Appreciating the relaxed genius of the late James Garner

There have arguably been bigger stars in television history than the late James Garner, but none who ever made it look quite so easy.

Garner, who reportedly died in his home on Saturday at the age of 86, first hit it big in 1957 with “Maverick,” a comical Western in which he played Bret Maverick, a Wild West cardsharp who was as quick on the draw as he was with a quip. At a time when TV was dominated by Westerns – and very solemn ones, at that – Garner was happy to play the same material lighter, to occasionally be the clown or the guy who gets punched in the face, and yet always made it clear  that Maverick could easily kill you if he wanted to – it just wasn't his preferred way of doing things.

Garner left Maverick after only a few seasons (and had spent much of that time alternating episodes with Jack Kelly as Bret's brother Bart, because production demands were too great for any one actor) over a contract dispute with the studio. He would return to the role in a short-lived early '80s series, “Bret Maverick,” and then again (sort of) in 1994's big-screen “Maverick,” where he was revealed at the end to be playing the oft-mentioned daddy of Mel Gibson's Bret (who was himself named Bret). Even in the mid-'90s, in a big-budget movie featuring Gibson and Jodie Foster, Garner brought the same relaxed, unassailable charm he had given the role in the late '50s.

Garner got out of “Maverick” at a good time for his career, as he worked steadily in big movies throughout the 1960s. He was often in supporting roles (Audrey Hepburn's fiancé in “The Children's Hour”) or as part of big ensembles (Hendley the scrounger in “The Great Escape”), but he always left an impression in the way he underplayed the material. He was sincere, but he was never particularly worried about showing off how well he could emote. And he also got to headline some high-profile movies of the period, like John Frankenheimer's “Grand Prix” and the 1969 version of Raymond Chandler's “Marlowe.”

He also started appearing in light comic Westerns in the vein of “Maverick” like “Support Your Local Sheriff!” and “Skin Game,” and likely could have continued with that for a while. Instead, he went back to television, trying the Western genre again with “Nichols,” a show that lasted only one season and attempted to radically retool itself in the final episode by killing off the main character and then introducing his twin brother, also played by Garner.

Then he reunited with “Maverick” creator Roy Huggins, along with up-and-coming writer Stephen J. Cannell, for what would be their masterpiece: “The Rockford Files,” a drama about Jim Rockford, an ex-con who became a private detective, lived and worked out of a trailer in Malibu, and seemed to get punched in the face each week right around the second or third act break.

It was the perfect marriage of storytellers, star and genre: a show where Rockford's cases didn't matter remotely as much as the chance to see Garner banter with Joe Santos as Rockford's cop friend Dennis Becker, or to watch him try to outmaneuver his con man friend Angel (Stuart Margolin), or just enjoy the company of his father, Joseph “Rocky” Rockford (Noah Beery Jr.). The opening credits sequence is one of the best ever made, mixing Mike Post's irresistible California rock theme song with images of Rockford going through the mundane parts of his work (long stakeouts, working the pay phone) and personal life (shopping in the frozen food section, going fishing with Rocky). The show employed some great writers – it was the first significant TV gig for “The Sopranos” creator David Chase – all of whom understood what a star-driven show this was, and how much they could lean on Garner's smooth, seen-it-all persona.

All those foot chases and brawls Rockford shrugged off took a huge physical toll on the actor playing him, including knee and back pain, plus an ulcer. After six seasons, he gave up the job altogether, and got embroiled in various legal disputes with the studio that would last for much of the '80s. During that time, he successfully toggled back and forth between the big and small screen, getting a big hit as Julie Andrews' confused love interest in “Victor/Victoria,” his first and only Oscar nomination for “Murphy's Romance,” and acclaim and awards for TV-movies like “Promise” (where he played the brother to schizophrenic James Woods) and “My Name Is Bill W.” (a reunion with Woods, about the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous).

By the time the decade was out, Garner was in his 60s, and looked it. He had never exactly been boyish, but his laid-back screen persona had kept him seeming younger than he was for a long time. In the '90s, he began shifting into rascally elder statesmen roles, not just in the “Maverick” film, but the scorchingly satirical HBO film “Barbarians at the Gate,” and even in a series of “Rockford Files” TV-movies that acknowledged that its hero was moving a lot slower than he used to.

Though he eventually retired Jim Rockford for good – “God, he's getting old,” Garner told me a year after the last Rockford film aired. “I just think we've milked it to death.” – he  kept working steadily, and kept moving back and forth between film and television with an ease that eluded many of his contemporaries. Age had given him the gravity to seem like more of an authority figure, and he played an astronaut (“Space Cowboys”), a Supreme Court justice (“First Monday”), and even the Almighty (“God, the Devil and Bob”). But he also played a sitcom grandfather, stepping into “8 Simple Rules” after John Ritter's death, and he introduced himself to a new generation of moviegoers – or, at least, to those who noticed anything in the film beyond Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams – as the dogged but affable storyteller of “The Notebook.”

I came of age past Garner's '70s peak, but “The Rockford Files” was still in such heavy rerun rotation at the time – and such an obvious influence on '80s shows I loved like “Magnum, P.I.” and “The Greatest American Hero” – that I couldn't help but coming across his work, and then going back to see what he'd done in the '60s, and even the '50s. For those who weren't there, it's hard to truly convey how great and important Garner was, simply because he did so much of his most famous TV work within pretty strict genre formula, and because his defining characteristic as a performer was his breezy charm.

I had loved Garner for a long time, but I think the moment when I truly understood his genius came in Robert Benton's little-seen 1998 film “Twilight,” yet another private eye story, but with Paul Newman as the hero (a senior citizen riff on his classic Harper character), while Garner played an old drinking buddy who turns out to be in league with the bad guys. Newman had spent the better part of the previous 20 years trying to establish himself as the most carefree movie star of them all, and here Garner (himself playing a character with a strong resemblance to an iconic prior role) was acting him off the screen by somehow being even more at ease on camera. It's one thing to see an actor steal scenes by out-emoting the star, but I'd never seen a supporting player figure out how to out-relax the star, especially one on Newman's level, with Newman's skillset.

Some actors' greatness is obvious and showy. There is effort involved, and very obviously, at that. Garner's greatness came from the way he never seemed to be working hard, even as he was being insulted, hit, chased or otherwise menaced, year after year, decade after decade.

Goodbye, Jim Rockford. Goodbye, James Garner. Playing this song for you: