It’s hard to pick a favorite performance when looking at James Garner’s career. From the hit series Maverick and The Rockford Files to his memorable roles in Grand Prix and The Great Escape, he demonstrated his versatility and charm as a performer.
“He was not only a wonderful actor. He was a great reactor on film. Working with him was easy and fun and always a joy,” said Julie Andrews.
Doris Day remembered, “I loved Jimmy. He was a wonderful actor and a joy to work with. We made two films together and just clicked from the minute we met.”
We took some time to speak with someone who knew him even better than a co-star – Gigi Garner, his daughter. Below she talks about her memories of her father and how she carries on his legacy.
Q: Do you remember the first time you saw your dad on-screen?
Gigi Garner: I do. My mom took me to a theater to see The Thrill of It All, and I was really little at the time. There was a scene where my dad drives into the swimming pool and starts sinking. I started screaming in the theater, and I had to leave. I was too little to realize that it was make believe.
Children with celebrity parents often talk about not seeing their parent as “famous” but just as their normal mom or dad. Was there a moment when you realized that your dad was famous?
I think it took me a long time to figure that out. I didn’t really understand why people were so interested in talking to him, meeting him, and getting his autograph until much later. As a child, you don’t really understand it. And of course, no one sat me down and said, “Daddy’s famous.” It dawned on me much later that things were different.
When you’re looking at your dad’s career, what character that he played was most like him or resembled one aspect of him the most?
Oddly, my first impression is the scrounger from The Great Escape because in the service that is exactly what my dad did in the Korean War.
[James Garner was awarded two Purple Hearts for his service. He was the first from Oklahoma to be drafted into the Korean War.]
Which role of his is your favorite?
My favorite film of his is Grand Prix. I was there during some of the filming, and my dad put me in his lap and took me around the track in one of the Formula cars.
What’s something that people might not know about your dad?
My dad was complex, but when I think of my dad, I think he’s probably the funniest person I ever knew. He was so sharp. And he was naturally funny. When my dad’s acting, he’s regurgitating funny things or dialogue that other people have written. But as himself, he was very witty.
What do you think he was most proud of in his career?
Personally, he was most proud of being an Oklahoman and a dad. Professionally, his favorite project was The Americanization of Emily for a multitude of reasons.
He seemed to really enjoy working with Julie Andrews.
Yes, he worked with her three times.
He talked about golfing with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. Did you get to meet his celebrity friends?
Yeah, I got to meet a lot of them. Steve McQueen was our next door neighbor, but they were not celebrities to me – just like my dad wasn’t a celebrity to me either.
And in your dad’s autobiography, he mentioned Steve McQueen jokingly shot beer cans over the fence into your yard. That’s not the typical celebrity activity.
He was very competitive with my dad for some reason. But my dad was only competitive towards himself.
How did your dad influence your career?
My most important mission is continuing my dad’s legacy through the foundation I set up in his honor called The James Garner Animal Rescue fund. I’ve been a rescuer for decades, and my dad was such a huge animal lover. I just wanted to continue on his legacy and his name through a charitable foundation.
Why an animal rescue?
I want to be their voice. They can’t speak up for themselves or protect themselves. They’re at the mercy of human beings, and I feel it’s a person’s responsibility to take care of them. With the foundation, I help facilitate funds for rescues around the world to aid with food, transport, medical bills, and various other necessary things.
How long has the rescue been in operation?
I just started it a year ago on Father’s Day.
How meaningful to launch it on Father’s Day.
It’s in his honor so it made sense.
How do fans interact with your father’s work? How do the fans interact with you?
I mostly use Twitter, and I really enjoy listening to everyone’s comments about what they think about him and his work. And of course, I’m lucky because no one has ever said a bad word about him. So it’s all good stuff and it makes me feel really good.
What’s something that your dad said that’s always stuck with you?
He did say that he wanted to be remembered with a smile. And that had a huge impact on me because people do seem to remember him like that.