To many he’s either Bret Maverick or Jim Rockford but James Garner was much more. Garner lived a colorful and steadfast life, exemplified by old-fashioned ideals to become the picture of masculinity to many generations. I became a fan of Garner’s through his work with Julie Andrews, particularly the one-two punch of The Americanization of Emily (1964) and Victor/Victoria (1982). Nowhere does Garner’s voice dominate more than in his autobiography, The Garner Files, all the way down to the topics he chooses to discuss. Unlike most autobiographies, The Garner Files eschews a typical “I was born. I lived…” premise in favor of letting Garner hint on topics he enjoys, such as making Maverick and The Rockford Files, or his undying love for golf and race cars. The “dirt” may be in short supply, but Garner’s life as hinted at in the book is compelling enough, and will certainly inspire you to watch his films and television work.
Starting with the death of his mother and contentious relationship with his father and stepmother Garner introduces the hardscrabble world he sought to overcome. Although choosing privacy in most areas of the book, he explains he’s limited in detailing his past purely because “no one ever talked about it.” With that knowledge, it’s evident Garner comes from a long line of people who keep things close to their chest, and he’s no different. In a way, Garner’s autobiography gives us plenty of insight about himself but keeps the focus isolated. He remains a gentleman, but politely gives us little that would be considered embarrassing or controversial. He mentions working with Julie Andrews and Doris Day, but he’s not one to kiss and tell. Even his long-standing marriage remains off the table. For many expecting something “interesting,” i.e. juicy, to read you’ll be disappointed. But Garner is a class act, a man of rich integrity which comes through from the first page, so it’s not unexpected or unreasonable for him to avoid gossip, it’s in his nature.
That’s not to say there’s nothing interesting within The Garner Files’ brief pages. Garner’s a good ‘ole boy (I use that term in the best way), so much of the book is like sitting down with someone as they talk about random stuff they’ve enjoyed in their life. It’s looser in structure than Esther Williams’ autobiography, but the same conversational, casual tone remains. Garner enjoys meandering, picking up the threads of various topics and telling them as he goes. Garner touches on his time during WWII, his television and film career, and more, all the while including words of wisdom that can apply to those interested in becoming an actor or those who just want to be more assertive in following their career path.
Garner’s captain of the ship, dictating what’s discussed. Each chapter heading clearly indicates the topic, so unlike most autobiographies that require a full read-through from beginning to end, you can skip around to certain sections which interest you. That’s not to say each chapter doesn’t yield something of interest, but if you’re not a golfer or into race cars – like myself – then you’ll be itching to move to the next chapter. Garner, a man of brevity, keeps things short, so most of the sections are less than twenty pages, making even the most uninteresting sections quick. The final chapters include memories and perceptions of the star from his friends, family, and co-stars, offering a wealth of perspectives on the actor, highlighting his rapid-fire temper to his intense sincerity.
Though light on actual insider knowledge, The Garner Files makes up for it in giving us a glimpse inside the mind of James Garner. Garner’s left behind a legacy of amazing work, and this book gives us a taste of the man outside of those films.
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