Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

A Character of Wit and Tenderness

James Garner. who died over the weekend at age 86, taught a generation of Americans that wit could be a weapon. Later in life, he showed us the power of tenderness.

james-garner-as-maverickAs the iconoclastic Bret Maverick, Garner saved the day more often through cleverness rather than gunplay.

As ex-con turned PI Jim Rockford, Garner solved the case despite enduring life’s nagging problems with unpaid bills, whacked out friends and a dilapidated trailer as a home – not to mention serious knee injuries he suffered while filming the TV series.

Ruggedly handsome, Garner mastered the anti-macho look. He became an actor almost by accident. According to his autobiography, Garner said he embraced in real life a live-and-let-live attitude.

However, in 2004, four years before Garner himself suffered a stroke, he showed a different side of his personality when he played Noah Calhoun, an elderly man who reads a romantic love story everyday to a woman in a nursing home. As the plot of The Notebook unfolds, we learn the story is real and Allie is Noah’s wife and lifelong love.

the_notebook_james_garnerNoah reads her the story to spark a momentary flicker of her memory, which is often followed by a convulsion of forgetfulness, confusion and anger. Garner’s expression epitomizes the futility people feel when facing a hopeless situation.

One critic called The Notebook a chick flick every guy should see with a box of Kleenex. That’s pretty accurate, especially the part about the Kleenex, as Garner’s portrayal revealed an intensity for love and sorrow that is enormously manly. He doesn’t cry over his spilled milk; he cries over the loss of the dearest person in his life

In a carer that seamlessly wove between the small and large screen, Garner played leading men and grouchy characters. But his defining roles at Maverick, Rockford and Calhoun seemed to me more than parts; they strike me as role models. Garner played someone you knew, could know or would like to know.

rockford2You can’t always outdraw an opponent. Sometimes you are reduced to living barely one step ahead of a bill collector. And many of us have seen a true love slip away.

Garner’s characters, which seem more real than fictional, didn’t fit the stereotypes of a Western hero, L.A. detective or an aging man winking at pretty women. Maverick. Rockford and Calhoun may have felt victimized, but he never played them as victims.
Maverick’s wit was never cruel. He was interested in money, like most of us. Rockford’s resourcefulness was just barely over the line. He did what he had to to scratch out a living. Calhoun never wavered as sacrificed his own health and pleasure to sustain the most meager spark of life in the one he cherished.

Whenever I scroll through shows or movies to watch, I invariably stop when I see a movie starring Garner. His death this weekend reminded me why. Garner was the guy who looked good enough to be the hero, but played the unlikely hero, except at the end when he came across bigger than life.


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