¶ … actor James Garner's accomplishments and his "greater importance" to the history of television as a whole. Actor James Garner became a legend in Hollywood because of his "manly man" portrayals of characters like Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford. He has been honored for his work, and his portrayals helped make television a more popular medium in its early years.
When Garner was still in his teens, he came to Hollywood, but did not want to become an actor; he became a model and attended school, then went home to Oklahoma. His aunt wanted him to be an actor, but he was not interested. In fact, it took several visits to California and some coincidences for him to sign with an agent and become an actor, even though he had been approached. Finally, he signed with an agent in the mid-1950s and began learning how to act. He worked on the stage and in film before going to television, and notes that in the early years of television, there was a "stigma" on television actors, who were not considered "real" actors by dramatic and film actors. A biographer notes, "Garner, 76, became a star in 1957 playing Bret Maverick in the TV Western series Maverick. The same year, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association named him one of Hollywood's most promising newcomers" (Nason). Garner was a recognizable Hollywood star after appearing in the Maverick series, and he left in 1960 to pursue a movie career. He appeared in several films with stars like Doris Day, Julie Andrews, Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Wood, and Shirley MacClaine.
Garner got the role in "Maverick" because he was under contract to Warner Brothers Studio, and since he was under contract and they "owned" him, they put in the series. That practice ended in the 1960s. His first year in "Maverick" he made $500 a week, but the time he left, he made $1,250 a week. He came back to television in 1974. "In 1974, Garner began a seven-year run in what would become his signature role as private detective Jim Rockford on NBC's The Rockford Files. Cannell, […] said Garner was mostly responsible for the success of Rockford" (Nason). Garner made acting seem easy, but he learned his methods by appearing on the stage. His first role was only to sit and listen to a courtroom trial, and he said it helped him. "Listening is about seventy-five percent of acting" (Garner) he said, and he learned much from this experience.
Garner was influential in Hollywood because of his learned acting skills, but because he was easy going and kind, something that set him apart from many other stars. His biographer continues, "Cannell recalled a time when a crew member on The Rockford Files was hospitalized following a traffic accident, and Garner visited him three times a week on his way home from work. 'The crew would just kill for him, because they knew he cared about them,' he said" (Nason). Garner never really understood why female viewers found him "sexy," but he was often cited as one of the sexiest men on television at the time. His performances helped attract a larger female audience to television, and make male-dominated westerns more appealing to the female audience.
He and his co-star, Jack Kelley, who played Bart Maverick, were not happy with some of the earliest "Maverick" scripts, and they began ad-libbing lines, injecting more humor into the script, and the director went with them on the lighter version. This appealed to a wider audience and gained more viewers. Garner said, "In eight or nine weeks we were ranked number one in television" (Garner). He was one of the first people to bring part of his own personality into his part, and he helped make television acting more natural. This made him seem more human and approachable to the viewers.
Garner also helped change the negative image that television actors had within the acting community. He successfully made the jump from television to film, which was frowned upon at the time by the dramatic community, but he proved that it could be done, and that he was strong enough to carry the lead male roles in film, and with some major stars....
It was very unusual for a star in a number one rated television show to leave when it was so successful, but Garner managed it, which opened the door for other actors to seek film careers after making their names on television. Today, that is a common practice, but Garner was a true "maverick" at the time.
Kelly and Garner had a chemistry on screen, and it helped keep the show a hit. In addition, the show was historic because it featured charming "anti-heroes" who were gamblers and swindlers, an unusual premise for television. They were so charming and honorable in most every other way, that the audience could overlook that they were essentially criminals, and it was one of the first shows to really celebrate an anti-hero. The show became so successful on Sunday nights, that viewership actually got higher than the popular variety series "The Ed Sullivan Show," which had ruled Sunday nights for years. The other westerns always featured strong, "steely-eyed" heroes, as Garner notes in his interview. The creator of the series says they wanted to break the rules. Another writer notes, "All cowboy heroes are Freudian father-figures. That's why Gary Cooper and John Wayne and Clint Walker and all the others since Bill Hart have been big guys. If you don't believe it, try to think of a fictional cowboy with a father.[With Maverick] I wanted to see how many rules we could break and get away with it" (Thompson 66). This was another way Garner and his character influenced television and television viewers.
One of the most famous episodes of "Maverick" is the "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres," where Garner distinguished himself by sitting on a porch and whittling for the entire episode, while his brother (Kelly) pulled a swindle on someone who had stolen their money. About all Garner said throughout the episode was "I'm workin' on it," but the episode is often acclaimed as one of the most memorable episodes of the series, because of Garner's ease and charm with the simple, yet complex role (Garner). They also parodied other hit series, which made them unusual in other respects. For example, they parodied "Gunsmoke," one of the most popular series of the time, which the network was actually afraid of, but the viewers loved the episode, and they loved the show.
Clearly, Garner made many contributions to the face of American television. Television was just gaining in national popularity when he joined "Maverick," and it made him an international celebrity. When television came along, it was with much smaller networks, they were not nearly as powerful as they are today, and most of them were owned or operated by large movie studios, which influenced their stars' careers because they used them as they saw fit, rather than choosing the best actor for the role. He also was a "maverick" in his dealings with his studio. In fact, he sued them for breach of contract when they attempted to lay him off during a writer's strike. He says, "I wanted to be in control of my career, not under someone else's control" (Garner). He left "Maverick," and it went on for two more years, but not at the same popularity. He encouraged others to stand up to the studios and eventually, the studios stopped "owning" actors, they simply sign actors for specific roles, and actors commonly work with numerous studios throughout their careers.
Television was really in its fledgling stages when Garner started with "Maverick," and it was at its prime when he made "The Rockford Files," which was another very popular television series. In this series, Garner again played an easy-going anti-hero. He was a Private Investigator (PI) who was an ex-con who only worked on closed cases, and he became a real household word with this series, and it is one of his most well-known because viewership was so much more in the 1980s than it had been in the 1960s.
Garner's career resulted in several awards and award nominations, and he was recognized by the Screen Actors Guild with a lifetime achievement award. His biographer notes, "In a statement, the union said Garner, a two-time Emmy winner, three-time SAG Award nominee, and an Oscar nominee, was being recognized for career achievement as well as humanitarian accomplishment" (Nason). They worked 12 hours a day, 5 and a half days a week, and never received a script until the day of shooting, so they had no preparation time, or pre-reads, which is far different from today's television filming schedule, where they rehearse, read through the scripts, and prepare for the shows.
In addition, Garner pioneered power for the actors in the television genre. When he returned to television in Rockford, he acted as director on the series,…
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