James Garner: Great man, car nut, 3-time Indy 500 pace car driver

James Garner was a wonderfully natural actor to whom we could all relate, and also very much a car guy, to which surely all Motorsport.com readers can relate again. David Malsher-Lopez pays tribute to a hero, with help of Garner’s daughter, Gigi.

James Garner: Great man, car nut, 3-time Indy 500 pace car driver
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Present today in the TAG Heuer suite at the Indianapolis 500 will be Gigi Garner, daughter of the late, great actor James Garner, a man who deserved the spotlight but never behaved like he wanted it. Garner’s easy-going manner and man-of-the-people attitude probably removed his mystique for many, and therefore robbed him of some of the adulation he deserved.

But he’s never lost his appeal to me, and I suspect countless more like me. My mother and grandfather adored Garner for his role in Maverick. I love him for, among other projects, The Rockford Files (its theme tune is the ringtone on my mobile), and while I was too young to appreciate the show first time around, I watched endless repeats in the ’90s and regularly devour the 122 episodes I now have on DVD. Oh, and I believe the humor in Support Your Local Sheriff! still stands up today.

 

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Those reading this will undoubtedly appreciate the fact that Garner was very much a car guy. For many, John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix is the greatest motorsport movie of all time, and its intoxicating blend of glamor and danger gains layers of lustrous allure on learning that Garner did his own driving. Out of the car, Garner’s character Pete Aron was full of self-doubt yet also ready to brave whatever was thrown in his path at a time when the perils of sport were all too obvious. While a character such as James Bond was smooth, slick, cocksure of himself and always had a gadget or five to pull him out of trouble, Aron was a suave, heroic yet very human figure, fighting the same earthly bonds of emotion and judgment as the rest of us, but doing it better. That’s someone who the adolescent me was destined to admire, and was a direct result of how Garner had brought his character to life.

Yet even before that, he evoked the “I wish I was that guy” reaction in me. It came while watching The Great Escape for the first of many times. Steve McQueen’s dramatic attempts to evade capture on a motorcycle were of course, pure cinema gold, but his taciturnity was off-putting. The prisoner for whom I was really pulling throughout the film was Garner’s character. Hendley the Scrounger is an affable next-door neighbor character who says, ‘Sure, I can illicitly find something you need,’ and then actually delivers on the promise. Then, as the group of PoWs attempt to flee Germany, Hendley is prepared to multiply the risk of getting caught by escorting Donald Pleasence’s character, Colin Blythe, who is now blind. As an eight-year-old kid first watching that film, I recall being dumbstruck at Hendley’s nobility – and devastated by his fate.

Yes, I realize there’s a very good reason that Garner’s profession is called “acting”, but I would bet dollar to a dime that he was like that in real life. One of his most frequent co-stars in Rockford, Gretchen Corbett, noted: “Everybody loved him – but he took care of not only the actors and me but the whole crew. He knew everybody’s name, he knew everybody’s kids’ names. He had an enormous generosity toward everyone on the crew. And so of course they were all completely devoted to him in return.

“I think Jim is such a good actor because he actually leaves his actor at home and he brings himself to the screen.”

So there’s that. And then there’s that automotive obsession. Garner didn’t just go for Grand Prix by accident. He loved sports, and got hooked on motorsport because of that film. Like fellow actor Paul Newman, Garner wasn’t going to make racing his career but he loved it as a hobby, and he had the means to get involved. And driving that handsome Oldsmobile 442, the ‘Goodyear Grabber’, in desert races proved what Graham Hill and Jack Brabham had noted during the filming of Grand Prix: Garner had genuine talent.

James Garner, Bobby Unser

James Garner, Bobby Unser

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The late three-time Indy 500 winner and two-time Indy car champion Bobby Unser, one of Garner’s unofficial driving coaches, once told me: “James was a very good student of racing. He really listened – didn’t act like he knew everything already. And because he listened, he learned and understood and he became very good, I thought. Yes: I liked him.”

And Garner’s interests went beyond the instant gratification of driving. He owned the American International Racers team from 1967 through 1969, and he and director Andy Sidaris produced the racing documentary The Racing Scene in 1970. And yes, of course it was Garner who did all the stunt driving in his Pontiac Firebird on Rockford.

Garner regularly crosses my mind around this time of year because three times he was the pace car driver before the start of the Indianapolis 500 – 1975, ’77 and ’85 – but he also attended the event as a pure enthusiast more than 40 times according to Gigi, who gleaned her info from Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson. So I was delighted to learn of her attendance at IMS today – and even more delighted to catch up with her recently.

“I was eight when Dad was making Grand Prix, but I wasn’t aware how dangerous it was for him to be doing what he was doing,” she told Motorsport.com. “But I do remember one of my biggest frights was in a movie called The Thrill of it All, when he drives into a swimming pool and it looks like he’s drowning. I was so little at the time, I really thought he was drowning and I started screaming in the theater and had to be removed.

 

Photo by: courtesy of Gigi Garner

“I didn’t realize how fearless my dad was, but he was, absolutely. He just went all-out in everything, especially sports. And that’s why he enjoyed those ’60s Formula 1 cars. They had to take everything out of those cars so he could fit. They just put a thin strip of leather in to look like a Formula 1 seat of the time, but there was no padding.

“I was there for quite a bit of the filming of Grand Prix, but to your point, no, I don’t think I quite realized how much risk Dad was taking to make that movie. Ignorance is bliss! Even later, I used to hear about him going to work and just think, ‘That’s dad, he does things that are make believe,’ and it wouldn’t occur to me that he might be going off to do things that are super-dangerous.”

