James Garner was one of those actors who was watchable in almost anything, even commercials. He had great sexual chemistry, which is why his leading ladies loved working with him. For my money, when it comes to Sixties sex comedies, he was better with Doris Day than Rock Hudson was, and not just for the obvious reason. In Move Over, Darling, Doris and Polly Bergen crank it up a tad too much too soon, and it's Garner dialing it back and reeling it in who keeps the picture's contrivances from getting too much. Over a third of a century, he made three movies with Julie Andrews, and made her seem desirable, which is a trick not every leading man could pull off. And, of course, he and Mariette Hartley turned those Seventies/Eighties Polaroid commercials into such mini-masterpieces of effortless charm that most viewers assumed the relationship had to be real. The chemistry was so good Miss Hartley began going around in a T-shirt proclaiming "I am NOT Mrs James Garner."
On the other hand, he had great non-sexual chemistry with Donald Pleasence in the chick-less Great Escape. Indeed, it's the only really personal relationship in the picture, as Garner's breezy, affable "Scrounger" assumes personal responsibility for the fate of the shy British document-forger as he loses what little eyesight he has left.
After his turn in the otherwise bland Mel Gibson movie version of Maverick in the Nineties, I thought that he'd enjoy a grand Clint-like old age on the big screen. But the nearest anyone got to that was Robert Benton's Twilight a decade and a half back. Nothing to do with vampires, but just a handful of stars in the twilight of their careers â€” Garner, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman and, given Hollywood's attitude to women over 23, one should probably include the younger female stars as well, Stockard Channing and Susan Sarandon. The surprise, in their scenes together, is discovering that, for all the twinkly smiling blue eyes, Newman can't match the genial ease and intimacy of Garner. Pity the movie wasn't really about anything.
I would have loved to have seen him in one last Rockford movie, but it was not to be. He had a rich and full life away from the camera, and that speaks well for him, too. Years ago I met his daughter Gigi Garner, who at that time was trying to make it as a singer (she's since written some hit songs, and has her own talent management company). She was very attractive, but, even as I was doing my best to be sophisticated and urbane, I remember thinking (a) if James Garner's your dad every guy who hits on you must come across as a clunky dork; and (b) there was an odd frisson in the air that, if you tried anything, Jim Rockford would pound the crap out of you.
He was the best at what he did. Rest in peace.