The Last Lap: James Garner dies at 86

Garner Rockford

By David Boldt (posted by BJ Killeen)

I first knew him as Bret Maverick in the series of the same name. And while that series constituted a nice respite (long before knowing what a respite was) from the Gunsmokes and Bonanzas of the day, it was James Garner’s role in John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix that steered itself into the apex of my then-adolescent consciousness. Whether behind the wheel of a Shelby Mustang in the opening minutes, strapping into a single-seat Formula One car or doing his contractual dance with a Japanese industrialist, James Garner’s Pete Aron was the embodiment of what we’d always enjoy seeing from an American driver taking on the best of Europe. And while his characterization of Aron certainly wasn’t the “Ugly American,” neither was it benign nor beautiful.

Grand-Prix James GarnerIf the movie’s storyline looks, from the perspective of almost 50 years, a tad clumsy, a viewer — or reviewer — still gets his or her money’s worth on the racing footage itself. It is, in short, a visual and aural masterpiece, with the big screen taking you literally behind the wheel and on the wheel in Formula One’s wheel-to-wheel combat. And should the romances and bromances of the “circus” generate the occasional snicker, there is nothing but slack-jawed awe when the starter buttons are pushed and the cars roll off the starting grid.

As you will remember, the role of Pete Aron launched Garner on a lifelong affection for racing. But unlike McQueen, who took his love of racing into the theater with LeMans, or Newman, who took a stinker of a movie (Winning) and built a completely credible avocation in SCCA racing and (later) as an Indy team owner, Garner went from the circuits of Europe to the dust bowl that is Baja. Garner piloted an aggressively modified Oldsmobile before the world — or even the motorsport world — fully understood the appeal of driving balls-to-the-wall in something other than a brick-embellished oval. It wasn’t an image-building exercise or a marketing push; rather, it was Garner’s love of machinery, and going fast in whatever got him “fast.”

Garner Goodyear Grabber OldsLater, Garner would co-star with a Firebird in the Rockford Files, and much later, drive Sally Field to distraction in Murphy’s Romance, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. And while generally overlooked during awards season — making the art of acting look easy — he took that skill set up a notch (or three) in the art of living.

Jim Garner passed away from what is reported to have been natural causes at his Los Angeles home on Saturday, July 19th. He is survived by his wife Lois, a daughter and stepdaughter, numerous friends and millions of fans. I was one of them.