A version of this column appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
In appreciation: Remembering Oklahoma native James Garner with 7 favorite films
James Garner’s list of movie credits is long and varied.
When I was a girl, I wanted to marry James Garner.
Our 50-year age difference never occurred to me, perhaps because I was just a kid, but most likely because I developed my crush watching the early 1960s comedies my parents and grandparents enjoyed. In movies like “The Thrill of It All” and “The Wheeler Dealers,” Garner came across as the perfect man: tall, dark, handsome, with a great sense of humor, buckets of charm and a good heart to balance his rascally personality.
My girlhood infatuation faded, as such crushes are wont to do, but my adoration of the actor never did. I’m not sure when I learned that Garner was a fellow Oklahoman, but that only made me love him more. And it seemed obvious once I knew it: Whether he was playing a charming cowboy cardsharp or a wisecracking private detective, a second-chance astronaut or a retired U.S. president, he maintained that self-effacing, salt-of-the-earth sturdiness that is quintessentially Oklahoman.
“He was one of the very best. … He was not only a gentle soul, a wonderful actor with a glint in his eye, but he was someone who was able to portray the American West in a very unique way and still be a gentleman and bring a smile to almost everyone that saw him on screen,” said Don Reeves, McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, where Garner was inducted in 1990 to the Hall of Great Western Performers.
Clearly, I am not alone in my affections for the Norman native who became a Hollywood star. Since he died Saturday at the age of 86 in Los Angeles, fans from around the world have poured out admiring words on social media, while folks here in Oklahoma have placed flowers at the feet of the bronze likeness in his hometown. Former co-stars like Sally Field, Tom Selleck and James Woods have shared heartfelt tributes, while locals like Ashley Barcum have swapped stories from Garner’s return trips to the Sooner State.
OETA’s director of communications, Barcum met Garner in 2007 when the Oscar-nominated actor came back for the Oklahoma Centennial parade. Her son Aiden, 2, also was in the parade, and despite his shy phase, the boy was fascinated with the aged gentleman.
“He walked over to him … and Mr. Garner invited him to crawl up in his lap. They hung out for a bit, ate some strawberries, and it was such a sweet moment. He was a truly nice man,” she said.
Although it’s more common these days, Garner was one of the rare stars back in the 1960s who successfully toggled back and forth between television and movies without dimming his star power in either medium. Although he was Emmy honored and perhaps best known for his leading roles in the hit TV shows “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files” – plus, he won Golden Globes for the TV movies “Barbarians at the Gate” and “Decoration Day” – his list of film credits is long and varied.
Since he acted well into his 70s, I’ve compiled my seven favorite James Garner movies in memoriam. A few of my picks, plus several more, will be aired Monday during Turner Classic Movies’ 24-hour tribute marathon.
1. “Support Your Local Sheriff!” (1969). My James Garner crush started with this hit Western comedy that was one of my favorite movies growing up. I really related to Joan Hackett’s sharp-tongued, mishap-prone Prudy, and I adored the notion of Garner’s square-jawed, quip-spouting hero who adored such an unusual girl, even if he did find her up a tree in her underwear one afternoon.
2. “Murphy’s Romance” (1985). Garner earned an Oscar nomination for playing an eccentric small-town druggist who befriends and eventually romances a much younger single mother (Sally Field) who is new to town. Fields said with Garner she experienced “maybe the best kiss I ever had in my life,” and their chemistry elevates this romantic drama.
3. “The Great Escape” (1963). The blockbuster World War II drama came so loaded with big-name talent — Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn – it’s a testament to Garner’s easy charisma that he is so memorable as an American pilot who scrounges much-needed items from cameras to clothing and jeopardizes his own chances of evading the Nazis by helping a blind comrade bust out of a prisoner of war camp.
4. “The Americanization of Emily” (1964). In a 2012 email to The Oklahoman, Garner listed this World War II romantic drama as one of his three favorites of his films. He plays an avowed coward and efficient adjutant to a Navy admiral who falls in love with an English motor pool driver (Julie Andrews) who has lost every man in her life in combat. Garner does a stirring job delivering some of legendary screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s soliloquies about the unvirtuous nature of war, and he and Andrews have crackling chemistry. In fact, that chemistry still sparked brightly when they reunited two decades later to play a gangster who falls for a hard-luck singer posing as a drag queen in Tulsa native Blake Edwards’ uproarious musical “Victor Victoria.”
5. “The Notebook” (2004). Since they look nothing alike, it takes quite a suspension of disbelief to buy Ryan Gosling as a younger version of James Garner. But I think you’ll find most women are willing to make that leap because Garner plus Gosling equals the stuff of silver-screen dreams. Garner told The Oklahoman this was another of his favorite films “because it was about everlasting love. I believe in everlasting love.”
6. “Move Over, Darling” (1963). Along with “The Thrill of It All,” Garner and Doris Day scored two smash romantic-comedies in the same year he also hit with “The Great Escape.” In this screwball romp, Garner plays a newly married widower who discovers on his honeymoon that the wife he thought died in a plane crash five years earlier actually is still alive. Hilarity ensues.
7. “Maverick” (1994). Garner revisited the classic Western comedy that gave him his 1957 TV breakout, only in the supporting role of a crusty marshal in director Richard Donner’s big-screen adaptation. Mel Gibson, who was then a box-office power player, played the lead of Bret Maverick, while Jodie Foster co-starred as good-hearted femme fatale Annabelle Bransford, but even in his 60s, Garner still had adequate star power to outshine them.