New book chronicles life of James Garner - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Arts & Life

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New book chronicles life of James Garner

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Posted: Thursday, December 29, 2011 11:00 am

A book about the life of actor James Garner, which he didn't think anyone would be interested in, is being well read.

And the writer who co-authored it - and coaxed him into embarking on a book project to set the record straight, write about the people who helped him along the way, and maybe settle a score or two - said that getting to write the book that began with a phone call from the actor himself, definitely has been a highlight of his professional life.

"The Garner Files: A Memoir," (273 pages, Simon and Schuster, $25.99) is co-authored by Garner and Jon Winokur, who was made more famous by his book, "The Portable Curmudgeon." Garner took that book onto "The Tonight Show" and read excerpts from it with then-host Johnny Carson. Garner had received it from a fan, to lift his spirits after he had heart surgery in the late 1980s.

"The Garner Files," which was released on Nov. 1, went into its fourth printing in its first month, according to Simon and Schuster.

Winokur, who has written about two dozen books, first wrote "Writers on Writing" in 1986, a book of quotations from various wordsmiths. He doesn't mince words about getting to co-author a book with Garner, whose acting career spans six decades. Winokur said he sat with Garner, now 83, for two to three hours about twice a week and recorded his stories to complete the 18-month project.

"It's been the best experience of my professional life, definitely one of the peaks of writing," said Winokur, who was 10 years old when he used to watch "Maverick." "There was never any question of writer's block. And I truly believe I would not have been as well known had it not been for James Garner taking the book (‘The Portable Curmudgeon') on ‘The Tonight Show.'"

Garner, who perhaps was best known for his roles as Bret Maverick in the late 1950s and early '60s television Western, "Maverick;" "The Great Escape" with Steve McQueen in 1963; and television's most popular private investigator, Jim Rockford, in "The Rockford Files" from 1974 to 1980, chronicles in great detail the events that shaped his life and made him who he is.

Surviving a physically abusive stepmother, Garner set out on his own, serving in the Korean War, and later arriving in California before reluctantly entering the acting profession.

He also chronicles the physical toll his acting career took on him, from doing his own stunts through the years, as well as a decade-long lawsuit against Universal Studios involving royalties he wasn't being paid when "Rockford" went into syndication, a lawsuit Garner eventually won.

Readers also get a rare glimpse of his personal life, which includes a passion for auto racing, golfing, and his 55-year marriage to his wife, Lois, that includes two daughters.

Garner had called Winokur around 1989, not long after his heart surgery, and Winokur provided a list of reasons why Garner should write a book.

"I mentioned the fact that he could set the record straight about a few things, and that he might even settle a score or two. But I think the one that convinced him was the chance to acknowledge the people who helped him along the way," Winokur said. "I convinced him that he had to be honest about himself and his life, and he understood he had to give people a part of himself."

The results have landed "The Garner Files" on the New York Times Extended Bestseller List and the Los Angeles Times Bestseller List, and the book's sales leaving Garner "pleasantly surprised," Winokur said.

Not only is it hard to believe that Garner is 83, but that he's been in 46 movies between 1956 and 2007, nine television shows throughout his career, as well as a host of Hallmark Hall of Fame television specials.

The list of actors and actresses he has worked with reads like a Hollywood Who's Who: Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, Randolph Scott, Natalie Wood, Doris Day, Stuart Margolin, Tom Selleck, James Woods and Julie Andrews, who wrote the introduction to the book.

It may come as a surprise that Garner lists his best performance in the 1964 movie, "The Americanization of Emily," a movie involving anti-war sentiment that was done during the Vietnam War.

A chapter, titled "Outtakes," includes summaries from Garner's family members and people who worked with him over the years.

Although Stuart Margolin, who played the back-stabbing but lovable weasel Evelyn "Angel" Martin in "The Rockford Files," is mentioned throughout the book, he wasn't included in the "Outtakes" chapter due to an oversight, Winokur said.

Margolin, 71, who has known Garner for 40 years, said that Winokur actually apologized to him for inadvertently leaving him out of the book.

Margolin, who won two Emmys for Best Supporting Actor in the role of Angel on "Rockford," said of "The Garner Files" and Garner, "I know him and didn't know those stories. It was pretty grabbing material, and the book was done well with how Jon Winokur grabbed readers right in the beginning. It was interesting to me."

"No one other than maybe my father has been finer to me than Jim Garner," Margolin added. "I thought the book came full circle. I'm tickled he got it out. It's lifted his spirits."

Readers also learn that Garner is nearly as much a part of American history as he is of Hollywood history.

A native of Norman, Okla., Garner was the state's first draftee in the Korean War, in which he earned two Purple Hearts for injuries acquired during combat.

He also was among the thousands who participated in the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. made his famed "I Have a Dream" speech.

About releasing his memoirs, Garner said in the book, "I've avoided writing a book until now, because I'm really pretty average and I didn't think anyone would care about my life."

And how would Garner like to be remembered?

"With a smile," he says.

About the book's success, and on future writing projects, Winokur said, "Mr. Garner was a little surprised. He realizes that he isn't completely abandoned.

On one hand, he knows he's famous, but doesn't quite understand it. By working with him, I saw his quirks and his weaknesses, and the more I learned about him, the more I admired him.

"I wanted to do a book that would be on the level of the work he did, and that was a great motivator," Winokur added. "This has been a real learning experience for me. The goal as a writer is to get better, and this has helped me along that road. It has given me the appetite to tackle more projects of this magnitude."

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6533 or

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