This was the year we lost Big Jim.
A couple of weeks ago, on the way back from work, it suddenly struck me that I had forgotten that he had died. I even went online when I got home to check that I hadn’t misremembered (or misforgotten, or whatever). Saddened once more, I resolved to finish watching Nichols (1971-72), his western TV series just prior to The Rockford Files (1974-80), before heading overseas for the holidays. The final episode, ‘All in the Family’, produced another affective flip-flop as, in the opening sequence, Nichols is suddenly gunned down by Quinn (Anthony Zerbe); there is a brief passage of what-the-fuck? as the funeral proceeds and it doesn’t all turn out to be one of Nichols’ scams; and then Garner turns up, admirably moustachioed, playing Nichols’ brother, who cons the town into bringing Quinn to justice. You can only imagine my delight when, a few days later in Tucson, we sat down to start watching season three of Maverick (1957-62), and in the opening episode, ‘Pappy’, Garner plays not only Bret Maverick, but also his father, Beau Maverick, and Bret pretending to be Beau. I hope he picked up three pay cheques, because he is always worth that much. (I have no idea what I am going to do about the final two seasons – in season four, Garner is replaced by Roger Moore, playing the Mavericks’ English cousin, Beauregarde; and in five, Jack Kelly carried on alone as Bart, interspersed with reruns of old Garner/Bret episodes. My inner completist is at war with my inner loyalist.)
I am curious, though, about the sensation of missing a celebrity, someone I never actually knew.
Like all right-minded people, I was appalled by the massive manipulation of public sentiment when Princess Diana died,* and scoffed at the miserable attempts to whip up a lacrimae rerum rerun when that vile, gin-swilling elitist, the Queen Mother, finally choked (I guess from having her greedy snout so deep into the public trough).** And despite being washed up alone in a Californian one horse dorp the day Thatcher died, I still managed to find myself partying into the small hours in the one gay bar in town.
On the other hand, but also like all right-minded people, I was bereft for months when Elisabeth Sladen died. Part early object-cathexis, I know; and partly because just as so many of us have a ‘my Doctor’ – mine would definitely be Tom Baker were it not for Peter Cushing – she was always ‘my companion’.
Maybe it was that unexpected feeling of loss that prepared me for Jim’s passing. And the fact that he had always been there – without ever actually being there –since I was a child. (A friend recently caught a late episode of 8 Simple Rules (2002-05) and said how much it made her long for a big living room centred around an open fire. Me, my wishes are simpler: a battered old armchair, from which James Garner comments wrily on my everyday foibles and mishaps.)
Garner was a big, handsome man, with an easy-going and amiable persona, and good liberal politics. He was not hard to like, even when playing an arrogant shit of a corporate CEO in Barbarians at the Gate (1993). But his real appeal, especially when playing Maverick and Rockford (both created by the equally admirable Roy Huggins), was his performance of human frailty. He played heroes who were cowards, gunmen who eschewed guns, a private dick who took plenty of lickings because he couldn’t always avoid a fight, no matter how hard he tried, and was not much good at fighting anyway. He played a cardsharp who did not cheat, except when he did. He pursued money but could not get hold of it. He fell for women he knew were trouble, and was suckered every time, because despite his mercenary instincts he also tended to trust people. Everyone jokes about how The Great Escape (1963) has a claustrophobic tunneller (Charles Bronson) and a blind forger (Donald Pleasence), but they forget that James Garner plays a scrounger with a heart of gold. He refuses to leave the forger behind when the POWs break out of Stalag Luft III en masse, and is finally captured when he refuses once more to abandon his friend.
So if you are looking for some kind of moral compass that understands our weaknesses, don’t ask yourself what Jesus would do.
Ask what Big Jim would do.
* The only good thing to come of it was the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, and then only because it inspired Stewart Lee’s Princess Diana Memorial Fountain Memorial Fountain Fountain routine.
** Despite constant media whitewashing and the vague resemblance, she was no more Paddington Bear’s Great Aunt Lucy than I am.