It took me 20 years to fully understand what bothered me so much about the 1994 feature film Maverick, a fun-loving Western that starred Mel Gibson as quick-witted riverboat gambler Bret Maverick and co-starred Jodie Foster and James Garner.
To fully understand, we need to flip the calendar back 57 years to, oddly enough, 1957.
I was a wide-eyed 10-year-old back then, sitting on the edge of my parent’s plastic-covered couch in what now seems like a tiny living room in Grand Prairie. On Sunday nights, our humming, tube-filled TV was usually tuned to The Ed Sullivan Show.
Someone at ABC came up with an effective plan for Maverick, featuring Garner as easy-going Bret Maverick and Jack Kelly as brother Bart Maverick, to dry gulch (ambush) not only Ed Sullivan on CBS, but The Steve Allen Show on NBC as well. Maverick, which quickly became the James Garner show, got out of the network TV chute 30 minutes earlier than Ed Sullivan or Steve Allen. And I was hooked.
On July 19 this year, when Garner died at 86, it finally dawned on me. There was something missing in the feature-film Maverick, even though Gibson was funny enough. That something was Garner, oddly cast as the younger Maverick’s dad in the film.
There was only one true Bret Maverick, and that was James Garner. He was cool because he never tried to be cool.
I learned quite a bit about Garner after his death. Born James Scott Bumgarner in Norman, OK, in 1928, Garner was injured twice in the Korean War and received two Purple Hearts.
Garner passed away just two days after Broadway icon, film actress Elaine Stritch, who lived to be 89 and could light up a stage or an interview room with blinding light fueled by exuberance for life and the stage.
I was blessed enough to spend a little time interviewing each of them, Garner in 2000 for the ensemble action-adventure-thriller Space Cowboys and Stritch in 1988 for the sci-fi-comic-adventure Cocoon: The Return.
It’s not uncommon to lose actors of that generation fairly regularly these days. What is uncommon, though, is the special life force this dynamo of live theater and cool customer under the movie lights possessed and shared with audiences for decades.
I will never forget the press conference for Space Cowboys at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in July, 2000. Stars Clint Eastwood (who also directed), Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, sporting gray hair down to his shoulders, and Garner casually glided in and tried not to look bored as they answered questions from a horde of entertainment reporters.
There they were: Eastwood, Jones, Sutherland and Garner. No one strained particularly hard to look cool. Need I go over the list again? The point is, Garner was the coolest of the cool.
Asked why we hadn’t seen a lot of him on screen lately, Garner, an elder statesman who appeared to be, at least metaphorically, pushing that Maverick hat up on his forehead before replying, said something like, “I don’t plan much in the future. Heck, I don’t even buy any green bananas.”
So long Mr. Garner and Ms. Stritch. You brought great pleasure to one boy from Grand Prairie who spent decades sitting in the dark admiring your work.