Despite his liberal leanings, actor James Garner, who died last weekend, provided some of the most conservative role models U.S. television has ever seen — role models that rarely exist now.
“Maverick,” which made its debut in 1957, provided a program the entire family could watch in prime time. Almost everyone in Colorado, where I grew up, tuned in because Bret was a gambler in the Wild West. The New York Times wrote that Bret “was on the right side of moral issues. He had a natural affinity for the little guy being pushed by the bully.”
But it wasn’t until “The Rockford Files” that Mr. Garner truly used a role to capture conservative values. The actor played a private detective in the program, which aired from 1974 to 1980 and can still be seen in syndication.
Rockford stood in direct contrast to the silliness of the 1970s. He usually wore a houndstooth jacket. He didn’t use drugs. He believed in marriage and not one-night stands. In fact, a kiss rarely occurred, and no woman came back to spend the night in his trailer. The character served in the Korean War, where Garner himself earned two Purple Hearts. His character stood for truth, justice and the American way during a time of turmoil in the country.
Men related to him and his vintage Pontiac Firebird; women found him handsome and trustworthy. TV Guide ranked the program in 2002 as No. 39 of its list of the 50 all-time greatest television shows.
Rockford even appealed to some on the wrong side of the law. Famed hacker Kevin Mitnick wrote about one of the detective’s techniques that people in his profession have also used. Rockford “had a portable business card printing machine in his car, which he used to print out a card appropriate to whatever the occasion called for,” Mr. Mitnick wrote, adding that the same tactic still works.
A strong work ethic served as one of Garner’ key tenets. In his autobiography, “The Garner Files: A Memoir,” he listed the important attributes needed for effective acting. “Be on time, know your words, hit your marks, and tell the truth. I don’t have any theories about acting, and I don’t think about how to do it, except that an actor shouldn’t take himself too seriously, and shouldn’t try to make acting something it isn’t. Acting is just common sense. It isn’t hard if you put yourself aside and just do what the writer wrote.”
The most enduring quality of Bret Maverick, James Rockford and Garner himself was a sense of fairness. When he found out that other television actors made significantly more money than he did, he successfully sued the producers of “Maverick.” When he discovered he was not receiving money owed from Universal, the producer of “The Rockford Files,” he successfully sued the company to obtain a settlement worth a reported $14 million.
Writing in The Los Angeles Times, Mary McNamara got it right: “More than anything, he was a star who didn’t appear to need every ounce of oxygen in the vicinity to shine. And as with Halley’s Comet and other rare celestial objects, it will be a few years before we see anything like him again.”
More important, he portrayed strong men with morals. Although he is gone, his message should live on.
• Christopher Harper teaches journalism at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @charper51.