bretmaverick_2Next Monday, Turner Classic Movies presents a special tribute to the late James Garner, who died yesterday at age 86.

Garner was best known for his TV roles, but he also made quite a few movies, the most notable of which (in my view) is The Great Escape. Unfortunately, TCM won’t be showing that one or Support Your Local Gunfighter, nor the film of Maverick, in which he played an antagonist to Mel Gibson’s lead character. Nor did Murphy’s Romance and Space Cowboys make the cut. Instead, here’s the lineup for the tribute day:

6:00 AM Toward the Unknown
8:00 AM Shoot-out at Medicine Bend
9:30 AM Grand Prix
12:30 PM Cash McCall
2:15 PM The Wheeler Dealers
4:00 PM Darby’s Rangers
6:15 PM Mister Buddwing
8:00 PM The Thrill of it All
10:00 PM The Americanization of Emily
12:00 AM The Children’s Hour
2:00 AM Victor/Victoria
4:30 AM Marlowe

Although the above-mentioned films and a few others Garner starred in are praiseworthy, Garner’s movie output is not particularly impressive. He was more effective as a TV actor, yet even on the small screen his appeal had distinct limits. The eulogies from critics tend to laud Garner for his portrayals of antiheroes, and I am sure that he would have been gratified by that. I don’t think it’s all that great of a compliment: to me, the antihero is one of the many deleterious cultural trends to emerge from the post-World War II era, and its precipitation into a major cultural movement in the late 1960s and ’70s was largely baneful and the product of a nation that was losing its moral compass.

Nonetheless, Garner was very good at this dubious type of characterization−his craggy features and tall, athletic build (he reportedly played basketball and football in high school) contrasted well with his character’s innate cowardice and sneakiness in the excellent 1950s TV series Maverick, and they served him well as the bedraggled private detective Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files.

Garner could play these raffish characters well because of those physical characteristics, but unlike many antiheroes, his Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford had a distinct moral compass. Although Maverick often clearly had ulterior motives for becoming involved in the travails of various attractive females in his wanderings, he clearly sympathized with those who were being exploited by criminals, and he employed the full force of his wiles in making things right. (I preferred Jack Kelly’s characterization of Bret’s brother, Bart Maverick, however.)

Rockford, for his part, was a shabby, low-rent, ex-con private detective who had a soft spot for pretty girls in trouble and stood up to the authorities when his clients or his down-and-out friends needed a champion. Rockford’s disdain for authority was a particularly apposite attitude during an era in which the presidents were Nixon, Ford, and Carter and the Congress was under one-party control. Despite these positive elements, the show was never a big hit in the ratings, but it had a devoted fan following which has lasted many years since it went off the air. (Both Maverick and The Rockford Files were created and produced by Roy Huggins, whose distinctively raffish view of society and morality fit well with the moral confusion of the second half of the twentieth century in the United States. He was a talented writer who created several likable TV series characters and could plot a very solid story.)

Garner’s antiheroes retain their appeal because they were ultimately good at heart and didn’t take themselves too seriously. That lack of seriousness limited the amount of moral or psychological insight one could gain from his characters and the stories in which they were presented, but when Maverick and Rockford were at their best, there was much entertainment to be found. For that, his many fans remember him fondly.