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James Garner leaves a lasting fan here

July 21, 2014 - Paul Giannamore
On a shelf buried in the far reaches of La Casa Pablo, there is a pair of Firebird model cars built by yours truly when I was a kid. One is the black-and-gold screaming chicken on the hood 1977 model made famous by the Burt Reynolds “Smokey and the Bandit” movies.

I built it because I thought it looked really elegant and cool, not out of any reverence to the movie. In fact, it was just a Pontiac Trans Am model, not the later “Smokey and the Bandit” model kit. I enjoyed that movie once. I found it stupid on repeated viewings (except for Jerry Reed, who played Jerry Reed, pretty much).

The other, built a few years before that black-and-gold Trans Am, is 1974 Firebird Formula 400, with little twin-snorkel air cleaners. I painted it copper. It was built as the closest replica I could make at the time to a car with California tags 853-OKG, known to those not into TV trivia as detective Jim Rockford’s Firebird. And I can watch “The Rockford Files” over and over again. It never gets stupid. It’s always a great story.

Yes, I am a James Garner fan, from the first time I saw “Grand Prix” as a wee kid, old enough to learn that he was doing some of his own driving, which he continued on “The Rockford Files.” One of the cool detective car stunts of the 1970s and beyond was perfected by Garner, or so I’ve been led to believe. It’s called the J-turn or just the Rockford Turn. It involves slamming the car into reverse, yanking the parking brake, sliding the car around and slipping it into drive, while releasing the parking brake and taking off in the other direction, doing a perfect 180-degree pirouette. When I realized years later just what crappy handlers cars of the 1970s really were, my appreciation for Mr. Garner’s car-handling skills got bigger.

And then I studied him a lot closer than just the TV characters and the stunt drivers.

I read a lot about him. And I read his autobiography. This was not a man who was full of himself.

Indeed, he was kind of a reluctant star, and had actually did a turn at fashion modeling (he didn't have to speak) before service in the Korean War that included two Purple Hearts. He had a kind of lousy childhood but he was determined to turn out OK.

He became a cowboy actor in the 1950s and turned detective as the tide of programming turned in the early 1970s. (Sorry, I just don’t remember much about Maverick.)

It seems as if he created the long-lasting Jim Rockford (he made a series of Rockford movies well after the original show left the airwaves after six years as a kind of representation of himself. Wisecracker. Not seeking the spotlight. Quick witted. He even had the copper Firebirds specially changed to use a stock base-model hood instead of the Formula model’s twin-snorkel hood. Rockford, Garner said, needed a low-key car and wouldn’t have showed off with hood scoops. Garner, the stunt driver, needed the Firebird Formula’s power and beefed-up suspension for driving.

By the way, Garner liked an earlier show the had called “Nichols” better than Rockford. “Nichols” ended after two seasons.

Watching Jim Garner’s movies, I see the blue-collar guy in there. Sure, he was a movie star and a TV star and probably earned more in one week than I do in 10 years at the height of his powers. But he had an ability to connect with the audience.

The AP's Frazier Moore captured it best in Garner's obituary: "Never mind Garner was tall, brawny and, well, movie-star handsome. The persona he perfected was never less than manly, good with his dukes and charming to the ladies, but his heroics were kept human-scale thanks to his gift for the comic turn. He remained one of the people."

Rockford was one of us, a flawed man with a big heart who never got paid, always had collectors after him, spilled the coffee a lot and had a hard time keeping tabs on his elderly father. Like Garner himself, he hated seeing little guys get picked on.

And it became easy for me as an adult, post-Rockford, to watch James Garner in what my family routinely calls “chick flicks” such as “The Notebook.” He was a darned good actor, holding his own even against King Cool Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape.”

Those two Firebird models represent the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of men and movies -- The black-and-gold one is brash, yelling “Look at Me,” kind of like Burt Reynolds. Fun for wild night of getting into trouble, but not the guy you’d like to have living next door. He’d drive a low-key Firebird without hood scoops that would pack a wallop. And he’d smile at you and give a wink as he drove away to go get the beer and snacks for the poker game.


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