Wednesday, July 23, 2014

James Garner—The Long Ride Down an Unexpected Road

Bret Maverick

Note:  For the first time in months I missed an entry yesterday as a labored over this entry.  Like other bios it got away from me.  I lovingly lingered over James Garner’s vast filmography.  So here it is today—a long but comprehensive review of a great career.
The passing of James Garner at age 86 in his Los Angeles home was reported Monday.  It unleashed a flood of fond memories for many for an actor who never quite seemed to be acting.  He was bereft of formal training as an actor, a long apprenticeship on the stage, and was apart from most of the leading actors in his generation in being totally untouched by the Method—and not a little contemptuous of its pretentions.  Like Spencer Tracy he put on his characters like an off-the-rack suit, becoming them while always remaining Jim.  That meant few pretentions—especially of heroism or un-sullied virtue—exasperation with the vexations life presented to him, and a wry detachment even over his obvious appeal to the ladies.
He was born James Scott Bumgarner in Norman, Oklahoma on April 7, 1928.  His father was a carpet layer—somehow transformed, perhaps by mistake or perhaps by a studio flack from layer to lawyer in some write-ups.  His maternal grandfather was a full blooded Cherokee—an identity the actor cherished all of his life.  Born just in time for the Depression, which double whammied Oklahoma with the Dust Bowl, the family's bid to enter the middle class ended when the small store his father operated and the apartment above it burned.  His mother died when he was five and James and his two older brothers were farmed out to relatives while his father tried to get back on his feet.
When his father remarried, James returned home, but found his stepmother physically abusive. He left home, striking out on his own by the age of 14.  Out of school, he took what work he could find—telephone installer, oilfield roughneck, chauffeur, dishwasher, janitor, lifeguard, grocery clerk—and hated all of it.  At age 16 he joined the Merchant Marine in which he saw service in the last years of World War II.  He enjoyed being a sailor, was well thought of by his shipmates, but plagued by a landlubber’s seasickness.
After the war Jim and his older brother Jack moved to Los Angeles to re-unite with their father, now shorn of the abusive wife.  He attended Hollywood High School for a while, but then returned to Norman so he could play football for his old home town team.  Describing himself as a terrible student, he quit school again and joined the National Guard—just in time to find himself in as cannon fodder with the 5th Regimental Combat Team in Korea where he was wounded twice, once in the face from shrapnel and the second time in the ass by friendly fire from a jet fighter as he dove into a fox hole.  He often joked about the second wound but it bothered him the rest of his life.  He finally received his second Purple Heart for that injury 32 years after the fact in 1983 after joking about it on TV.
His Native American background, his hardscrabble years, and his war service stamped Jim with a deep identification with the underdog, a sense of class outrage, and a low regard for sentimentality about war and violence.  It made him a life-long liberal Democrat and an active supporter of Civil Rights and other causes.
Back in L.A. he went to work as a carpet layer for his father’s business, for lack of any better prospects.  One day quite by accident he noticed a sign on La Cienega Boulevard--Paul Gregory & Associates, the name of an old acquaintance from his Hollywood High School days when he pumped gas as a part time job.  When a parking place just happened to open up in front, he pulled in.  Otherwise he might never have had a career as an actor.  Gregory was a young agent in search of clients.  Rather reluctantly Jim agreed to be his client.
To his amazement, he soon had a job as a bit player in a production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial starring Henry Fonda, John Hodiak, and Lloyd Nolan which began tryouts locally in Santa Barbara and toured the country before going to Broadway, where it opened in January 1954 and ran for 415 performances.  It was his own private acting academy.  He honed his new craft by feeding lines to other actors in rehearsals and mostly by close observation of Fonda, another Midwesterner who approached his work with understated frankness and his dialogue with a conversational lack of histrionics.  He couldn’t have had a better teacher.
After the play ended on Broadway, he moved on to a touring company with Charles Laughton in the major supporting role of Lt. Maryk, the role Hodiak had played on Broadway.  But just as he was a seasick sailor, he was the victim of almost overwhelming state fright.  He returned to Hollywood and with Gregory’s help pursued parts in film.
