James Garner: An Appreciation Of A Liberal
The media is awash today in memorials to James Garner, who died at his Los Angeles home Saturday at the age of 86. Remembrances tend to focus on his long television and film career, particularly his famous turn as L.A. detective Jim Rockford. But as is so often the case with Hollywood stars of an earlier era, there was a much more important side to James Garner that tends to be overlooked: his commitment to progressive values and politics.
Garner once said, “I’m a ‘bleeding-heart liberal,’ one of those card-carrying Democrats that Rush Limbaugh thinks is a communist. And I’m proud of it.”
James Bumgarner was born in Norman, Oklahoma, one-quarter Cherokee, descended on both sides from the original “Boomers” and “Sooners.” During the Great Depression, James’ father ran a country store in Denver, Oklahoma, with five residents: James and his family.
The family was poor. His mother died while James was 4, and his father and step-mother were abusive. His father beat James and his brothers, and whenever James misbehaved his step-mother, “Red,” made him wear a dress and answer to the name, “Louise.” The abuse came to a head at age 14 when finally he refused to put up with Red’s abuse and nearly killed her. Domestic violence marked him for life; as he wrote in his memoir, The Garner Files, having “been on the wrong end of violence” convinced him to:
…refuse to glorify violence in my movie and television roles. The characters I’ve played, especially Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford, almost never use a gun, and they always try to use their wits instead of their fists.
In 1945, at the age of 16, Garner lied about his age and enlisted in the Merchant Marine. After training in Florida, he served aboard a seagoing tugboat operating out of New Orleans. He quit after two months, a victim of chronic seasickness. For the next few years, he bummed around Los Angeles, living with his Aunt Grace, a “domineering soul” who “decided I should be an actor.” An indifferent student at Hollywood High, the 6′ 3″ Garner earned more money than his teachers by modeling for the Jantzen swimsuit company. Kicked out of school for truancy, he went back to Norman and played football at Norman High. While there, he became the first man from Oklahoma drafted for the Korean War.James Garner in Korea (front row, left)
After Basic Training at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, in the suburbs north of Chicago, Garner was assigned to the 5th Regimental Combat Team of the 24th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. As he wrote, the 5th RCT was considered “a ‘colored’ regiment, because it had a large percentage of Hawaiians and Asian Americans.”
Garner saw hard combat in Korea in 1951, during the first Chinese offensive in the war. His unit was among the first to engage the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF), falling back against heavy odds near Kumhwa, in what came to be known as the Iron Triangle. Garner recalled, “the Red Chinese shot us to pieces” in a battle the Army’s own account described as “the most bitter close-combat struggle Americans have participated in since the Civil War.” Garner was wounded twice, the second time from friendly fire. He and a South Korean soldier found themselves cut off behind enemy lines, eluding both Chinese and North Korean forces. Like the abuse of his childhood, the violence of war left a deep scar and influenced Garner’s later performances. Later in life, Garner would work to ensure Korean War veterans received the recognition they’d earned.
After his Army discharge, Garner returned to L.A. where he ran into a friend from Oklahoma, Paul Gregory, who had become an agent and producer. Gregory cast Garner in a non-speaking role in the Broadway production of “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,” directed by Dick Powell and starring Henry Fonda in the role of naval lawyer Barney Greenwald. The play ran for a year at the Plymouth Theater on West 45th Street. It was Garner’s acting school, with Fonda as headmaster.James Garner in his first role (1954)
From that modest start, Garner quickly moved on to commercials, contract television work, and films. Replacing Charlton Heston as the title character in Darby’s Rangers (1958), he had his first starring role. His television series, Maverick, was a hit. He was living the Hollywood dream, with a fat bank account and a new Corvette. But Garner held true to his liberal values. His character, Bret Maverick, treated Native Americans with respect and rejected violence. Though often described as an anti-hero, Garner played Maverick as “a reluctant hero, [someone] who’ll come to your aid if there’s injustice” — rather like Garner himself. He was one of the first performers to take on the studio system and its abusive labor practices, suing Warner Bros. over the terms of his contract.
In 1962, while filming The Great Escape in Germany, Garner witnessed a student protest get put down by the police in an early example of what would be called a “police riot” at the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention. Mounted German police “waded in…swinging their nightsticks…beating and arresting defenseless kids.” Garner himself was assaulted by a police officer and, to his later regret, told a nearby reporter, “What I’ve witnessed here reminds me what it must have been like under the Nazis.” Threatened with deportation and fearful of hurting the film production, Garner “issued an apology — but I didn’t mean it.” Garner had no use for those who used their power to abuse others.
