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.

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