A Conversation with James Garner

With his latest movie The Notebook set for release this month, James Garner talks about his childhood in Oklahoma, his role in the sit-com Eight Simple Rules and his aversion to watching himself on screen.

James Garner

When a woman exited a parking space on a busy Los Angeles street, 25- year-old James Gamer pulled in and destiny won by a nose. “Years earlier, I met a guy who later became a successful producer. He told me I should be an actor,” recalls Garner. “One day, I went downtown to apply for work in the Arabian oil fields but they didn’t need roughnecks. I drove up LaCiencia Boulevard, saw my friend’s name on the side of a building and thought maybe I’ ll stop. If the lady hadn’t pulled out of that parking place, would I have become an actor? I’m not sure I would have gone around the block looking for a place.”

Fifty years later, Garner is going strong in the profession he chose so serendipitously. His versatility has earned him an amazing list of credits. Popular television shows, numerous successful movies, even hit commercials. He’s played dramatic and comedic roles with equal ease. He was one of the first actors to move easily from television to movies and back again.

And, his leading ladies say he is the best kisser they’ve ever kissed, on or off screen.

“I heard several sweet ladies have said that,” Garner admits, chuckling. “I guess I’ve passed the kissing test.”

Whether be likes it or not (and he doesn’t), James Gamer is a superstar.

“I never really wanted to be an actor, I just didn’t like the idea of showing off like that,” says Garner candidly. “I had read those fan magazines and I thought ‘what a bunch of dimwits’.”

Garner is remarkably unpretentious in light of his success, and has seen very few of his own movies.

“I don’t like to watch me,” he explains simply.

Garner has an utter lack of egotism and a down-to-earth attitude that seems typical of Oklahomans. He shies away from saying his childhood was difficult, though he grew up in Norman during the worst of the Depression.

“People ask me where we lived in Norman and I tell them I lived in a lot of places,” Garner jokes. “Every time the rent came due, we moved. But everyone was poor. It was all I knew.”

His father left Oklahoma for California, leaving his 14-year-old son on a dairy farm in Hobart.

“l didn’t like it there so I left,” relates Garner matter-of-factly. “I had to put a roof over my head and eat. There were times when I was a bit of a vagabond.”

Yet, learning harsh lessons early put him at an advantage in a tough business.

“I’ve never been afraid of not working. I always knew I could do something,” he explains. “I’ve turned down roles I knew weren’t right for me and I had my reasons at the time. If someone else succeeded in the role, power to ‘em. But I didn’t see myself doing it and I knew something else would always come along.”

Garner is an original in a business populated by people addicted to the limelight and willing to do anything to stay in it. In 1960, Warner Brothers suspended Garner during a writer’s strike and he walked away from the television show Maverick, which was at the height of its popularity. The powerful studio sued him for breach of contract. Garner hired the same attorney who represented Olivia DeHaviland in her lawsuit against Warner Brothers.

“Everyone said, you can’t go against Warner Brothers. They’ll blackball you and you ‘ll never work again,” Gamer recalls. “I said, okay, then I’ ll do something else. But I won the lawsuit and I worked again.”

Garner’s approach to his craft is equally pragmatic.

“I’m always nervous, but you want to make it look easy, make the audience think it’s the first time you’ve ever said these words,” he explains. “I go to work, say the words, hit my marks and try to tell the truth. That was Spencer Tracy’s way and that’s about all there is to it.”

Gamer’s latest movie, The Notebook, will be released June 25. Based on Nicholas Sparks’ best-selling book, The Notebook is about the everlasting power of true love. It is set in two time periods and Gamer and Gena Rowlands play the present-day Noah and Allie. The young Noah and Allie are played by Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams. Stillwater native James Marsden of X-Men fame is also in the cast.

The movie was directed by Nick Cassavetes, the son of Gena Rowlands and the late John Cassavetes.

“My wife Lois and I have been married 48 years, and I’m sure it helped me in this role. Deep down, actors draw on life experiences without realizing it,” Gamer says. “The Notebook is a very warm, loving story. I heard they were running out of kleenex at the sneak preview.”

Garner says he gets letters every day from fans of his hit television shows Maverick and Rockford Files. Younger television viewers know him as Jim, Cate’s father in Eight Simple Rules. Gamer joined the show following the death of John Ritter, who played Cate’s husband.

“It was difficult coming on the show after John Ritter died, but the people are wonderful and we gelled very quickly,” he relates. “There will be another season and the producers seem optimistic.”

Gamer has nieces and nephews in Oklahoma and visits here several times a year. When he turned 70, he sold the California ranch he bought as a place to retire. “I thought Lois and I would live quietly on the ranch, but now I don’t see any point in retiring. People who retire die quickly. I can’t tell you how happy I am to be in Eight Simple Rules. The people are wonderful and I love going to this job,” he concludes. “To do this at my age, well, you just don’t get a chance like that very often.”