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Garner, But Not Forgotten

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Acting, TV advertising, TV History, TV News, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2014 by Tom Steward

Sometimes I think I shouldn’t stop writing this blog as it seems that whenever I do someone significant to TV dies. This time, though, ‘significant’ doesn’t cut it, and all superlatives are understatements. It’s difficult to quantify what James Garner – who died of natural causes this July at the age of 86 – meant to television. Not only was he around during TV’s formative years and helped the medium come of age, he had the rare distinction of playing two of the greatest characters to ever grace the small screen. Obituaries both written and forthcoming will doubtless talk about what an incredible movie star Garner was (and indeed he was) but I always thought there was a certain dailiness about his performances that made him perfect for television, and may help explain why he kept returning to TV while his film roles continually deflated the grandiosity of the cinema.

A TV Maverick.

A TV Maverick.

Garner’s first major television role was drifter gambler Bret Maverick in Warner Brothers’ western dramedy series Maverick, which he played throughout the late fifties. The show is a one-word argument against FCC chairman Newton Minnow’s notion of TV in that era as a ‘vast wasteland’. It was anti-formulaic, adult, challenging and irreverent, and Garner’s humour, bathos and moral ambiguity in the part had a lot to do with that. Essentially a thinking man’s riposte to the branding-iron western TV series (they didn’t have cookie-cutters on the frontier!) that overpopulated the networks at the time, Maverick was an early indication of the quality of television that could be achieved working within popular genres. While Bret Maverick certainly paved the way for television antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Walter White, Garner saw him more as a ‘reluctant hero’ and played it accordingly. It was that kind of nuance that made the difference.

In Garner’s 2011 autobiography The Garner Files – itself a classic in literary understatement – the actor’s usually low-key prose cannot downplay the importance of Maverick to the TV of its day:

‘In its own way, Maverick was “anti-establishment”. It gave voice to viewers’ dissatisfaction with the predictable, button-down TV of the ‘50s, with its black-and-white morality. Maverick explored gray areas by questioning the authority of the conventional Western hero. After Maverick, it was hard to watch those steely-eyed cowboys without laughing.’

It’s worth remembering that fifties American TV was highly praised for its character drama in anthology form like Philco Television Playhouse and Studio One, and so to offer this kind of psychological complexity in the form of a western series – more often regarded as the cultural antithesis of the anthology drama – was radical. It also showed that TV could do something worthwhile with the western formula.

That would be enough for most actors, but unbelievably Garner did it all over again as every-slob private eye Jim Rockford in Universal’s detective series The Rockford Files which ran throughout the late seventies. One of the most perfectly-made shows in television history, Garner’s lastingly lovable lead performance put it over the top, and into perpetual syndication. The actor’s iron rule over his Cherokee Productions also ensured that Universal never dragged the show back to the studio lot, and kept it as freewheeling as the Southern California locations we saw onscreen. The Rockford Files’ tone-perfect medley of comedy, drama and thriller was a template for quality US television to come, and all that was there in Garner’s performance. Never humourless nor too frivolous; a hero you could believe in because he didn’t believe in it himself. Unlike most sanctimonious American TV protagonists, Garner never pretended Rockford wasn’t out for himself.

Rockford of Ages.

Rockford of Ages.

Despite a string of memorable and game-changing performances in a host of movies, Garner always went back to TV in the end. Whether it was the Rockford Files TV movies (which, oddly, didn’t disgrace the original), a series of beloved Polaroid commercials with actress Mariette Hartley harking back to the repartee of romantic screwball comedies, or replacing the late John Ritter as the patriarch on sitcom 8 Simple Rules. Rather than trashing television as so many Hollywood movie stars have, he decided instead to make it better, either by seeking out the best material or improving drastically on the worst. After Garner was through with television, it didn’t look like there was a distinction between TV and the movies any more. It would be impossible to find two better performances in television than Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford, but James Garner always meant more than the sum of his parts.

Box-Set Collections and TV Themes

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, BiogTV, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2012 by Tom Steward

Despite foetally premature chatter about TV being on its way out thanks to new media-which often forgets that many people use new media to get closer to TV-television is still pervasive in our culture. But it only struck me recently how much the culture and leisure sector rely on and are influenced by TV. During my last visit to the US, I didn’t just get my TV fix from the flatscreens in the many living rooms I patronised as housesitter-cum-benign intruder but from museums and theme parks.  Fascination with TV is widespread and so is the way it underpins our entertainment.

Out of the Box and all over the carpet!

