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SUMMER SNEAKS '94 : Was, Is and Always a Maverick : His signatures are Rockford and Maverick--can anybody in Hollywood do cool and canny better than James Garner?

May 15, 1994|CARLA HALL | Carla Hall is a staff writer for The Times' Metro section. and

James Garner does not go to the movies. "Ohhh, I don't like to sit there too long," he explains in a perfect Jim Rockford-esque grumble of a drawl. "I don't like the crowds, I don't like to get out of the house if I don't have to. Parking. It's such a chore." Yet, here he sits in the Hotel Bel Air dining room, cheerfully saying you're going to want to do all those things to see his new movie, "Maverick."

"It's going to be a kick," he says. "We did have a ball making it. I asked (director) Dick Donner the second week, 'We're having so much fun, are we laughing ourselves into trouble here?' "

It has been 37 years since Warner Bros. officials called over to Japan where Marlon Brando was filming "Sayonara" and asked the producers to hurry up and send home a young contract actor, James Garner, to play Bret Maverick in their new television series. By the time Garner was finished with "Maverick," the tongue-in-cheek Western had supplanted most others and Garner was on his way to being a star.

"Well, we just killed Westerns," Garner says chuckling. When a character once declared "He went that-a-way," Maverick looked at him and deadpanned, "And you know a shortcut, right?"

In fact, "Maverick" established two seminal things about Garner. One was that he is brazen enough to stand up to a studio in a legal battle. (Long before his famous 1980s suit against Universal, he successfully sued Warners for laying him off his 52-week contract during a writers' strike.) The second was that he is the master of the wry, bemused everyman character.

In the four decades of his career, Garner has proved to be one of the most enduring and endearing actors in the business, accessible enough for television, commanding enough for movies, unpretentious enough for commercials. He has done things you've probably forgotten--"The Americanization of Emily" and "Victor/Victoria," both with Julie Andrews--and things he'd rather forget about. ("A Man Called Sledge" is what he regularly offers up when asked for his biggest stinker.) And along the way there were films like "Support Your Local Sheriff," "Grand Prix" (he loved that because he got to drive race cars), "The Children's Hour," "The Great Escape."

But it has been television that let him distinguish himself from the pack, first with his charming gambler-adventurer, Bret Maverick, and then later with the witty, beleaguered private detective, Jim Rockford, of "The Rockford Files." In 1993, he starred in HBO's Emmy-winning version of "Barbarians at the Gate," but for most TV fans, Maverick and Rockford were the quintessential Garner roles. In many ways, Rockford was a 1970s reincarnation of Bret Maverick and had a similar skewering effect on TV private eyes. "We kept sticking our tongue in our cheek, and that ruined a lot of detective shows," says Garner. "People would get to thinking, 'What would Rockford have done? He wouldn't have gotten a gun and gone chasing him.' "

Bret Maverick has never been quite out of circulation, living on in fans' fond memories and getting resuscitated in a short-lived 1981 series that Garner says never made him particularly happy. But now, there's a big screen rebirth, and Garner is passing on the torch to Mel Gibson, who plays the glib gambler in Richard Donner's movie "Maverick," which also stars Jodie Foster and Garner. Here, the actor says, he's content to sit by at the poker table and on the stagecoach playing straight lawman Zane Cooper to Gibson's wisecracking Maverick.

Garner says his Maverick days are over. "That was a long time ago," he says. "I don't own it. It's wonderful to see Mel play it. He has such charm and wit. I've said before I don't know anybody who could play it like Mel could."

Gibson plays Maverick broader than Garner did, he says. "He's much funnier than I was," muses Garner. "I think when we did it, we were a little more subtle. This can get pretty broad."

But Garner sees that as a necessary '90s update. And he says the antic comedy of the movie--which virtually no one has seen because Donner was still racing to finish it two weeks before its slated Friday opening--owes much to Donner's and Gibson's rapport from their collaboration on the "Lethal Weapon" franchise as well as the fact that a female character, Foster, has been added to the mix.

"It's much more played between three people rather than the humor that was in the series, which came from Jim's witticisms and observations," notes Donner, who says Garner was "extremely giving as both an actor who created the character and a compatriot on the set." Because of Garner's observation that he never drank as Maverick, Gibson doesn't either.

Both Donner and Garner are vague on just what Garner's lawman character, Zane Cooper, is doing besides keeping his eye on Maverick.

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