Now in his mid-twenties, tall, strikingly handsome, and athletically built he soon found work.  Warner Bros.  signed him as a contract player and shortened his last name to Garner.  In his first film in 1956 he played a doomed test pilot in Mervyn LeRoy’s Toward the Unknown which starred William Holden and re-united him with Lloyd Nolan. He had a featured role by his third film, The Girl He Left Behind, a service comedy starring Tab Hunter. 
’56 proved to be a good year for Garner.  Not only was he establishing a career, but he established a family.  He would later recall meeting Lois Fleishman Clarke that summer at an Adlai Stevenson for President Rally.  She remembers that they may have met once earlier but connected at the event.  She was a young divorcee with a seven year old daughter Kim who was recovering from polio.  It was a whirlwind romance.  The two saw each other for dinner for the next 14 days and were married on August 17.  “I was completely nuts about her,” Garner recalled.  The courtship and a short honeymoon which he recalled costing $77 “just about broke me” on his still slender weekly salary as a contract player.  After the birth of a daughter, Greta but called Gigi, Garner legally changed his name so that his children would share his established identity.  Lois and Garner had one of the closest and most lasting marriages in Hollywood, lasting 58 years until his death.
Warner Bros. was a studio with a strong tradition of typecasting, and it looked like its young ex-serviceman was destined to play military roles. That seemed confirmed when he got co-star billing in the Warner prestige project of 1957, James Michener’s Sayonara a drama about the post-war occupation of Japan and a study in racism starring Marlon Brando as an Air Force officer who falls in love with a Japanese girl, Miyoshi Umeki.  Garner played Brando's friend and roommate, a Marine officer.  The film won four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki.
Things were about to take a turn, however.  Warner Bros. was getting into television on a scale like no other studio had ever done.  To cash into the craze for adult westerns ushered in by The Tales of Wyatt Earp and Gunsmoke they were about to launch an ambitious raft of new one hour westerns.  They were a studio in need of new stars, preferably under contract and not too expensive.  Garner filled the bill.  He was the first choice to star in Cheyenne, the first of the bunch which premiered in ’56 and was the first of the hour long westerns.  The lead character was supposed to be a sort of saddle tramp who had been raised by Indians.  But the producers couldn’t get ahold of Garner in time and the part went to the hulking Clint Walker, another contract player.  It turned out to be another of the strokes of luck that charmed Garner’s career.
Instead of the lead, Garner was given the part of an Army officer, naturally, in the pilot.  He leapt off the small scene, especially in contrast to the rather wooden Walker. 
Producer Roy Huggins created and was in charge of the next of the Warner entries into the western TV market—an unusual oater featuring something of an anti-hero, a gambler and sometimes con man with a way with the ladies and a distaste for gunplay, too much time on horseback, and nosey lawmen.  The character’s weakness, in his own eyes, was a disturbing impulse to come to the aid of the abused little guy and take risks for a damsel in distress.  The character challenged the time honored tradition of westerns going back deep into the silent era in which gamblers in black suites, string ties, and brocaded vests with derringers hidden on their person were always the villains. 
The show was a gamble for both Warner Bros. and its network, the struggling, perennial third place ABC.  Maverick premiered on September 22, 1957 with Garner as Bret Maverick opposite the ratings juggernaut The Ed Sullivan Show and its rising competitor, The Steve Allen Show.  This was three months before the December release of Sayonara and most observers considered it a doomed sacrificial lamb with an obscure leading man.
How wrong they were.  From the first episode the public was captivated by the charming and charismatic gambler.  It didn’t hurt that its star may have been the handsomest man on the small tube.  The show was soon running neck and neck with its established competitors and some weeks actually besting them.
Garner appeared in the first eight episodes of the first season.  Then to speed production with two crews working simultaneously Jack Kelly was added as brother Bart Maverick and there after the two stars alternated episodes, occasionally appearing together.  Kelly was good, but the public really loved Bret, who brought a deft comic touch the series.  A running gag was a “thousand dollar bill my pappy always told me to pin to the lining of my coat for emergencies.”
