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February 16, 2012

Book Notes: Garner’s memoir: never a dull moment

— It isn’t easy for an actor to have one successful television series, let alone two. And it’s even more difficult to combine those with a thriving movie career. Usually someone succeeds at one medium, but not the other. But, then, James Garner is not your typical actor.

For one thing, Garner’s been married to the same woman for 54 years. In Hollywood that achievement alone is worthy of an Oscar. He’s also from humble origins, a decorated Korean War veteran, and beloved by many of the true stars of the industry. Garner is someone who will fight for what he believes (sometimes literally) yet will bend over backwards to keep a working set happy and contented. It is not surprising that he has endured a long, successful career on both the large and small screen.

Garner has captured it all in his memoir, “The Garner Files.” If you enjoy his TV shows, his movies, a true rags-to-riches story, or simply how Hollywood operates in general, his book will not disappoint. Garner has experienced so many adventures in his life that his memoir does not have a dull moment.

He was born in Norman, Okla., right before the depression and dust bowl ravaged the state. His parents weren’t exactly lovey-dovey so he and his two brothers did not have much direction (or money) growing up. In fact his father divorced his mother and his step-mother enjoyed beating young Jim at every opportunity.

His tough and difficult upbringing set the tone for his early adulthood. He held several odd jobs and ended up in Los Angeles simply because he had relatives there. He literally stumbled into acting simply because it was another  job opportunity.

Before his budding acting career began Garner served in the Korean War and he found himself in the thick of combat.

He was wounded in battle and lucky to survive. He relates one harrowing experience where it was sheer luck that he wasn’t captured by the enemy. The irony of his war experience is that because of a paperwork snafu he didn’t receive his purple heart until 30 years after the conflict ended.

Once he began his new career, he combined talent and luck to eventually become one of Hollywood’s icons. His first hit TV series, “Maverick,” was the adventures of a hustler/ good guy in the Old West. The role fit Garner’s personality and shot to No. 1 in the ratings. After four years he decided it was time to focus on movies.

His favorite movie is “The Americanization of Emily,” which was made in 1964.

It’s an anti-war story of an American officer in England during World War II who falls in love with a young Brit (Julie Andrews). He loves his role as the officer because it has the unusual twist that he is essentially a coward. He also LOVES Julie Andrews and working with her was one of the highlights of his professional life.

Garner has appeared in several other films, including the highly acclaimed “The Great Escape,” “Grand Prix,” “Victor Victoria” (working again with Julie Andrews), and “The Notebook” (another personal favorite). In the 1970s he hit it big on TV again with the highly popular “Rockford Files.” The key to both his successful TV series was that his characters were flawed, but with good hearts.

Garner has strong opinions about many things in life, including politics, civil rights, acting, Hollywood moguls, and golf. He lays it out there for all to see. He even admits that his passion for golf went overboard and he threw his clubs all the time.

Garner portrays himself as an “old curmudgeon” but that would be misleading.

A better description would be reflective, passionate and amazing. He has managed to stay true to himself, be successful, and retain many devoted friends and admirers. It would be hard to top a life like that.