Books: James Garner’s Memoir

Tall, dark, handsome, accessible and humorous, actor James Garner (The Notebook) bridges the generational gap between classic and modern Hollywood and his memoir, The Garner Files, written by Mr. Garner with Jon Winokur (November, Simon & Schuster, $25.99), is a delightfully rich, short reading endeavor. After his Christian Scientist mother died from uremic poisoning in a botched, illegal abortion, the young Oklahoman suffered with his two brothers under his negligent, drunken father and the woman his father married: a brutal thug of a stepmother, who raped his grade school-aged brother and repeatedly beat Mr. Garner, making him wear dresses and go by the name “Louise.” He left home at the age of fourteen. One of the distinct qualities about this short, breezy account, which is warm and entertaining and told in Mr. Garner’s familiarly clipped tone, is his honesty. It is all too rare for a man in today’s anti-male culture, let alone a man’s man such as Mr. Garner, to call a woman out as his oppressor.

“Red was a nasty bitch,” he writes. “She enjoyed beating the bejesus out of us…she’d fly into a rage for no reason and hit us with whatever was handy, whether a stick or a board or a spatula.” Something snapped inside and, at that point, the child fought back. “I flattened her with one punch,” he writes. From there, the youngster fled that house, played football, dropped out of school, went back, and wound up as the first Oklahoman to be drafted into the U.S. Army for the Korean War. Combat against the Communist North Koreans and Chinese offers some of the most intense reading material in The Garner Files.

He was awarded with two Purple Hearts before returning to the United States and settling in Los Angeles to become an actor. Working in pictures and on television, he starred in the tongue-in-cheek Maverick television Western, which mocked heroism, which he admits, became a hit and took on Warner Bros. in a dispute that nearly cost him his film career. “The truth is, I wasn’t thinking about anybody but myself,” he writes. Another break came thereafter with The Great Escape, a classic, rousing World War 2 movie, and he built a solid track record of B-movie and genre success in a range of pics that played on his good looks and wry sense of humor. While filming The Great Escape in Munich, West Germany, he admits that he compared German cops to Nazis in an interview and writes that co-star, rival, friend and next-door neighbor Steve McQueen (The Thomas Crown Affair) used to race the movie’s swastika-emblazoned motorcycle all over Munich “just to annoy the Germans.”

James Garner pulls no punches, confessing that he is a conflicted liberal Democrat with anger issues, calling McQueen a Republican who wound up on Nixon‘s enemies list and was like a delinquent younger brother and adding that Charles Bronson (Death Wish) was a “bitter, belligerent SOB.” He expresses enormous respect for writers, particularly the late Paddy Chayefsky (Marty, Network), whom Mr. Garner says got his name in the Army when Chayefsky lied to an officer about being part Irish so he could say he was going to mass to get out of KP duty. Though James Garner is an unabashed liberal and environmentalist, he tells how the Democratic Party urged him to soften his position in favor of a woman’s right to an abortion in a bid to get him to run for governor of California in 1990.

Other highlights include exciting automotive racing stories of his epic film, Grand Prix, his astute business and production decisions and scars (seven knee operations) in making The Rockford Files for NBC, fighting Universal, and the Polaroid commercials with Mariette Hartley. On the business of Hollywood, which he calls dishonest, petty and ageist, he writes: “Late in his life, Fred Zinnemann, the Oscar-winning director who gave us From Here to Eternity, High Noon, and A Man for All Seasons, had a meeting with a young producer who didn’t know who Zinnemann was.” “‘Well, Mr. Zinnemann,’ said the young man, ‘What have you done?’ Zinnemann’s reply? ‘You first.’

For his part, Mr. Garner observes of today’s Hollywood moguls: “Most of them have been to business school or law school, sometimes both, but as far as film goes, they have no creative talent at all. Their opinions aren’t worth a damn, so they go with the numbers….In negotiations, their goal is to get the best of you, not to make a good deal for everybody involved. I’ve never understood that.” And this is from an actor and producer who’s made millions from smart, lucrative deals. Other tidbits include this and that about working with Julie Andrews, Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood, Doris Day, Mel Gibson (“Mel and I got along fine. I didn’t know that he hates Jews and everybody else.”) and both Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine on his first serious dramatic role, an adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s stage play about teachers rumored to be lesbians, The Children’s Hour.

His thoughts on his least and most favored movies range from hilarious to poignant (he adores The Notebook) and his advice for Hollywood talent is spot on for everyone: “What’s yours is yours, and you should go after it.” But what’s fun is fun, too, and in The Garner Files: A Memoir, happily married father James Garner, whether remembering taking on his stepmother or the studios, writes that he’s had what seems like a helluva, hard-earned good time.

Support this site; Share