James Garner: You Ought to be in Pictures

That's what someone once said to James Garner, who's now in his fourth decade of making films. Here, the original star of TV's "Maverick" talks about making the new movie Maverick, reveals that he'd like to kick the shit out of Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, and opens up about why he's had to fight everyone from his stepmother at home to a studio head in court.

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James Garner has been in more than 40 movies, some of which are memorable, like The Americanization of Emily, The Great Escape, Victor/Victoria and Murphy's Romance (which garnered Garner an Oscar nomination), and some of which are not, like Boys' Night Out, H.E.A.L.T.H., Tank and Sunset. But he's best known for his work in TV, where he's remembered for his clever cowboy Bret Maverick in the series "Maverick" (1957-61) and his private detective Jim Rockford in "The Rockford Files" (1974-80). (He's also remembered for his Polaroid commercials with Mariette Hartley.) TV Guide recently voted the 66-year-old Garner the Best Dramatic Actor in the history of television, acknowledging his work in TV and cable movies such as Promise, My Name Is Bill W., Barbarians at the Gate and Heart-sounds.

As a kid in Oklahoma, Garner never had ambitions to be an actor. His mother died when he was young and he had a stepmother who seemed out of the pages of Cinderella. After a stint in the Merchant Marines, and another in the Army, where he won two Purple Hearts for injuries received during the Korean War, Gainer wound up in L.A. and decided to give acting a try. Three years later, he was on "Maverick" and hasn't been out of work since.

When Warner Bros, decided to make a movie of "Maverick," Garner was cast as a lawman who follows Mel Gibson wherever he goes. Once Jodie Foster signed on as well, the studio began seeing the potential for sequels. As packages go, it's an attractive one, but how it will turn out is anybody's guess. After all, Garner's gone this route before, when he co-starred in a 1978 TV film called The New Maverick: anyone out there remember Charles Frank, who played the Maverick figure between Garner and Gibson?

Garner suggested we meet at the Bel-Air Country Club, where he spends a lot of his free time reading, golfing, playing cards and kibbutzing with the other members.

LAWRENCE GROBEL: Did Mel Gibson see the TV show "Maverick"? Did he talk to you about the character?

JAMES GARNER: Yeah, he saw the show. No, he never talked to me. When Mel was a kid it was one of his favorite shows, and he just wanted to play it. But he didn't need any help from me.

Q: How different is Gibson's Maverick from yours?

A: Oh, it's different--Mel's Mel and I'm me. But I love what he did. You never see Mel acting, really, which is what I strive for. I don't want anybody to catch me acting on the screen.

Q: Will William Goldman, who wrote Maverick, recognize what you've done with it?

A: He's not going to recognize this movie from his script, no. I don't think you can find four scenes that we did as he wrote them. The structure is all there, though there were some holes we had to plug.

Q: Think "Maverick" will ever be shown on TV again?

A: They're colorizing much of it but they're not going to show it until the last sequel of the movie. That's in the contract.

Q: Were most of the show's initial scripts rewrites of old Warner Bros. movies?

A: Yeah. The first one was a remake of Rocky Mountain, the Errol Flynn movie. That's where I got the Maverick outfit, to match that stock footage that they had. I had to ride a certain kind of horse to match the stock footage.

Q: Is it true that "Maverick" gave you an ulcer after two-and-a-half years?

A: It didn't, the studio did. I was making $500 a week, $317 take-home pay. That wasn't a lot to be starring in the hottest series on television. The second year I got $600 a week.

Q: And after three years you were 10 grand in the hole?

A: What happened was, at the end of my contract with Warner Bros. I went to court and I sued them. I had made $90,000 under contract and I paid my lawyers $100,000 to get me out of it. So I came out a loser, but not really.

Q: How daring was it for an actor to take on a studio?

A: I had people tell me I'd never work again, they'd blackball me from the industry, blah blah blah. Also that I couldn't win a lawsuit. I knew I'd win because right is right and wrong is wrong and I was right.

Q: After the suit went to court, how long were you out of work?

A: I won the lawsuit and that day I got a script, The Comancheros. I didn't like it, didn't want to do it, but a couple of days later I heard Gary Cooper was going to do it, so I said, "Send me back the script." So I was going to do it--the director and the head of production at 20th [Century Fox] all wanted me--then suddenly I never heard from them again. This was maybe 10 days after I won the lawsuit. I know what happened: there was a phone call...

Q: From Jack Warner?

A: [Nods his head] And he said, "Don't hire him." Then Cooper bowed out and John Wayne did it.

Q: Did Jack Warner send out letters against you as well?

A: We don't know that. If he did that I'd own the studio. So there's no way to prove that.

Q: Were you surprised that Jack Warner personally testified against you?

