Garner, Maverick and Rockford

The actor, James Garner died last week at age 86. Garner was beloved by several generations of film and television fans. In a career that spanned seven decades, Garner twice struck television gold.

His first success came playing Bret Maverick, the quick-drawing, card-playing western scamp. “Maverick” was unique in that it wasn’t the typical television western. It combined the usual cowboy action series with a heavy dose of comedy. The writers for “Maverick” often satirized other popular shows such as “Gunsmoke” and “Dragnet.” Eye-catching cameos also helped to anchor its audience, but the real draw for “Maverick” was Garner.

Garner made Bret Maverick into a relatable hero. He had bad luck. He got into jams. Through a combination of brain and brawn, Maverick extricated himself from sticky situations.

Much the same can be said of Jim Rockford, Garner’s other fan favorite role. In “The Rockford Files,” Garner stared as a private investigator who went to prison on a bad bank robbery rap. Like Maverick, Rockford’s life is complicated. Only this time the setting is 1970s California.

Rockford spends much of his time navigating between difficult clients, corrupt cops, an assortment of thugs, bad guys and friends with troubles. He has an equally tenuous relationship with local police, for whom he often solves the case.

Where Maverick wore a snappy black suit, Rockford displays a penchant for checkered sports coats — it was the 1970s after all. In both characters, the audience sees a consistent theme of Garner’s roles: frustration. Instead of anger, his characters usually respond with sharp-tongued retorts.

Writing for “The New York Times,” Bruce Weber said of Garner, “He was a genuine star but as an actor something of a paradox: a lantern-jawed, brawny athlete whose physical appeal was both enhanced and undercut by a disarming wit.”

The noted journalist and critic John J. O’Connor likened Garner to both Gary Cooper and James Stewart. The comparison is apt. All three men had the ability to play moving dramatic characters, a dimension that just seemed to heighten the punch of their comedy.

The enduring appeal of both Maverick and Rockford is sustained by the American appetite for a particular kind of rugged individual. We want our heroes to be good but not puritanical. Without a little slack in their moral fiber, they wouldn’t connect.

Similarly, the pair of television heroes reflect another part of the American ethos in their physicality. When pushed, Maverick is the gunslinger. Rockford is frequently ensnarled in fisticuffs and car chases. In this, we want to know that our hero can get himself out of a tight spot — even when the odds are stacked against him.

Just as we don’t want him to be puritanical, we need to see him get a little dusty. Rockford in particular gets a regular pummeling as part of his trek. He gets knocked down, but he isn’t out. The momentary defeat sets him up for the larger triumph.

All this combines to make us root for them. They are flawed, yet they ultimately do the right thing. They suffer defeats, yet they persevere. They are as witty and handsome as we all secretly wish to be.

With more than 50 films, an Oscar nomination and seminal television roles, James Garner leaves behind a legacy of engaging characters and timeless entertainment. His cunning every-man, sly smile and regular frustrations will endear audiences for generations to come.