BOOK REVIEW: 'The Garner Files': Jim Rockford a Curmudgeon? Say It Ain't So!

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Garner Files': Jim Rockford a Curmudgeon? Say It Ain't So!
If you're of a certain age --  probably a Social Security and Medicare recipient like the present reviewer, or close to it  -- James Scott Bumgarner, later James Garner -- will always be Bret Maverick or Jim Rockford. For me it was "The Rockford Files," airing from 1974 to 1980. My friends knew better than to interrupt my Friday evenings with phone calls.

I would never have imagined Jim Rockford as a curmudgeon -- his dad Joseph "Rocky" Rockford, played by Noah Beery Jr.,well,  yes, but Garner's co-author Jon Winokur of "The Garner Files: A Memoir" (Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, two sections of black & white glossy photos,  $25.99)   is widely known for a series of books on curmudgeons, including "The Portable Curmudgeon."  

My treasured and well thumbed  "Webster's II New Riverside University Dictionary" (you'll have to pry it from my cold, dead fingers!)  defines curmudgeon as "a cantankerous person", leading me to look up cantankerous: "ill-tempered or disagreeable." No way would I consider Jim Garner in that light! But he certainly can play a curmudgeon, he's a pro.  

Born in Norman, Oklahoma on April 7, 1928, Garner admits to certain anger management issues, including throwing golf clubs (he was an avid, low handicap golfer until arthritis made him give up the game a few years ago) and even going after a heckler with his fists at a golf tournament. Unlike actor Jack Nicholson, he never used a golf club to smash another person's car, as Nicholson infamously did in 1994 when Nicholson used a golf club to bash the roof and windshield of Robert Blank's Mercedes-Benz in a road rage incident. The resulting trial yielded a reported $500,000 settlement from Nicholson, who almost ten years later starred in a movie called "Anger Management."  

"The Garner Files" features an introduction by Julie Andrews, his co-star in the 1964 Arthur Hiller- directed, Paddy Chayefsky-written film "The Americanization of Emily," (Garner's favorite film) and much later in "Victor/Victoria" (1982) directed by Blake Edwards, Andrews' husband.   

Garner is the kind of man women love and men admire, a good combination, which -- along with his versatility and willingness to work in both feature films and TV -- has contributed to his long and successful career. He's made more than 50 movies.  The back of the book contains a filmography and a number of comments about Garner called "Outtakes" from friends, family and co-workers, including his co-author who explains how they met and how his books on curmudgeons cheered up the ailing actor.  

Garner's father had a drinking problem and Garner's stepmother liked to beat him with a spatula, until, at the age of 14 he decked her. Garner eventually left high school before graduating, heading for California, a brief stint in the Merchant Marine until seasickness made him quit and army service in Korea where he was wounded by shrapnel and friendly fire. The first Korean War draftee from Oklahoma, Garner in 1983 finally received his Purple Heart. He's a big backer of more recognition to Korean "conflict" veterans, noting that as many military people died in Korea in three years as did in many more years in Vietnam.  

Garner is a liberal Democrat who changed the political identification of his character in the 2000 movie "Space Cowboys" from Republican to Democratic. He says his wife of many decades, the former Lois Clarke, would "leave him" if he played a Republican. Lois contributes to the book's  "Outtakes" section. Garner was born into what he called a "fair weather Methodist" family -- they would go to church if the weather was good -- and his wife is Jewish. They met at a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in the summer of 1956.   

 "It was love at first sight," he writes, "the 'thunderbolt'. She was as beautiful as she was sweet. She reminded me of Audrey Hepburn, only full bodied, like Sophia Loren.  And she was obviously a good Democrat. I was nuts about her from the moment we met. Still am."  

Garner treats Kimberly, Lois' daughter from a previous marriage, and Greta "Gigi" Garner, their daughter, the same way, as their comments in "Outtakes" reveal. I had no problem liking Jim Rockford and I'm sure I'd like Jim Garner, too. In my years in California, I never met him, as I did his friend the late, great Dennis Weaver. I liked Weaver from the start.  

Garner recounts the many injuries received on the job filming "The Rockford Files" and his health problems. I was surprised that the actor did many of his own stunts, which down through the years contributed to his physical problems, including many knee problems that led to joint replacements. He comes across as a workaholic, no doubt reflecting growing up  poor in Oklahoma.  

Garner has nothing but contempt for the "suits" of Hollywood, and his book recounts in considerable detail his lawsuit against Universal Studios for back money Garner believed due him for his work in  "The Rockford Files." He writes that Lew Wasserman and Universal didn't invent "creative accounting" --- "they just made it a science." The studio -- employing the form of accounting the Industry is infamous for -- claimed that the wildly popular show was not as profitable as it obviously was. The suit was settled out of court in 1989 for a sum that Garner can't disclose: "It's been reported that I walked away with somewhere from  $9 million  to $20 million," he says.  
Winokur and Garner have managed to capture what most people would visualize as the real Jim Garner. He's a car nut who raced in the Baja 1000 and formed his own racing team, and the kind of actor who doesn't look like he's acting -- the mark of a true professional. If you're a fan of movies like "Grand Prix" (1966) -- where he did his own driving and stunts -- or "The Great Escape" (1963) or "Support Your Local Sheriff" (1969) with the wonderful Joan Hackett -- you'll find much to enjoy in "The Garner Files."   I just named my three favorite Jim Garner movies, but I find something to like in all of them. Nobody could accuse Garner of phoning in his performances, but if you want his frank opinion of some actors who did -- or actors Garner had issues with -- you find them in this memoir.

  For more information, go to www.thegarnerfiles