Following an overnight stay in Hollywood where we saw J-Lo and Enrique Iglesias at the Staples Center and lodged in a pre-smoking ban nostalgia-themed hotel, G and I braved the dystopian traffic and anti-social contract of LA driving to make our snail-like way to the Paley Center exhibition ‘Warner Brothers’ TV Out of the Box’. This was billed in the relationship vaudeville program as a ‘me’ act, or as much as a trip that involves a bigger-than-life Lego Conan O’Brien (one of G’s no-questions-asked celebrity one-night-stands) can be. Though the plethora of sets, props and memorabilia from hit network shows and cult classic series and a karaoke theme-tune box have broad appeal for anyone in America with a sense memory and an aerial, for a TV historian this was Porky Pig’s heaven.

You had to have the biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig salad!

To my archaeological delight, historical documents-including production memos and patents-were liberally scattered around the exhibition. Other TV treasure chests, such as network preview catalogues sent to local affiliate stations, were also available to view. To say these gave an insight into US TV history would be an understatement tantamount to ‘Clint Eastwood could do with a teleprompter, couldn’t he?’ or ‘That Romney fellow might have a bit of an image problem’. It felt more like a journey into the unknown of how the American TV industry worked, and to some extent still works, with exhibits testifying to the power affiliates, many in anti-progressive states, have to decide what gets made and what doesn’t. It illuminated the little-known and widely ignored facts of TV’s origins, with memos pointing to the attempts of movie studios to control TV from the beginning and beam transmissions into cinemas rather than homes.

It’s funny how such an innocuous and populist-looking exhibition can be so revealing. I have to admit that I had my doubts. I was wary of Warner Brothers’ sponsorship of the exhibition and how it might skew history in favour of the studio. They made their case, though, with a timeline pointing out that they were pioneers of TV drama in the 1950s and led the line on the classic genre fare of the so (not) called (for) ‘vast wasteland’ with the inimitable Maverick. But I also appreciated that the exhibition was a TV playground. Not because it was ‘interactive’ (I hate that word!) but because it let you run around and sit down on your favourite shows.

You are now entering The Tweenlight Zone

Speaking of playgrounds, G and I went on a 16-hour ride-and-dine binge  at Disneyland and its now-with-booze sister theme park Disney’s California Adventure. Disneyland was built on TV in many ways. Its construction in the 1950s was televised in interstitial promotional segments between instalments of an anthology drama series of the same name presented by America’s bigamous uncle, the mouse-loving anti-Communist Walt Disney. While Disney’s canon of seminal animated movies provide the blueprint for most of the rides, as well as the psychological experiments on human endurance which no doubt provided the inspiration for It’s a Small World, TV still gets a look-in.

Disneyland: built on TV!

Nowhere is this more evident than The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a dropper-downer ride (it neither rolls nor coasts) inspired by the classic fantasy horror anthology series produced and presented by Rod Serling, whose voice can be simulated by trying to impersonate Ronald Reagan while whistling. One of the most impressive-looking and exquisitely designed rides at either park, the mock elevator lies within a purpose-built high-rise fitted with a customised exterior made to look like a decrepit Hollywood hotel…though it smelt considerably better than the one G and I stayed at. It’s easily the most disturbing and traumatising (animatronic uncanniness aside) experience available at the parks, and it’s the skilful interweaving of the original TV series into the fabric of the ride that causes such anxiety and fear. For starters, the elevator-attendant attired steward (or ‘death ombudsmen’ as I call them) cranked up the tension by letting fly with a groan-inducing patter of darkly comic puns about ‘dropping off’ the passengers that captures perfectly the black irony and sick sense of humour The Twilight Zone used to deal in. This is the show, after all, that once put the fate of humanity in the hands of the double meaning of the phrase ‘To serve man’ (Spoiler alert; it’s a cookbook!).

‘We’ll be dropping you off soon’

But what really unnerves you is the use of a Rod Serling voiceover (seamlessly cut together from his many introductions) as a prelude to the ride. This narration compels you to sit comfortably as if you were still in your armchair at home and makes you believe you are settling down for the evening snoozily watching some late-night retro TV before the elevator drops the depth of the building without so much as a warning. As you yo-yo through the building, the walls open up, ripping you from the safety of your living room and out into the murderous world that network news warned you about.

Serling’s Gold.

And though I have no hard evidence for this, I’m convinced the designer who created the digitally hyperreal set of the Atlantic City promenade pier for Boardwalk Empire got the idea from Disney’s California Adventure ersatz 1920s-era American fairground, right down to the in-period advertising hoardings. If it was the HBO field trip I’m imagining, then they probably got the idea for a show about conspicuous drinking during Prohibition from mixed messages about consuming alcohol in public places in the Disney parks.

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