James Garner was not just some Hollywood actor. Yet, he was quite good at roles that suited his persona and beyond.
We lost the actor this weekend at age 86. Garner lived a long life, and possibly outlived those contemporaries that have lived on the edge a bit more than him. This is not a criticism of those contemporaries, but it showed the balance Garner had in his life and career.
Garner was a sportsman. He was also a fan. Yet, we know him more as a true car guy. He was up there with Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and other actors who had their turn on the track and on Mulholland Drive with his proficiency.
If you have never seen "Grand Prix", you should. This was a film that revolutionized car-mounted filming for maximum effect. The lead and follow cars were Ford GT40s with cameras mounted on them to shoot the cars in motion. Garner played an American Formula One driver on the comeback, finding himself in an affair with a rival's unhappy wife. We do not recall these subplots, but rather the racing action – a mix of reel footage from the 1966 F1 season and those sensational lead/follow shots.
The film leveraged Garner’s involvement in motorsports. His endurance and off-road racers lifted his star appeal, though he was never a driver in any of these vehicles. Off-road racing had a skewed image before Garner fielded a couple of 1969 SC/Ramblers in the Baja 500.
In 1975, Garner drove his first of three Pace Cars in the Indianapolis 500. His last being 1985, but his presence became part of Brickyard lore.
When we think of Garner and the automobile, we think of a bronze/gold Pontiac Firebird Esprit driven by his alter ego, Jim Rockford. In 1974, "The Rockford Files" debuted on NBC with Garner playing a detective living in a single-wide mobile home on the beach. The Firebird was his co-star, though Noah Beery, Jr., Joe Santos and Stuart Margolin would disagree. Issac Hayes would definitely disagree with playing third billing to a Pontiac.
However, one would argue the Firebird's star power for the fact that Garner was often seen behind the wheel – his presence as large as the doors. There were conflicting reports whether he did his own stunts in the Firebird, including the famous "J-Turn." Garner stated that he did his own J-Turns in an interview after the series was over. Nonetheless, it became a familiar maneuver on various television series, films and certain episodes of "Top Gear".
One tidbit about Garner, he was very picky about his ride. For 1979, Pontiac revised the Firebird with its lower grilles and dual rectangular headlamps above the bumper crease. Garner objected to the redesign and asked that the 1978 model was retained for the new television series. He would close "The Rockford Files" in the spring of 1980, partly due to health issues.
In the 1980s, Garner was featured in Mazda's commercials as their spokesman during one of their most exciting periods of their history. Although you could see his enthusiasm for the RX-7, Garner was equally ecstatic in his pitch for the 323 sedan and the B2000 pickup truck. One line he left on the screen in these commercials: “Of course, no one ever quotes me.”
Let us try this: “This is Jim Rockford. At the tone leave your name and message, I'll get back to you.”
(Beep) “Jim, this is Randy. On behalf of car enthusiasts and movie goers alike, we thank you for giving us some memorable moments. Whether you're Bret Maverick, Jim Rockford or any of the great characters you played…or, any of the great things you did for motorsport…we will remember those moments…and we will carry the flame you left behind. Oh, yeah, do another J-Turn for us in heaven in the Firebird, OK?"