James Garner was one of the most underrated actors ever and I think the reason had much to do with his acting. He made it all look so easy, so effortless, his personal brand of charm and humor always showing through, so that it was hard to believe he was really doing anything. His first acting job was apparently a non-speaking role in the Broadway production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, starring Henry Fonda, and if you have any interest at all in acting, and if your IQ is bigger than your hat size, it would be impossible to watch Henry Fonda night after night without learning a lot. No one ever accused Jim Garner of being stupid, and you could say he had some interest in acting.
Darleen and I fell in love in part because of James Garner. This is one of those tricky series of coincidences, so follow me closely here.
Around 1978 (I don’t remember the exact year; dates and I have never gotten along too well) I quit the soap opera One Life to Live and got cast in a movie that started filming literally the day after my last day as OLTL’s Brad the Cad. The movie was an ambitious project, an unsuccessful film version of Sylvia Plath’s famous autobiography, The Bell Jar. In keeping with my bad boy persona back then, I was cast as the narcissistic, preppy, predatory college Lothario, Buddy Willard. The star of that movie, the lady playing Sylvia Plath, was Marilyn Hassett.
In 1980 (give or take a year or so; damn dates), James Garner filmed a pilot for a new series called Bret Maverick, based on his highly successful late-fifties series, Maverick. The lady who co-starred opposite him in that pilot was Marilyn Hassett. Garner got injured doing a stunt, took some time off, looked at the footage for his pilot, and decided he didn’t like Marilyn’s work, or that they didn’t work well together, and decided to re-cast her and re-shoot the pilot. One of the girls who auditioned for the replacement role was an exceptionally pretty, sexy little redhead by the name of Darleen Carr.
The problem was the “little” part. Darleen claims five-two, but I think five feet is closer to actual fact. Garner, on the other hand, was six-one or two and taller still in cowboy boots. Garner liked what he saw in the filmed audition scenes, but everyone kept telling him it would never work because of the height difference.
In the meantime, also in 1980 (again, that date is more or less) Simon & Simon was filming its first season, showing in a disastrous time slot, and earning ratings somewhat lower than the test pattern. We were filming an episode that had something to do with a zoo, and the lady chosen to play the head zoo keeper was an exceptionally pretty, sexy little redhead by the name of Darleen Carr. She had already filmed two auditions for Bret Maverick, and they asked her to film a third one with Garner. She refused, saying it would interrupt her shooting schedule on Simon & Simon.
We were filming at the zoo in Griffith Park, and Darleen was sitting in a car, going over her lines, when out of nowhere a limo pulled up, James Garner got out, took her hand and helped her out the car, spun her around once, and said “You’re not too little,” got back in his limo and drove off. That was her third and final audition, and as soon as she finished filming with me and Mackie, she went to work playing photographer M. L. Springer on Bret Maverick.
(Above: Darleen as M.L. with James Garner. I know that look well and my heart goes out to poor Bret Maverick.)
The show was an instant hit and got excellent ratings. Simon & Simon, on the other hand, sank down lower than the local Chamber of Commerce airings and was cancelled. Over on Bret Maverick, the writers had decided to add a love interest for M. L. Springer, and I was cast as that potential love interest in the very last episode of that season. It turned out to be the very last season, period, the only season. A lot of varying reasons for the show’s demise were trotted out, none of which made a lick of sense, given that it was the highest-rated new show of the year. The truth, which was hushed up for obscure reasons, was that Garner—nobody’s fool, as I said—had discovered that one of the producers had been stealing from his production company (an incident I later incorporated into Return to Laughter) and in disgust he pulled the plug. That turned out to be fortunate for me, because the creator and producer of Simon & Simon had been waging a very successful PR campaign to have us aired at a better time during summer re-runs, our ratings had suddenly sky-rocketed, and CBS decided to give Simon & Simon another chance. In the meantime, I had gotten to know the exceptionally pretty, sexy little redhead and decided I liked her. Nothing more than that: we were both married to other people, but I thought she was definitely okay. Quite alright. Fun. Intelligent. Talented. A lot of fun. Not to mention exceptionally pretty and very sexy.
While I knew none of this until many years later, after Darleen and I had gotten married, Garner won my loyalty by his treatment of Darleen. Her son was dying slowly of an undiagnosed illness and she had notified Garner and the producers that her three year old was in the hospital and that things were not looking good. She would check in multiple times every day, calling the hospital from the stage, and it just so happened she had just finished rehearsing a final scene with Garner, her last of the day, when she made one of her calls and was notified that her boy wouldn’t last the night. She turned around, intending to film the scene and rush to the hospital, but Garner took one look at her face and pulled the plug on that day’s shooting. She protested, saying they had to finish and then she could go. He replied, “We’ll get it when we get it,” and steered her to the door.
(Above: Darleen as M.L. You can see why I fell in love.)
Garner was nominated for an Academy Award and countless Emmys, Golden Globes, and a slew of other awards over the years, many of which he won, and he deserved them all. He had a reputation for being extremely loyal to his friends and all the people who worked for him, and while some of his friends were household names, just as many—perhaps more—were just anybody he happened to like.
Garner had, by all accounts, an appalling childhood, and he could have taken any one of the myriad doors for good or ill that open to us all. He chose to became a gifted actor, a great star, a good and loyal friend, and from what I read, a devoted husband and father. He was an easy-going affable man, but not one who would tolerate anyone trying to take advantage of him. His multiple lawsuits against multiple entities in Hollywood are famous. Less famous, because he didn’t make a big deal about it or gloat publicly, was the fact that he won every single one. Also less well known is the story of his cornering the president of MCA, Sid Sheinberg, at that time the most powerful man in Hollywood and one of the defendants in Garner’s lawsuit against that company. Mr. Sheinberg had very publicly said some very uncomplimentary things about Garner, and when Garner trapped him in a hallway at Universal Studios, Sheinberg had a pretty good idea of what going to happen and called out to a security guard:
“Stop him! Stop him! He’s going to hit me!”
Garner turned around and looked at the guard. “Are you watching?” Then he slowly and deliberately raised one fist and decked Sheinberg. Easily. Effortlessly. With his own brand of charm and humor.