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A Surviving Maverick : James Garner Has Won Lawsuits, Overcome Health Problems to Remain One of TV's Top Stars

December 02, 1990|DANIEL CERONE | Times Staff Writer

More than a year has passed since James Garner settled his tiring, eight-year battle with Universal Studios over his multimillion-dollar share of profits from the hit NBC series "The Rockford Files."

His position on the Hollywood establishment hasn't changed much since.

"The industry is like it always has been. It's a bunch of greedy people," Garner drawled.

As a heavyweight in the acting business, Garner, 62, is undefeated. He walked out on two TV series, ABC's "Maverick" and NBC's "Rockford," because he felt he wasn't being treated fairly.

"About everything I ever have done, in the way of lawsuits against studios, I've won them all," he said, "because I was right every time. (Studios) would rather steal than do it right. And they might even make more money if they did it right. But it's just not in their nature."

In Sunday night's "Hallmark Hall of Fame" special, "Decoration Day," on NBC, Garner is a judge who receives a Purple Heart for being wounded in battle during World War II. Before he became an actor, Garner himself earned two Purple Hearts in Korea for taking shrapnel while fighting on the front line.

But listening to him,you begin to believe that what the enduring actor really deserves is a Purple Heart for injuries sustained over a grueling television career. As the dapper card shark "Maverick" (1957-60) and the resourceful detective Jim Rockford (1974-80), Garner has been shot at, beaten up, run down, strangled and drowned.

And the stress from his legal scuffles reportedly contributed to two heart surgeries, one a quintuple bypass, over the last two years.

"You show me anybody who has done enough television as an actor and I'll show you somebody who is beat to a pulp," he said, shaking his head. "I mean, you can look at 'em. I was recently at a golf course with Bill Bixby and Jimmy Woods. We sat around talking, and soon we were comparing broken bones, knee operations, scars. You know, we're beat up."

Garner, dressed comfortably in loafers and a navy sweater, was sitting stiffly in a room at the Hotel Bel Air. As usual, his ailments were, well, ailing. "I had two dental implants done Tuesday. My jaw is killing me. I threw my back out yesterday. But other than that, I'm as healthy as can be."

"Decoration Day," based on the John William Corrington novella, casts Garner as widower Albert Sidney, a retired judge begrudgingly dragged out of retirement when he learns that an estranged childhood friend (Bill Cobbs) was overlooked for a Congressional Medal of Honor, presumably because he was black. The film co-stars Ruby Dee as the judge's testy housekeeper and Judith Ivey as a legal secretary.

"I could really associate with Albert Sidney," Garner said. "I like him. He's a curmudgeon. He's my kind of guy."

Coincidentally, Garner's first acting job at 25 was a non-speaking role as a judge. It was on Broadway in Henry Fonda's "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial." Garner, who earlier had a job as a swimming suit model, said he unabashedly got into acting for the money.

"No, I didn't set out to be famous or anything like that," he said. "When I started out 35 years ago, what was I qualified to do to make a living? Nothing. You don't need qualifications as an actor or a politician. And I didn't want to be a politician."

Though Garner's recent movie career has been both up ("Victor/Victoria" in 1982 and "Murphy's Romance" in 1985) and down ("Tank" in 1984 and "Sunset" in 1988), he has maintained a high profile on television in such Hallmark productions as "Promise" in 1986, which won five Emmys including best drama, and last year's "My Name is Bill W." Now, he's producing "Mittleman's Hardware," an ABC movie starring George C. Scott.

"Look at it this way, I could just go on and make film after film after film," Garner said. "But eventually, if they're not good projects, people are not going to watch them, and my value is not going to be as high. So I'm better off doing fewer projects but doing good work. That brings in more money."

Garner won't let anything get the best of him these days, not even a city. He and his wife of 33 years, Lois, are planning to buy a 400-acre ranch in Santa Ynez so they can escape the violence and traffic of Los Angeles.

"There's a lot of people who can't afford to do what I've done in the way of taking on studios (over his share of series profits). And I've done it twice and won both times. But it meant something to other actors, that it can be done. And it's also changed a little bit of policy by the studios toward the actors."

He smiled. "Of course, the minute you plug up one hole they find another one. They've got these batteries of lawyers to find ways to steal."

"Decoration Day" airs 9-11 p.m. Sunday on NBC.

More Garner

James Garner movies on video:

"Sayonara" (1957)

"The Great Escape" (1963)

"The Thrill of It All" (1963)

"The Americanization of Emily" (1964)

"Grand Prix" (1966)

"Support Your Local Sheriff!" (1969)

"Skin Game" (1971)

"The Castaway Cowboy" (1974)

"The Fan" (1981)

"Victor/Victoria" (1982)

"Tank" (1984)

"The Glitter Dome" (1985)

"Murphy's Romance" (1985)

"Sunset" (1988)

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