To take advantage of their new star, Warner Bros. quickly cast Garner in his first film lead, shooting while the series was on summer break.  He got the part of yet another soldier—Major William Orlando Darby, first commander of the elite First Ranger Battalion in World War II—when Charlton Hesston walked off the set in a salary dispute.  It was a credible performance in a more serious role and an above average war flick that was a moderate box office success when it was released in 1958.
The studio followed up the next summer filming Up Periscope, this time with Garner as Navy frogman on a dangerous secret mission to a Japanese held island.  The script defied logic and this time even Garner’s charm could not save the picture.
In his last Warner Bros. release he was teamed with Natalie Wood in one of her first adult roles.  Cash McCall was a comedy/drama about a wheeler-dealer trying to gobble up Wood’s father’s company while wooing her.  It was released after Garner’s acrimonious split with his studio in 1960.
Maverick rolled on, still a big hit.  But Garner was having increasing troubles with the notoriously tight fisted and frequently underhanded Jake Warner.  His friend Roy Huggins had been cheated out of his rights as a show creator when Warner ordered that the second episode filmed be shown ahead of the pilot.  He went on to create other shows for Warner, including its first be hit in the private eye genre, 77 Sunset Strip, which was based on stories Huggins had written and published in the ‘40’s.  Jack Warner had the pilot released to movie houses in the Caribbean before the show aired on ABC so he could claim it was “adapted from a film.”  These kinds of shenanigans deeply offended Garner.
When Warner refused to live up to his contract by paying him for weeks when production on Maverick shut down during a writers’ strike, he did the unthinkable and what most people considered career suicide—he quit the show after three seasons and sued the studio for breach of contract.  He won the suit, but his relationship with the studio came to a screeching halt.
Maverick continued on the air with Kelly alternating with a new English cousin, Beau Maverick, played by Roger Moore.  The show stayed on the air for two more seasons in which Garner was sorely missed.
Being liberated from the clutches of Jack Warner did not prove to be career ending.  After taking some time off to campaign for John F. Kennedy in 1960, Garner was easily able to find good roles at other studios—and break out of both the military and western genres. 
William Wyler broke Warner’s attempted black listing of Garner to cast him in his second version of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, a melodrama about to college friends who inherit and old mansion and decided to open up a private school together, only to have their lives destroyed by rumors of lesbianism.  Shirley McClain and Audrey Hepburn co-starred as the doomed teachers and Garner was cast as the—mostly—supportive doctor who was the engaged to McClain’s character.  Despite strong reviews, the film was both too daring in it theme for the period on one hand, and too careful of “crossing the line” on the other.  It lost money in its release in 1962, but Garner was not blamed.
Following closely was Boys Night Out a screwball romantic comedy in the mold of the Doris Day/Rock Hudson films with Garner and Kim Novak standing in and Tony Randal in his usual supporting roll.
In The Great Escape.

The next year, 1963 was one of the busiest of Garner’s career.  He starred in four films, all of them successful and one of them destined to be a classic.  In The Great Escape he was second billed under Steve McQueen as the Royal Canadian Air Force officer Hedley, the Scrounger in an all-star ensemble cast. Next up he was teamed with the real Doris Day for married life comedy, The Trill of it All.  In Wheeler Dealers he played a Texas oil tycoon who comes to New York City to invest in the stock market and becomes involved professionally and romantically with stock analyst Lee Remick.
The final film of the year was the troubled re-make of the 1940 Cary Grant/Irene Dunn classic My Favorite Wife.  The film was originally to be re-made as a comeback vehicle for the troubled Marilynn Monroe with Dean Martin and Cyd Charisse.  But Monroe was once again in the throes of emotional turmoil and self doubt and was fired for being perennially late to the set.  Martin threatened to quit the film if it was her part was recast.  Monroe was rehired but died before filming could resume with less than a third of her scenes shot.  Twentieth Century Fox, desperate to recoup losses from Cleopatra brought on Garner, Day, and Polly Bergan for the re-named Move Over, Darling, the story of a wife presumed dead in a plane crash on a remote island returns to find her husband with a new bride.  Despite the problems, the film was a big hit, and helped save the studio from bankruptcy.
