Ethics Lessons From An Ethical Life: James Garner, 1928-2014

Brett_Maverick_-_James_Garner

To me, James Garner will always be Bret Maverick, his black hat worn girlishly on the back of his head, or “The Scrounger” in “The Great Escape,” a role modeled after Garner’s real-life exploits in the military. For some reason Garner’s aging through the years—his health issues ranged from a heart by-pass to knee replacements and several strokes—bothered me more than that of most stars from my youth. His death bothers me more. James Garner always struck me as a someone who should be perpetually young. Of course, I feel the same way about myself.

By all accounts from contemporaries, fans and colleagues, he was a decent, fair and usually amiable man who never let stardom turn him into a monster, as so many do. He had a single, long-lasting marriage and a stable family; he was not fodder for tabloids with affairs, illegitimate children, drug abuse or DUI arrests. He did apparently have a penchant for punching people in the nose who insulted him to his face, a habit about which he was unapologetic.

It was the one small character flaw, apparently, that arose out of Garner’s terrible childhood. He was  born James Scott Bumgarner in Norman, Oklahoma. His mother was raising him alone when she died. He was only 5, and he and his two brothers were separated and shuttled between the homes of relatives for three years. Then Garner’s father, Weldon, an abusive alcoholic and rake who married four times, reunited the brothers under a single roof with the addition of their first stepmother, a sadist who regularly beat them—“Mostly me,” Garner told interviewers. Eventually young Garner fought back, engaging in a violent battle with his tormenter that precipitated her divorce from his father.

Such childhood traumas are often used by defense attorneys and expert witnesses in psychology to seduce judges into delivering lenient sentences to criminals for their anti-social behavior. It is certainly easy to see how a childhood like Garner’s could lead a young man to be bitter, angry, violent and defiant. It is also worth noting that this isn’t always the result. Sometime, if the individuals have good character, intelligence and the ability to tell right from wrong, these same youthful experiences can teach productive and beneficial lessons. In Garner’s case, they taught him never to tolerate abuse and exploitation, and to intervene when he saw others being abused.

Garner was known for using his status as a star on TV and movie set to prevent directors from mistreating assistants and performers. He also drove studios crazy by refusing to accept the routinely unethical financial practices of the industry.  His connection with both of his hit series, “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files,” ended when Garner insisted on fair compensation for his work on shows that were making fortunes for others, and he was one of the few actors willing to take powerful producers to court to challenge creative Hollywood accounting practices. Garner stood up for himself and paid a price. While he received millions in various settlements, he lost roles as a result: you couldn’t cheat him, you see. He would not allow a corrupt system to corrupt him, no matter how lucrative the rewards.

He didn’t let life corrupt him either, and when you start life like James Garner did, that’s an impressive achievement.

______________________

Sources: People, Variety, Wikipedia

19 thoughts on “Ethics Lessons From An Ethical Life: James Garner, 1928-2014

  1. I also am a life long fan of James Garner. I have always appreciated his gentle sense of humor and the fact that he never seemed to take himself too seriously. A good role model for the rest of us.

  2. I met him once when I was a kid on a golf course. He stuck me as a quite approachable guy who wasn’t carried away by the success of Maverick. I really enjoyed the movie “Murphy’s Romance” in which he was paired with Sally Fields. He will be missed by me.

  3. JackM: “In Garner’s case, they taught him never to tolerate abuse and exploitation, and to intervene when he saw others being abused.”

    An intriguing observation, given our previous exchange. I reflect upon the words of Dr. King, Martin Niemöller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and especially Elie Weisel:

    “Indifference is not a beginning, it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity we betray our own.

    Indifference, then, is not only a sin, it is a punishment. And this is one of the most important lessons of this outgoing century’s wide-ranging experiments in good and evil.”

    When the other guy is in the dock, you seem remarkably solicitous of what even you admit is obvious injustice. One is left to wonder how tolerant you would be, were you in the dock. “Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.” “Character” is what you do when doing the right thing will cost you something.

    • 1. I can’t respond unless you direct me to what you are referring to. I’m juggling multiple exchanges with multiple commenters on multiple threads. Yes, I can search for it, but I ask that courtesy from visitors here.

      2. Given your endorsement of the current advocates for extermination of the Jews in the previous comment, your quoting Elie Weisel and Niemöller is ballsy, hypocritical, funny or bats—pick one.

      • Well, it’s that whole “given” thing, isn’t it? Your very formulation, both here and in that other thread, is begging the question, assuming the very thing that is at issue. His position makes absolute sense, given the other resolution.

        I have noticed how you tend to take contradiction of your deeply internalised ideas of what is fact. Please do not take any of this as a comment on what the facts are (that is precisely why I am not bringing them out by way of example), but rather as a suggestion that you look at where you have internalised them in this way and instead turn them into fit topics for enquiry and discussion. On the one hand, it will let you address others’ positions, and on the other hand it will allow you to change your own as, when, and if it is ever in error.

        • It is a given. Endorsing Gaza is endorsing Hamas, and that is endorsing terrorism, as well as Hamas’s mission of refusing to accept the right of Israel to exist. All are facts. All are true.

          As for this: “..you look at where you have internalised them in this way and instead turn them into fit topics for enquiry and discussion. On the one hand, it will let you address others’ positions, and on the other hand it will allow you to change your own as, when, and if it is ever in error”—I have no idea what you are trying to express, and I’m not sure I care. One cannot determine the balance of right and wrong without seeking objective truth, and being open to changing that determination if the facts dictate that the truth is different than believed. Thde kind of screed that Bouldergeist engages in comes from developing templates and rigid constructs and using procrustean tactics to fit them to the template. The Palestinian-Israel conflict has been a great garden for this.

          I presented a theater pageant—“A Flag is Born,” which was used to raise funds for the nascent Jewish state, which depicts Jewish terrorism against the British, and challenged the Jewish embassy to join a discussion about it. The ambassador came and debated—his answer, essentially, was “this is now, that was then.” A Palestinian activist just tried to disrupt the performance and the discussion. Ultimately, ethics points toward civilized society, and a lack of ethics encourages chaos.

  4. I missed the original Maverick run, but Rockford is still one of my favorite characters, the classic decent guy who gets in over his head and often sacrifices his interests (financial, convenience, making nice for angry nauthorities) for others, often relative strangers. Helping others directly is what holds a society together. The massive charities are great for big issues, and even the charities stars start are helpful even if proliferation of similar charities increase admin costs. But it’s the charity in the trenches that make the biggest difference: a ready meal for people in illness or crisis, helping the desperate get a fair chance, babysitting for a job-hunter, and even supporting a senior who is losing touch. Many of his roles were the tarnished paladins starting with the riverboat gambler, and it’s good to know that wasn’t just an act for him. We need more like that.

  5. My favorite Garner moment came during a television he gave during his brief stint in the series “First Monday.” The interviewer noted that the Supreme Court Justice Garner played was quite conservative. Garner himself, however, was very liberal. How, the interviewer asked, did he manage that apparent conflict? Garner looked at her for a moment and replied, “I’m an actor.” He was, indeed.

  6. Damn! We have lost another great one. I was always a big fan, and believed him almost every role he played. He was, indeed, an actor and he will be missed.

    • Damn! We have lost another great one. I was always a big fan, and believed him almost every role he played. He was, indeed, an actor and he will be missed.
      *********
      You can say that again.
      We just watched The Great Escape again last night.
      He is wonderful in that.
      RIP!

  7. I still cannot understand with several hit series and the tons of movies he made, why was he only worth $20 million when he died? Could someone explain that to me?

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