James Garner is one of those effortless actors perennially taken for granted during the years, the decades, that he performed in film after film, genre after genre. When he died on July 19, at age 86, one could sense the collective sigh, "Oh, yeah, he was great!," tinged with a little regret.
He wasn't appreciated enough as an actor and one could take from his easy-going manner that he really didn't care about that. In his off-screen life, he had accomplished the things in life that really matter. Jim - it seems right to call him that - was a former Marine who won two Purple Hearts during the Korean War and he was married to his wife Lois for 58 years. Fifty-eight years. And without a single hint of scandal.
As a leading man, he had it all. A model leading man: Tall, dark and handsome. Based on looks alone, he should have been the kind of guy easy to dislike, if it weren't for his easy accessibility and, yes, likability.
Garner and his "Great Escape"co-star, Steve McQueen, were both popular TV actors who managed to break into movies at a time when TV actors had scant credibility/bankability. Garner was a contract Warner Bros. TV player and his boss, Jack Warner, was known for drawing a clear line that divided his feature film players from the TV employees in his stable.
The latter rarely crossed over. But Warner put Garner in "Sayonara," "Darby's Rangers" and "Cash McCall" before lending him out to the Mirisch Bros. for his first serious role in William Wyler's "The Children's Hour" (1961). In direct contrast, Garner followed that with a game, spirited turn in the wry Kim Novak comedy, "Boys' Night Out" (1962) for MGM.