Despite his busy year, Garner took time to join other celebrities for Martin Luther King’s March on Washington and the giant rally on the National Mall.  He was seated in the fourth row and captured on TV escorting the Black actress Dianne Carroll.
Just when it looked like frothy comedies would overtake his career, Garner returned to uniform in an unusual war-time drama and the personal favorite of all of his films, The Americanization of Emily opposite Julie Andrews.  He played a danger avoiding cad of a Naval Officer on cushy duty in London who finds himself against his will actually falling in love with an English woman and then is sent on a dangerous, fool hardy, and ultimately futile mission.  It was a nuanced and moving performance and gave Garner an opportunity to put in words some of his own bitter disillusion with war.
36 Hours released in 1965 was a stark change of pace.  It was a dark suspense film with a strange premise—the Nazis put an American flyer shot down over the Continent into an elaborate hoax camp where they try to convince him that he has awakened in an American hospital after the war is over.  Their aim is to get the airman to reveal plans for the Allied invasion to a sympathetic psychiatrist played by the very blonde Eva Marie Saint.  The bad guy’s plans are foiled when Garner’s suspicions are aroused and Saint falls for her patient.  She turns out to have been harboring doubts about the whole Master Race thing herself.
Garner was now working regularly and if not every picture was memorable, most made money.  There was featherweight comedy fluff like The Art of Love with Dick Van Dyke and Elke Sommer, the caper flick A Man Could Get Killed with Melina Mercouri, a return to the western in Duel at Diablo teamed with Sydney Poitier, and Mister Buddwig a movie about a man with amnesia looking for his identity and the mysterious woman who might unlock it.  Garner recalled it was the worst movie of his career despite the fact the he helped produce it through his own company, Cherokee Productions.
A personal high point of these years of lack luster films was Grand Prix, a Cinerama auto racing epic once again co-staring Eva Marie Saint and an international cast including Yves Montand, Brian Bedford, Toshiro Mifune, and Antonio Sabato.  The movie was a hit, cleaned up in technical awards at the Oscars, and is considered by many racing fans to be the best auto sport film ever made.  But for Garner, it was the film that introduced him to a passion for auto racing, which like fellow actors who starred in racing films, Paul Newman, and Steve McQueen he would pursue as an amateur driver and sometimes team investor.
Hour of the Gun was a grim western in which Garner de-mythologized the shiny image of Wyatt Earp.  Co-starring Jason Robards as Doc Holiday and veteran Western bad man Robert Ryan as Ike Clanton, the film captures Earp’s relentless tracking of surviving members of the Clanton clan after the OK Corral shootout as he essentially murders them one by one in revenge for the death of his brother.  It was an outstanding example of the new anti-hero westerns, lacking only the hyper realistic violence of later films like The Wild Bunch.
Despite its title How Sweet it Is was not associated in anyway with Jackie Gleason, but was a minor fluff of a farce with Debbie Reynolds.  Much better was Support Your Local Sheriff, a romp of a comedy western with Garner as a sneaky con man who takes a badge for a little fast cash and then has to outwit an outlaw gang headed by Walter Brennan—a tip of the hat to his similar role as old man Clanton in Ford’s highly fictionalized version of the Earp tale, My Darling Clementine.  With a stellar supporting cast and vying for the affections of Joan Hacket, the movie was a huge hit in 1969, called by some the last great year of westerns.  The film was so successful that Garner followed it up two years later with a not-quite-a-sequel Support Your Local Gunfighter, another hit.
In between Garner tried his hand at one of several adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s gritty, low rent L.A. gumshoe Phillip Marlowe.  Marlowe was based on Chandler’s novel The Little Sister but updated to 1970.  Garner fared better than Eliot Gould in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, not quite the equal of Robert Mitchum’s over aged world weary version in Farewell My Lovely, but held up against Mitchum’s second outing as Marlowe, The Big Sleep which through no fault of its star was stupidly taken out of gritty LA and plopped down into leafy green English country homes.  The film did give an old friend an idea for a new project, however.
