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Road Read: The Garner Files

By Christopher A. Sawyer

It was one of those days when nothing seemed to go right. I was heading out of Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport to who knows where to drive a new car in some state that wasn’t my own. In the past, I would have taken a copy of Michael Crichton’s latest book with me to pass the time, but Mr. Crichton had the nerve to up and die a few years ago, depriving fans of technological thrillers that had you glued to your seat. So I stumbled into the airport bookstore (not the best place to get a deal on a book), and began looking for something to fit the bill.

Peering out from the bottom shelf was a black and white photograph of a young, ruggedly handsome James Garner giving his most polite “What the hell do you want?” look. Immediately I flashed back to years of watching The Rockford Files on television, and countless hours of watching and re-watching the movie Grand Prix. I knew that Garner was from Oklahoma, his real last name was Bumgarner, and that he swims far to the left of yours truly in the political sea. Still, I was intrigued. He’s a likeable guy, a car guy, and he might just dish about Grand Prix and who knows what else in the pages of this book. So I bought it.

On the return leg of the trip (I read Felix Francis’s book Bloodline on the way out), I started reading Garner’s book in earnest. I’ll be honest, this is a book you have to read twice. The reason is that Garner comes off as cocksure when, in fact, it’s the false near-arrogance of a man who has spent most of his adult life projecting an image at odds with the abused, lonely little boy inside. A boy who did not have an idyllic Norman Rockwell upbringing in Norman, Oklahoma.

Garner was abused at the hands of his step-mother and left home at the age of 14. His father was a drunkard who, as Garner puts it, “married the wrong women,” and was detached from his family, if not himself. Garner had to support himself, and though he daydreamed of hitting it big, he knew no one was ever going to give him anything. Everything he had, he earned. Still, he often would work only long enough to earn enough money to coast for a while. He was an unmotivated drifter.

In due course, he found himself in Korea, the first draftee for that war from Oklahoma, and later stumbled around California, not sure which direction he should take. Acting, you’ll discover, was the furthest thing from his mind, but his career began to surge based on his good looks and likability. Audiences were certain that the man on the screen was for real, and not some actor’s interpretation of words on a page.

He honed his craft in the theater, and found himself on one of the most popular television shows in the 1950s, Maverick. From here it should have been a walk in the park to leading man status, but Garner never reached the pinnacle of stardom. He was famous, but never box office dynamite. For every The Great Escape there was an Americanization of Emily or worse. Yet Garner kept plugging along, pulled by the wave of affection audiences, especially television audiences, had for his laid-back, honest-to-a-fault persona.

But it is his 20-page chapter on the making of Grand Prix that was worth the price of admission for me. Garner’s portrayal of American driver Pete Aron was anything but certain. Steve McQueen had signed to do the part, but his inability to get along with the producer meant he backed out and took a leading role in the movie The Sand Pebbles instead. Director John Frankenheimer didn’t want Garner, either. Garner had a mind of his own, a sin in the then-young Frankenheimer’s eyes. However, the studio and producer wanted him, so Garner got the part. Ironically, Garner called McQueen to tell him that he would be playing Pete Aron in the movie, and McQueen — stunned by the information — wished Garner good luck after a “twenty-five dollar pause”. McQueen, it turns out, resented the fact that Garner had taken the part, despite the fact that he had turned it down. He didn’t talk to Garner for quite a while, and McQueen’s son, Chad, had to drag his father to the theater to see the film. Years later, and still stung by his refusal to do Grand Prix, Steve McQueen (never one of my favorite actors, if I’m honest), produced and starred in Le Mans.

I won’t go into detail about the movie or what Garner has to say about it. It’s best to read these observations yourself, and overlook the occasional oversimplifications made to make the chapter easier for non-car people to understand and appreciate. The same is true for the rest of the book; the joy is in the reading, not the retelling, and there’s a lot to tell.

You may not agree with Garner’s perspective or politics or understand why he had such a short fuse on so many occasions. However, you will appreciate the honest telling of the tale, and the simple wry wit of the man telling the story.

Title: The Garner Files: A Memoir

Author: James Garner with John Winokur

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Pages: 304

Price: $15.00 (paperback)

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