers, given the natural delivery of his lines. In fact, the opposite is true. Garner felt that the script was very important, and he didn't like to work without one. In his own words: "The script is sacred. I don't improvise, because the writers write better than I do."
He also didn't like it when his co-stars improvised, as Bruce Willis did in Sunset (1988). As a result, Garner didn't rate it as highly as some of his other films. (I still like it, though.)
In the next entry, I'll share my quintessential list of James Garner films. (I'll try to limit it to five. Won't be easy.)