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BRIEF ENCOUNTER

Showbiz maverick

James Garner's life isn't in reruns. He still jumps casually from TV to film.

June 27, 2004|Mark Olsen

Quite genuinely, they don't make Hollywood actors like James Garner anymore. In a career that now spans some 50 years, he has slipped easily between television and film, appearing in such productions as "Murphy's Romance," "Sayonara," "The Great Escape," "Move Over, Darling," "Grand Prix," "Marlowe," "Victor/Victoria," "Maverick," "Barbarians at the Gate" and "The Rockford Files."

Recently, the 76-year-old Garner took on his first sitcom role in "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" following the untimely passing of that show's star, John Ritter. Though it may feel a little odd to mention the gruff-but-lovable actor in the same sentence with "two-hankie tear-jerker," in "The Notebook," with Gena Rowlands, Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, Garner has turned in one of the most heartfelt performances of his career.

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People are taking notice of your performance in "The Notebook." Do you think because your screen persona is often that of an affable curmudgeon it's perhaps a surprise that such a tender and powerful performance comes from you? You always make acting look so easy.

The hardest thing to do is to go up there and "be yourself." I'm not myself on the screen, because I try to put myself in the position of whatever the writer wanted to portray. It's not easy to make it look like you've never done it before. Especially after you've just done 12 takes and you have to do it once more like it's the very first time. That's always my goal, that it looks like it's the first time it ever happened. It's hard work, and then everybody thinks, "Oh, that's just old Jim."

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This isn't exactly the kind of thing you're associated with, though.

I never really care. If the film is good -- if it's a western or a comedy or a drama -- then that's what I want to do. I've never had any preferences one way or another. I suppose I haven't done a lot of love stories in my career. I get to do them later in life. "Murphy's Romance" was a love story, and "Victor/Victoria" was a love story, but funny too. I tried to do more serious films after about 1980. I didn't want to do a lot of action stuff, so I started to lean more to dramatic stuff.

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Do you ever catch any of your older work on television? "The Rockford Files" is still on practically every day.

Just the night before last I watched a little of "The Great Escape." Now that was a great film and it holds up very well. I don't watch "Rockford." I didn't watch them originally, I don't watch them now. I've seen a few of them, yes, but I don't like my work very much. I don't know why, but I'm just not a fan of me.

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Well somebody must be, as you're certainly quite busy these days.

At 65 I decided I was going to move out of here, and bought a beautiful piece of property up in Santa Ynez -- 400 acres, just gorgeous. We built the house on it, and I said by the time I'm 70 we can move here and just be peaceful or whatever. Then at 70 I was working as much as I ever worked, and I said we're not going just yet. Finally I had to sell the place; it was a big money drain. And here I am at 76 and I'm still doing it. And I can see another couple three years in the future. I think. I hope. Who knows, I might still be doing it at 80.

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Do you ever think of just stopping?

When Henry Fonda made "On Golden Pond" he said, "I don't think I'm going to be working anymore." I remember saying, "Oh, come on Henry," but he was right. I haven't had any of those premonitions, that it's going to be the last one. I want to end on the set, doing what I love to do. Let them drag me off feet first.

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-- Mark Olsen

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