On the set, Garner got along well with nearly all of his co-stars, including Steve McQueen — though there was one point of contention between the two: “Steve was a Republican.” Garner forgave McQueen his partisan ways, however, because McQueen “somehow made Nixon’s enemies list, an honor I would have given anything to have achieved.” On the other hand, Garner despised Charles Bronson. Bronson, born Charles Buchinsky, had been wounded as a B-29 tail-gunner during World War II. Bronson, Garner wrote, “used and abused people, and I didn’t like it.”
Garner’s favorite role of his career was Lieutenant Commander Charlie Madison, an admiral’s “dog robber” (or scrounger) in London during World War II in The Americanization of Emily (1964). Madison is content to serve well behind the lines, not because he’s actually cowardly but because he’s already lost a brother at Anzio and has a younger brother full of the mythology of war who is aching to join up — experiences that have caused him to rethink what war really is.The Americanization of Emily (1964)
The film was written by Paddy Chayefsky, who was wounded by a land mine in 1945 while on patrol near Aachen, Germany, directed by Arthur Hiller, who’d served as a bomber navigator with the Royal Canadian Air Force during WWII, and also starred Melvyn Douglas, who served in both World War I and II. It reflected Garner’s own distaste for the glorification of violence. As Garner later wrote, “we’d all witnessed the kind of insanity portrayed in the film that cost people their lives.” In one memorable scene, Charlie Madison denounces the easy militarism of a society that redefines sacrifice as valor:
I don’t trust people who make bitter reflections about war, Mrs. Barham. It’s always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a hell it is. It’s always the war widows who lead the Memorial Day parades. … We shall never end wars, Mrs. Barham, by blaming it on ministers and generals or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogeys. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers. The rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widow’s weeds like nuns, Mrs. Barham, and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices … Maybe ministers and generals who blunder us into wars, Mrs. Barham, but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution.
Yet even that didn’t sit comfortably with Garner’s values. He recognized that simply by making films about war, “I contributed to the problem by buying into the whole glorification of war thing.” Though The Americanization of Emily was his favorite film, he recognized that “unfortunately, it hasn’t put war out of style.”
Garner took his convictions seriously and put his mouth where his money could have been: he was part of the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the rally where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. To Garner, it was a no-brainer: “I didn’t think it was right that a hundred years after…the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans still didn’t have basic rights of citizenship.”James Garner, Marlon Brando, and James Baldwin at the March on Washington
Garner marched with others from the entertainment industry, including Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Ossie Davis, Sammy Davis, Jr., Blake Edwards, Lena Horne, Paul Newman, Sam Peckinpah, Sidney Poitier, and Joanne Woodward. The Hollywood group was led (ironically, in retrospect) by Charlton Heston, who was then President of the Screen Actor’s Guild. Garner was dismissive of Heston, who seemed uncommitted to the cause. Heston had “threatened to bail out of the march if we did any ‘militant’ stuff.” A year later, Heston was working for Barry Goldwater.
For Garner, the civil rights movement was just one part of a life-long fight. He said, “civil rights is a matter of conscience.” And he had no use for those who criticize celebrities for speaking out. He believed it was not only his right to speak, but his responsibility, because “if my celebrity draws extra attention to the cause, all the better.”
Though Garner cast his first vote for president for Eisenhower in 1952, thinking “we needed a strong military man in there,” he quickly recognized the error of his ways: “Never voted Republican again. I don’t understand the conservative way of thinking.” He was asked by both the Republican and Democratic parties to run for office; in 1990, the Democrats asked him to run for Governor of California. When asked about his position on abortion, he replied, “I don’t have an opinion, because that’s up to the woman. It has nothing to do with me.” Told he couldn’t say something like that in a campaign, he replied, “It’s how I feel, and I’m not going to say anything else.” That was the end of his would-be political career. He couldn’t compromise his values.
It was just as well. Garner had little use for actors-turned-politician:
Too many actors have run for office. There’s one difference between me and them: I know I’m not qualified. Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t qualified to be governor of California. Ronald Reagan wasn’t qualified to be governor, let alone President. I was a vice president of the Screen Actors Guild when he was its president… Ronnie never had an original thought. We had to tell him what to say. That’s no way to run a union, let alone a country.
James Garner was passionate about the political. Whether it was opposing militarism, marching for civil rights, or, later in his life, fighting to “prevent oil drilling along the Southern California coast and to stop logging in Northern California forests,” Garner did more than just talk. Though it would have been easy — perhaps even understandable — for him to simply write checks and say the necessary things on television, throughout his life Garner took action in the name of his values. His conscience — and his values — could accept nothing less.
R.I.P. James Garner: Liberal, and proud of it.Click here for reuse options!
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