A: Well, that's how they lost the lawsuit. His lawyers never wanted him to take the stand. He would stick his foot in his mouth every time. After he got off the stand my lawyer said, "That did it, he just hung himself. You can't lose."

Q: Not that many actors have succeeded from TV to films but you, Eastwood and McQueen have done it.

A: I've done it all my career. The medium does not make that much difference, if you can maintain your dignity while doing it. I wouldn't do what Cher's doing [infomercials]. You lose dignity by doing that.

Q: You resisted actually getting into acting, didn't you?

A: I didn't want any part of it. My aunt would have talent scouts come by and look at me at the A&P where I worked, then she'd try to get me to talk to them. But I was an introvert.

Q: So what changed you?

A: When I was 18 or 19, working at a Shell service station in Hollywood, this guy named Paul Gregory, who worked as a soda jerk, used to say to me, "You ought to be in pictures." He said he was going to be a big producer. A few years later I ran into him and he was a big agent. I came back from Korea 15 months later and saw his name in Time. After the service, I knew I didn't want to lay carpets for my father for the rest of my life. I saw Paul Gregory's name on a building just as a woman pulled out of a parking place. So I parked and walked in and he remembered me. At that time you could be a producer and an agent, and he still had an agency, so he signed me to a contract that day. So I said to myself, I'm 25 years old, I'll give myself till I'm 30 to see if I can make a living at this job. After three years I was starring in "Maverick." So I said, Well, I can go another five years on what I've done. And I didn't go more than five year increments until I was 50 and I said, Hey, I don't need to go five more years. I think I've got it made. I caught the brass ring. But I also knew that the brass ring could tarnish very easily.

Q: So there was never any real desire to be a star?

A: No. It's just a job. Always. I didn't like stardom. It wasn't a goal of mine at all. And fame didn't enter into it. Fortune did, but not fame. Fame is a trap. And it's fleeting. It comes and it goes in a flash.

Q: Marlon Brando's called acting a bum's life.

A: Acting is a bum's life. If you're not qualified to do anything in this world, you can be an actor. If you can't do that, there's one more thing you can do if you've got a high-school education: be a politician.

Q: Your father had three sons, a difficult second marriage and the Depression to deal with. How radically did your life change after your mother died when you were under five?

A: I went to live with my Aunt Leona and Uncle John. My brother Jack went with my Aunt Ruth. My oldest brother stayed with my dad. Dad got married a year or so later to... her. Then we went back to live with them.

Q: Why did you go back, since it seems she didn't want any of you?

A: We didn't know that. I was five. But [my stepmother] Wilma was a nasty bitch. She used to beat the hell out of me particularly. Jack, who was two years older than me, was kind of sickly, so she didn't beat on him so much.

Q: Why did she beat you?

A: I don't know. I was the most available. I've seen people for years just pick on certain people. Directors do that, they find whipping boys.

Q: Did your stepmother really make you wear a dress and call you Louise if you did something wrong?

A: Yeah, where did you find that out? It was out in the country and we'd be in some little store and I'd just go hide because it would embarrass me terribly. Then my brothers would tease me and call me Louise and a fight would break out. I was the youngest, but I was pretty tough.

Q: How often did that happen?

A: Oh gosh, a lot. If I did anything wrong I'd have to go put on the dress.

Q: At what point did you fight back?

A: I fought back at around 13. I decked her. I had her on the bed, choking her. My dad and my brother pulled me off of her. I can understand how kids can rebel to the point of murder. I don't agree with it, but I don't know what I'd have done--because she was tough. Tough. I'm sure I wouldn't have let go of her until she quit breathing because she'd have killed me if she got up. Then they held me down so she could whip me. But that's the night that broke up the marriage with my dad and her. They started drinking later and... God, I hate to tell this story. I get so upset when I read about how badly people were treated during their childhood. It's just part of growing up.

Q: Did you ever run into her again after she and your dad split up?

A: I went back to Oklahoma 12 years ago to appear in a parade in a covered wagon. I was going to the hospital to visit my grandmother and my brother told me that Wilma was working [there]. And I was actually scared. I had said a lot of things about her over the years and she was the type, I figured, who'd take a rifle and blow me right off that covered wagon going down Main Street. That's how mean she was.

Q: So what was the positive side of all of this?

A: It made me stronger, independent. If I wanted something I was going to have to get it. It also made me very leery in relationships throughout my life. Commitments are very difficult for me. Once there is a commitment it's for life, but committing to somebody has always been hard.

Q: Were you ever a whipping boy for a director?

A: Mervyn LeRoy tried to whip me on the first picture I ever worked on, Toward the Unknown. I jumped right back at him. He was famous for it, he'd just pick one guy and lord it over him for the whole picture. If he hadn't taken his pills early in the morning, he was nasty.

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