James Garner played cowboys, soldiers, detectives, astronauts, and race car drivers. He was, as Brandon David Wilson said on Twitter, “American manhood personified,” “a kind of ideal midpoint,” as Ned Raggett tweeted, “between laconic cool and comic vulnerability – like Steve McQueen plus Cary Grant.”
In a great piece for the Atlantic on the dearth of charm among American men, Benjamin Schwarz basically designates Garner – with his “casual wit,” “good-natured ease,” “liking for and appreciation of women,” and “quizzical detachment” – America’s last charming man. He writes, “Garner had a magical ability to convey his offscreen persona of red-blooded, hardworking, plain, and thorough decency, even as his charming onscreen persona didn’t fully jibe with it. He thereby made a light touch and an ironic stance qualities that men found not just appealing but worthy.”
Of the three mid-20th century male TV stars who made the jump to movies – Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, and James Garner – Clive James likes Garner the best, mainly because, unlike the more taciturn McQueen and Eastwood, Garner had a facility with words, a crucial component of charm. It doesn’t hurt that Garner was also, by all accounts, a pretty nice guy: married to the same woman since 1956, civil rights advocate, lifelong marijuana smoker.
Garner’s oft-remarked-upon charm is present from the beginning of his career in the late 1950s. Unlike Cary Grant, who didn’t hit his stride charm-wise until well into his career, Garner’s charm appeared more or less fully formed. This, I hypothesize, is partly due to the fact that he did stuff before becoming an actor. He lived life. The New York Times explains:
Mr. Garner came to acting late, and by accident. On his own after the age of 14 and a bit of a drifter, he had been working an endless series of jobs: telephone installer, oilfield roughneck, chauffeur, dishwasher, janitor, lifeguard, grocery clerk, salesman and, fatefully, gas station attendant. While pumping gas in Los Angeles, he met a young man named Paul Gregory, who was working nearby as a soda jerk but wanted to be an agent.
Years later, after Mr. Garner had served in the Army during the Korean War – he was wounded in action twice, earning two Purple Hearts – he was working as a carpet layer in Los Angeles for a business run by his father. One afternoon he was driving on La Cienega Boulevard and saw a sign: Paul Gregory & Associates. Just then a car pulled out of a space in front of the building, and Mr. Garner, on a whim, pulled in. He was 25.
The rest, as they say, is history, but Garner never really shed his “regular guy who works odd jobs” persona. I think this accounted for, insofar as it gave him a certain world-weariness, a fair chunk of his charm. World-weariness is, in fact, a key ingredient of charm according to Schwarz, who writes that “Only the self-aware can have charm: It’s bound up with a sensibility that at best approaches wisdom, or at least worldliness, and at worst goes well beyond cynicism.” “I was never enamored of the business, never even wanted to be an actor, really,” Garner told the New York Times in 1984 in a quote reproduced at the end of their obituary for him yesterday. “It’s always been a means to an end, which is to make a living.” Now, some of this may be false modesty on Garner’s part, but at a time when it seems like everyone and their mother wants desperately to be famous, Garner’s “take it or leave it” attitude, and the life experience that led to it, strikes me not just as indicative of charm, but of virtue. It’s usually stupid to try to emulate actors, but James Garner might be the exception to the rule.