In The Skin Game Garner rode a razor thin edge between western comedy and racial social issues he cared deeply about.  In the film he is paired with Lou Gossett Jr., a Black man born free in the North.  The two are best friends and con men, who hit on a scheme that works time after time.  Traveling through the rough border regions of Missouri and Kansas in the bloody years before the Civil War Gossett pretends to be Garner’s slave.  Garner sells him in each town and then abets his escape to move on to the next sale.  Of course there are many close scrapes and trials along the way.  Bi-racial buddy bonding.
Garner’s desire to return to series television in a show he created and produced through his own company, required, for complicated legal reasons, an uncomfortable return to a relationship with Warner Bros.  Nichols featured an unconventional hero in the last days of the old west, just before World War I.  The Nichols is a world wear soldier tired of killing and boredom who returns to his Arizona home town, named for his father, where he reluctantly agrees to become Sherriff.  But he does not want to carry a gun and gets around not on a horse but on a motorcycle.  He feuds with a local land baron and his family and allies himself to a saloon keeper/whore who is no Miss Kitty played by Margot Kidder.  The whole show had an anti-establishment air that made Warner Bros. and the network nervous despite solid ratings.  Warner had Garner replace his original character with a more “normal” twin brother toward the end of the season and announced plans for a second year with more changes yet.  Outraged, Garner secretly had the season finale filmed with the substitute Nichols killed off to prevent the corrupted show from going on.
It was back to features as he searched for another series.  Garner played a modern sheriff investigating a murder in the suspense drama They Only Kill Their Masters with Katherine Ross and in two films movies co-starring Vera Miles for Walt Disney—One Little Indian and The Castaway Cowboy, each an unlikely and forgettable western family adventure yarn in which Garner felt wasted. 
Garner participated in an attempt to resurrect the Maverick franchise with a 1978 made for TV movie, The New Maverick re-teaming with Jack Kelly to introduce a new family member Ben, the son of cousin Beau.  It was a set up for new series following the young man the following year called The Young Maverick.  Garner only appeared briefly in the season opening parting with Ben at the beginning of the show at a fork in the road.  An exasperated critic complained that the “camera then followed the wrong Maverick.”  The series wilted on the vine.

Jim Rockford with Angel, Rocky...and the answering machine.

It was Roy Huggins who came to Garner with an idea for a new series which he described as an update on Maverick with the character morphed into a California private investigator who, at least in the early shows, only took on cases the police had closed.  In the Rockford Files Jim Rockford did in some ways resemble Bret Maverick and some of the scripts even borrowed plot lines, but there were significant differences.  Rockford was older and more beat up by the world—he had served five years in prison on a bum rap, been divorced and left with a crippled daughter (obviously inspired by his step daughter but who mysteriously diapered almost immediately never to be mentioned again).  He was less cocksure of himself, and not quite so irresistible to the ladies.  His default mood was exasperation, especially by the antics of his father Rocky, played by veteran Noah Berry, and a former jail acquaintance and con man Angel played by Stuart Margolin.  Even his police force pal and sometimes foil Lt. Dennis Becker played by Joe Santos and his pretty lawyer and occasional bed partner Beth Davenport played Gretchen Corbett got him into as much trouble as they got him out of.
As written by newcomer Stephen J. Cannell, Rockford lived had his office in a rundown trailer inexplicably parked by the parking lot of a Malibu bar and restaurant.  He drove an already vintage blue Mustang, and favored open collar sports shirts and semi-loud polyester sports coats.  Most of the messages left on his answering machine were from creditors.  He tried to solve his cases using ruses—he had an endless supply of phony business cards to gain him entry to almost any place he wanted to go.  He often set up his suspects in elaborate stings, sometimes abetted by his bumbling father and shifty Angel.  More often than not their help backfired.  And at least once, usually twice an episode he was nearly beaten senseless in fist fights he barely survived and seldom won.  But in the end Rockford emerged with the case solved, even though his bill was often not paid.   
The show debuted on September 13, 1974 and ran for eight highly successful seasons.  As one writer noted, it was the show the “blew up” the private eye TV genre, a staple since Peter Gunn. “All of his competitors paled by comparison and faded one by one.”
The series was taking a serious toll on Garners health since he insisted on doing his own stunts, including the weekly beatings and frequent dive-and-rolls from moving vehicles.  He badly injured his back and aggravated an old Army war injury.  The stress of long hours—he was usually in almost every scene in a show since the story was told through Rockford’s eyes—contributed to hospitalizations for ulcers.