His co-stars in Grand Prix were Yves Montand and Brian Bedford, and they were famously wary of racing scenes – Bedford didn’t even drive a street car – and so a great deal of ‘green-screen’ was needed. Sportscar ace Bob Bondurant, who schooled Garner, assured the film producers they wouldn’t need a stunt double or ‘special effects’ for his student; Garner could pass for a professional driver.

 

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Bondurant was one of several motorsport stars who took an immediate liking to Garner for being zero-BS and 100 percent-enthusiast whenever he was in the proximity of a racetrack.

“Yeah, he knew all the drivers,” says Gigi. “They respected him for actually getting out there and doing it, coming second in the Baja 1000, and he of course respected them, and got to know very many of them. He attended the Indy 500 many years before Grand Prix, but making that movie really ignited his passion for competition. He was very competitive – mainly with himself! He was really into all sports but there was something about motor racing that he was infatuated with, and he learned how to be a real driver.

“And it wasn’t just Indy. We’d go to Indy car races at Riverside Raceway and Ontario Motor Speedway, and actually he’d attend much smaller events there as well. If he had time to be at the racetrack, he’d be there. He was just all-in about everything he did.”

Including standing up for his principles. It’s hard not to admire a guy who wouldn’t allow himself to get fleeced by studio executives, who joined the march on Washington in 1963 and was near the front of the crowd for Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and who fought for this country in Korea.

“He treated people very well and always stuck up for the underdog,” confirms Gigi. “He was just a good person. Our neighbor, Steve McQueen, felt the need to compete – maybe because Dad was tall, dark and handsome! Steve had been talking to John Frankenheimer about Grand Prix but he couldn’t get along with him, which made way for my Dad, and which led to Steve making Le Mans.

Gasoline alley, 1967

Gasoline alley, 1967

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

“Steve was always good to me because I was good friends with his daughter, and I’d spend the night over there all the time, and his wife was friends with my mother [Lois], so I never saw the other side of Steve, but… I know it happened.”

After a couple of off-the-record observations, Gigi sighs, “Look, if people want to see McQueen as ‘The King of Cool’ then that’s fine, but I think of Dad as ‘The King of Class’ because he had integrity and morals that he lived by. He cared. I’ve heard so many stories from people who he did things for but which he never told anyone about, not even us. He paid for people’s hospital bills, their cancer treatments, their apartments…”

In terms of principles, albeit at the other end of the scale of importance, in the final two seasons of The Rockford Files, he stopped accepting Pontiac’s offer of a new Firebird for each series; he simply didn’t like the front-end styling of the post-1978 models, and I have to admit, despite the fact (or because of the fact) I’m a Pontiac fan, I’m 100 percent with him on that one.

Garner with Al Unser and Parnelli Jones the morning after Unser's first Indy triumph for Parnelli's team in 1970.

Garner with Al Unser and Parnelli Jones the morning after Unser's first Indy triumph for Parnelli's team in 1970.

Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

One of the reasons that Garner was so appealing to viewers was that he had no idea why he was appealing to viewers. As Corbett suggested, Garner approached his job without artifice – beyond the fact that he was acting – and we loved and still love him for it.

“He looked at his job as a job and was very, very good at it,” says Gigi. “He read the script, memorized it, repeated it, acted it, and then moved on. He loved his job, but it’s a funny kind of job, a lot of strange things go on around being an actor, but he didn’t let those things distract him. He just got on with it. So I think it genuinely surprised him how people responded to him.”

And at home?

“I won the lottery in the father department,” Gigi responds immediately. “He was so much fun, playing with us kids on the floor, jumping off the balcony into the pool. And even when he was away – and he was away on shoots quite a bit – he would make sure we got time to spend together. If he could, he would takes us there, wherever he was shooting. I was truly, always connected to him. A lot of actors aren’t who they appear to be when you see them interviewed, and I’m sure you find the same with drivers. But my Dad really was that down-to-earth guy who loved his job, but who also loved being home.

“And I’m also lucky in another way. It’s pretty rare for someone of my age to be able to see her parents in their prime, on demand. Whether it’s Maverick or Rockford or one of his movies, whenever I want to I can just settle down, pull out the remote and just watch Dad.”

Many advise to not meet your heroes, but I’m quite discerning and 80 percent of those I’ve met have lived up to my expectations, and I’m quite sure James Garner would have been in that category. It was a delight to hear from Gigi that her father was everything one would hope. The matinee idol looks, basic goodness, trustworthy family-oriented spirit, avoidance of scandal, when combined with the ability to J-turn a Pontiac Firebird makes him a still-compelling character almost eight years after he died. He was the standup guy he so often portrayed on screen: cool, yes, but warm too.

Clive James, a truly excellent writer and TV presenter, must have felt the same way after reading The Garner Files, the great man’s 2011 memoir written with Jon Winokur. Penning a review for The Atlantic, James wrote, “You could hand this book as a primer on ethics to any young man just reaching the age of choosing his way in life.”

Welcome back to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Gigi Garner. Your father left a legacy here and around the world of which you can be proud.

Those who wish to pay their respects to James Garner may like to contribute to an animal rescue 501(c)3 charity set up in his honor. The tax exempt charity’s EIN number is 83-3131747. Funds raised through donations are used to aid rescue organizations, shelters, fosters and vets to help finance emergencies, medical care, training, pet supplies, rehab etc. Click here for more details.

Parnelli and Jim – Good friends, golfing buddies and fans of cars and competition.

Parnelli and Jim – Good friends, golfing buddies and fans of cars and competition.

Photo by: courtesy of Parnelli Jones

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