"He's a wonderful stick-in-the-mud," Donner says laughing. The director also insists there's a twist in the movie. "You know that movie last year where they said don't say what the gender of the actor is? Well, we say you can tell the gender but don't tell the ending."
Garner figures more moviegoers will come for Gibson than for him. "He's a hot property," he says. "He deserves it."
That's not out of character for Garner on screen or off. Much of his long-lived appeal owes to his unpretentious straightforwardness and humor.
"He's the kind of guy you want to go to dinner with after you're done shooting," says Donner.
He's certainly pleasant over a late breakfast in the lush confines of the Bel Air. He eats a politically correct half a papaya and a bran muffin. At 66, he's a veteran of bypass surgery who no longer smokes (well, he sneaks one now and then) and drinks only wine.
"I had 'em working nights trying to make enough whiskey for me to drink," he recalls of his hard-liquor-drinking days that ended, he says, when he was 27. He allows himself about six ounces of beef a week--and this from a guy once famous for beef commercials. "I got letters from people: 'I hope you die eating beef.' All these vegetarians."
He's aging about as well as, oh, say, Warren Beatty (Garner is older), which is to say quite well. Tall and broad shouldered, Garner is dressed in a black sweater and black slacks, a black leather jacket tossed across the banquette seat. The face is ruddy pink, thicker and not as chiseled as in his Rockford days. He wears big, black-framed, rose-tinted shades on this hazy day. He takes them off halfway through the interview, revealing gentle light brown eyes. It was only nine years ago that his performance in "Murphy's Romance" as the pharmacist who falls slowly in love with Sally Field won him an Oscar nomination for best actor. It's one of his favorite roles and he plays Murphy as an unapologetic eccentric, comfortable with his life and his thickening waist, even sexy.
"Careful, girl," he demures when this observation is made. He says he has never tried to project himself as a sexually alluring figure. "I just don't see myself like that."
Garner has few illusions about himself in Hollywood or the people who run the business. He spent eight long years fighting Universal for his 38% share of the profits of "The Rockford Files." The studio claimed the show had made no profits, but Garner sued them for $16.5 million, settling out of court in 1989. He still won't disclose the amount. The battle, which cost him $2.2 million in legal fees, left him disillusioned about the business.
But he went back to work, and he is preparing to embark on at least three two-hour Rockford television movies for Universal. "I'll just make them somewhere else and send them the film. I wouldn't feel good driving on the lot every day," he says casually.
"The trouble with these companies--and I'm not just saying Universal--is they've got the money," he says. "And they're doing whatever they want to keep as much as they can. If you want it, you're going to have to come get it."
Garner is legendary for his bluntness whether he's talking about studios or colleagues. He thinks movies are too violent today and laments the loss of the understated picture.
" 'Murphy's Romance' was a good example," he says. "It has no violence, no sex--as we've come to know it in movies. And it was a charming film. 'Driving Miss Daisy' is another example. But they don't make many of those. They want to make the ones where they kill everybody."
Ironically, he worked on "Maverick" with a director who created the mayhem of "Lethal Weapon." ("The 'Lethal Weapons' aren't violent," Donner insists. "It's comic-book violence.") Garner says he didn't care as long as "Maverick" wasn't violent. "I'm not a crusader," Garner says.
Garner deplores ageism in Hollywood--particularly toward actresses over 40. "I think they're gorgeous after 40, but the producers want some hot T-and-A girl," he says. "I'd rather go with the actress."
And he's oblivious to the Generation X actors. He has never even heard of Christian Slater or Jason Patric. "Listen, I'm a caveman," he says matter-of-factly. "I'm out of the mainstream so far."
His points of reference are Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda. He adored Fonda, whom he met on his first acting job as a lowly "movable prop" in a New York theatrical production of "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial." "He was probably as professional an actor as I've ever seen," says Garner, who stayed friends with Fonda for years.
And he points to Tracy as an example of the kind of seamless acting to which he himself aspires. "You never caught Spencer Tracy \o7 acting, \f7 did you?"