James Garner: actor, bon viveur and sports fanatic

Playing Arnold Palmer for a two-dollar Nassau, roaring on his beloved Raiders from the bench, or careering around Brands Hatch in a Formula One car, the late actor lived life to the full

Thu, Jul 24, 2014, 11:00

On his final hole at the 1981 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, John Cook needed to make a par putt to snag a place in a play-off and a chance at his first PGA Tour victory.

As he stood over his ball, a voice in the crowd shouted, “Hey, Rockford! Hey, Rockford!” at Cook’s playing partner, the actor James Garner. Not the first time they’d heard Garner’s beloved private eye invoked that day but this was a particularly ill-timed intervention.

After they’d signed their cards, Garner walked to the gallery and asked, “Who’s the drunk with the big mouth?”

Thirty-three-year-old William Stewart stepped forward. As Garner started to explain how ignorant it was to roar at a professional preparing to play a crucial shot, the fan inexplicably started to pick at his sweater.

“Don’t do that,” warned Garner.

“Or what?” asked Stewart. “You’ll deck me?”

A right cross sent Stewart to the ground and friends dragged Garner, a 6ft 3in decorated Korean War veteran, away before he could inflict more damage. And, in an ending befitting an episode of a typical Jim Rockford misadventure, Cook won the tournament and a jury later found Garner not guilty of assault.

Effusive tributes

While his death at the age of 86 last Saturday prompted effusive tributes to an acting career spanning six decades, Garner’s passing was also mourned in the worlds of golf, auto racing and the NFL.

Known and loved the world over for his performances in fare as diverse as The Rockford Files, The Americanization of Emily, Victor/Victoria, The Notebook and The Great Escape, sporting passions also coursed through his life.

A talented enough teenage linebacker for there to be talk of gridiron scholarships, academic laziness precluded him going down that road. Yet, at 20, he played as a ringer for his former high school team in Oklahoma, being paid for his appearances in free clothes from a department store.

After his knees subsequently gave out, he lived his NFL dreams vicariously through his beloved Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders.

“I’d be in the locker room before the game giving that pre-game speech and you’d look down and there would be James Garner,” said John Madden, the former Raiders coach. “You’d tell everyone to take a knee and James Garner would take a knee. He was like a player or a coach or an assistant or whatever.”

The Raiders regarded him as such a talismanic presence he often sat on the bench during matches, famously, even when they made it to Super Bowls.

At home games, when he wasn’t patrolling the sidelines, he used to buy ice cream for all the fans sitting in the same section of the stadium as him.

“If I hadn’t been an actor,” wrote Garner in his memoir, The Garner Files, “I’d like to have been a race driver.”

At 10, he learned to steer jalopies along Dust Bowl roads outside Norman, Oklahoma, where he grew up during the Depression.

A long way from the glamour of his role as a Formula One driver in the 1966 movie Grand Prix where he insisted on doing all his own driving, hurtling around circuits like Brands Hatch and Monza. At Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, Lloyds of London were alarmed to discover the star of the big budget film they were insuring doing laps at 150mph in driving rain.


He used his own money to start American International Racers, a Formula A team, and though insurance concerns meant he could never drive one of those cars, he competed several times in the Baja 1000, an off-road race through punishing Mexican desert and mountain terrain.

Those in the sport who encountered him as a driver or an owner testified to his humility and generosity, often ferrying coffees to overworked mechanics and helping out stricken rivals. Which explains why his death was as remarked upon around Indianapolis Motor Speedway (he drove the pace car for the Indy 500 more than once) as it was in Hollywood.

Following stints as an oil field roughneck, dishwasher, janitor, carpet-layer, and swimwear model, Garner booked an acting gig on tour with a theatre troupe where some of the cast passed the days playing golf. He got both bugs. Real bad.

Unashamedly using his celebrity, he teed off on just about every major course in the world, once matched Sam Snead shot for shot in a made for television match, and partnered enough with Arnold Palmer to conclude he’d never met anybody “who played harder to win a two-dollar Nassau.”

Arthritis eventually thieved him of the ability to play golf, a cruel punishment for somebody who apparently never saw age as an impediment to anything.

At 68, he drove around Monza in a 1963 Brabham with Jacques Villeneuve. He was closing in on 80 when he took a seat at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Mere footnotes in this epic life. After all, here was a man who could spin yarns about himself and Steve McQueen racing Mini Coopers along Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles.

One of Garner’s favourite sporting events was the annual Swinging Bridge tournament at Bel Air Country Club, a sort of members’ version of the Ryder Cup.

“I only ask two things,” he’d tell his team-mate each year, “one, we never say we’re sorry, and two, we never say, ‘We really need this one, partner’.”

An actor’s life. A golfer’s epitaph.

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