After the show ended, still high in the ratings, Garner once again found that the studio, this time Universal, had cheated him out of royalties and other income.  In 1983 he sued the studio for $16.5 million in missing income.  The case was settled out of court some years later favorably to Garner, although the terms were sealed.  Years later he sued again—Universal having not learned its lesson—for $2.2 million in syndication royalties—reduced by phony “distribution charges.” 
Overlapping his years as Rockford and well into the ‘80’s Garner, was paired with Mariette Hartley in a long running series of wry Polaroid Camera commercials.  The two were so linked in the public mind that Hartley had a t-shirt made reading “Not Mrs. James Garner.”
In the ‘80’s Garner was once again regarded mostly as a TV star and movie roles were harder to get.  But while he found plenty of work on the small screen, he also found a few plum movie roles starting with Robert Alton’s little seen ensemble comedy HealH with Carol Burnett, Glenda Jackson, and Lauren Bacall just as Rockford was winding up.  He reunited with Bacall the following year in a suspense thriller The Fan playing a cop trying to protect Broadway star Bacall from a murderous obsessed stalker.
The first of three really top flight films that decade was Victor/Victoria, the cross dressing Blake Edwards comedy where Garner plays a 1920’s era Chicago Gangster who falls in love with who he thinks is a man performing in drag, but it a twist is really starving singer Julie Andrews pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman.  Genuine hilarity ensues.
Murphy’s Romance in 1985 almost didn’t get made because studio bosses said it contained “no sex, no car chases, no explosions.”  Meant to be a character study dramedy by Martin Ritt for Sally Field with whom he had just done the Oscar winning Norma Rae, the studio reluctantly gave the go ahead to ride on Field’s recent success.  But they wanted a high wattage leading man—Marlon Brando.  Both Ritt and Field held out for their mutual first choice, Garner to play the small town druggist who befriends and falls slowly for the young divorcee in town.  A strong script and fine acting made the quirky May/September love story believable and appealing to audiences and critics.  Garner earned his only Oscar nomination for Best Actor in the part.  When Morgan Freeman won that year for Driving Miss Daisy he saluted Garner from the podium by singing a snatch of the Maverick theme song.
Topping off the decade was a fine, underrated comedy/mystery Sunset.  The movie was based on two historical tidbits—the real Wyatt Earp lived in Los Angeles in the 1920’s and was befriended by movie folk including William S. Hart, Tom Mix, and a young director, John Ford.  At the same time there was a famous Hollywood whorehouse which featured prostitutes who doubled famous movie stars.  Legend had it that at least one star would go there and pretend to be herself for paying customers.  Garner took a second shot at playing Earp 22 years after The Hour of the Gun.  He teamed up with  Bruce Willis as the showy movie cowboy idol Mix to solve a mystery involving the whorehouse.  Snubbed by critics at the time, it has become a minor cult classic and is among my personal favorites of Garner’s films.
On TV Garner gave his original star turn one more outing in a new series Bret Maverick which despite decent ratings lasted only for the ’81-’82 season.  But the ‘80’s were the decade of the made-for-TV movie and mini-series.  Garner got plenty of work in both, most notably as a war hero pilot turned Senator in Space based on James A. Mitchner’s historical epic of the Space Age.  In 1989 he played one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous in My Name is Bill W. with James Wood in the title role.  He capped off the decade in 1990 Decoration Day, a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie in which he played a reclusive widower and World War II vet who is drawn out of his shell when his grandson gets in trouble and when a close friend, a Black veteran, refuses to accept a long delayed Medal of Honor.
Garner returned to network series television in 1991in Man of the People, a half hour comedy in which he played a man with a semi-shady past who gets on a city council and bedevils a corrupt mayor and his cronies.  It was another single year series for Garner.
In Barbarians at the Gate, an HBO movie, Garner played F. Ross Johnson, the CEO of RJR Nabisco who decides that the time is ripe to take over his own company.   The scathing indictment of corporate greed and amorality won Garner a Golden Globe for best actor in 1995. 
