Sunday, July 20, 2014

You can leave your name and number...

But Jim Rockford won't be getting back to you any longer;
James Garner, the actor and producer who has died aged 86, made his reputation in the late 1950s as the shrewd, anti-heroic gambler Bret Maverick in the iconoclastic Western series of the same name — and sealed it as the 1970s private investigator Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files.
Garner fell into acting when, driving down a Los Angeles street after he'd been discharged from the army (and winning two Purple Hearts in Korea) he noticed a sign on a building with an old acquaintance's name advertising his theatrical agent services. Serendipitously, a car pulled out from the curb, leaving an empty parking space. 'What the heck...'

That led to his first acting job; a non-speaking role as a military judge observing the legal arguments in the play The Caine Mutiny. Since he didn't have any lines to learn himself, he decided to make himself useful to the play's stars--one of whom, Henry Fonda, took notice of him and assisted his career--by reading with them as they learned their parts. That characteristic of Garner's surfaced time and time again over the years, making him extremely popular with his fellow actors, directors and camera/lighting/sound/stage hands.

His attitude was, 'I’ve done a lot of casual work, and acting is a lot easier than laying carpets.' Though the business end of acting he didn't take casually at all. He was party to two lawsuits that helped define a new paradigm for the business. The first was one Jack Warner never forgot, nor forgave.

Garner was a $400 per week contract player with Warner Bros. in the mid 1950s when the writer/producer Roy Huggins--'I have a love-hate relationship with James Garner; I love him, he hates me.'--was assigned Garner to be the star of Huggins' new and idiosyncratic Western television program, Maverick.  Jack Warner didn't want to waste money hiring a new actor for a show he wasn't sure was even going to last.

Huggins--who had only been allowed to make his labor of love (a non 'John Wayne' Western TV show) as a reward for having revitalized a failing Warner's television program (Cheyenne starring Clint Walker) a year earlier--didn't want Garner for the role of Bret Maverick. He'd had him in an episode of Cheyenne and didn't visualize him as at all right for what he had in mind. But Warner insisted on using the actor who was already being paid.

Fortunately for Huggins, who tells what happened in one of his interviews on the TV Legends site, Garner's take on the character of Maverick was superior, and funnier, than Huggins'. Maverick became that season's biggest hit, even outdrawing The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights. James Garner's introduction to the economics of the entertainment industry was about to start.

Garner found out from reading Variety that Maverick was bringing in something like $50,000 per week for Warner Bros (split 50/50 with the show's sponsor Kaiser Aluminum). Naturally he wanted an increase in his pay for being the goose laying the golden eggs. Warner flatly refused to even discuss a raise, insisting that Garner had to honor his contract. So Garner was stranded...until the right opportunity presented itself.

Which opportunity was a strike by the Screen Writers' Guild. Warner's response to that was to close the studio, to save money while the strike lasted. But Garner objected that he had to be paid his weekly salary regardless. Warner claimed that there were no scripts with which to shoot, and Garner pointed out that Warner Bros. had rooms filled with scripts previously written,  that could be shot.

It came to an actual courtroom trial--legal wrangles back then moved through the courts much more quickly--when Garner sued Warner for breach of contract. Garner's lawyer made mincemeat of Jack Warner, exposing him on the stand as a liar, and Garner won the lawsuit. That gave Garner two options. 1. He could collect the $400 per week back pay Warner hadn't paid him. 2. He was free to leave Warner and the contract he'd signed.

Obviously, Garner took the latter option. He went over to the movies and quickly became wealthy. And Jack Warner's Pound foolishness cost him what would have been a share in Garner's productive endeavors.

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