Garner reprised an aging Rockford in a series of eight popular TV movies.  Over 22 actors who played regular, repeating, or guest roles on the original series eagerly signed on to work with Garner again, some of them coming out of retirement to do it.  The movie series started with a touching visit to Rocky’s grave—a tribute to Noah Beery who had played Rockford’s dad and who had since died.
In The Streets of Laredo Garner undertook the daunting task of playing the aging former Texas Ranger and rancher Capt. Woodrow Call, Larry McMurtry’s character already memorably played in an earlier mini-series by Tommy Lee Jones in Lonesome Dove.   Garner played the single-minded old warrior to perfection. 
On the big screen in the ‘90’s Garner costarred with Mel Gibson in a blockbuster adaptation of Maverick, but this time Gibson played the gambler and Garner co-starred as his nemesis/collaborator Marshal Zane Cooper.  The film also starred Jody Foster, a thief who foils both men.
In 1996’s My Fellow Americans Garner teamed up with Jack Lemon to play two former one term Presidents—bitter rivals since one defeated the other—forced to team up, go on the lam, and save the republic.  Garner played a roguish Democrat, naturally, molded loosely on Bill Clinton and Lemon a stiff of a Republican, even closer to George Bush the elder.  The scene where the two try to hide in a Gay Pride Parade in a contingent of drag queen Dorothy’s from the Wizard of Oz was worth the price of admission by itself.

With fellow geezers in Space Cowboys

In 2000 Garner joined Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and director Clint Eastwood in a film about aging astronauts who never got to go to space but who are recruited for a dangerous mission involving obsolete technology gone awry in space that only they know how to fix.  Eastwood and Garner had been friends for decades since they had a famously epic fist fight in the original Maverick.  All of the veteran actors—Jones at a mere 53 was the kid and had to play 20 years older—have a great time and the space special effects were among the best of the era.
The same year Garner returned to TV for a long story arc on the hospital drama Chicago Hope.  He also began a new phase of his career, voice over in cartoons and as an unseen narrator with Atlantis The Lost Empire for Disney.  He voiced God in the single season animated comedy God, the Devil and Bob.  This was work he continued to do right up until he suffered a diabolizing stroke in 2010, his last work was voicing Shazam in D.C. Showcase shorts.
Back on the small screen Garner appeared as Mark Twain and narrated flashback scenes has he recalled his youth in the Nevada silver rush in the two-part mini-series Roughing It.  Then in 2002 it was another shot at series TV in First Monday, an examination of the inner workings of a bitterly divided Supreme Court.  Sparked by the interest in the Court following the hanging chad ruling that allowed George W. Bush to enter the White House, Garner for the first time in his life let himself be cast as a Republican—the conservative Chief Justice.  When he did Space, he had insisted that his Senator’s party affiliation be changed from the book because, “my wife would never forgive me if I played a Republican.”  But this time the Garner was willing to sacrifice to make a point about the rigid partisan divide on the Court.  Despite strong reviews, the public was not interested and the show was canceled after 13 episodes.
Garner had a reoccurring role in the sitcom Ten Simple Rules for Dating My Daughter, best remembered for the death of star John Ritter and how sensitively the show handled that loss and incorporated into the family’s life as they carry on.
Garner had two last forays on the big screen.  In The Notebook Garner plays a man who daily visits his wife in a nursing home, Gena Rowlands who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.  Every day he reads to her from the notebook the story of two young lovers in the 1940’s seen in flash back.  The sentimental romance based on the novel by Ned Sparks was a huge hit. 
His last on screen performance was in The Ultimate Gift as a crusty, unlovable old billionaire who leaves his feckless grandson twelve “gifts”—tasks which if completed may—or may—not lead to a huge inheritance.  Each task requires the young man to find help among an array of ordinary people and with each task he grows from a selfish lout to something approaching a decent human being.  Audiences and critics were divided on the film which some saw as inspirational while other dismissed it as trite and sentimental.
After a stroke in 2010 Garner was finally forced to retire after more than fifty years in his accidental profession.  He was lovingly tended in his final days by his aging wife and especially by his daughter Gigi. 

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