|Garner as Philip Marlowe: Actually, he had contempt for violence|
Garner’s empathy for the common man had roots in his “Grapes of Wrath” childhood in Oklahoma. His mother died from a back-alley abortion when he was 4. He and his two brothers were abandoned more than once by his father, whom he nevertheless never blamed. He was routinely beaten by the same stepmother who sexually abused his older brother. And he was forever grateful to those more distant relatives who periodically showed him kindness, and tried to emulate them.
“Uncle John (Bumgarner) was a county commissioner, and he had a little dairy farm outside town. I loved to help him make butter and cream,” Garner wrote. “And he was smart. In the wintertime, we used to sit in front of the fire with a dictionary to try to find a word he didn’t know. I could never stump him. He knew the meaning of every word and the spelling and the derivation. He’d had some Latin because he’d studied to be a doctor, and worked as a Linotype operator and proofreader at the Norman Transcript.
“Uncle John wasn’t much to look at. His shirttail was always half-out and his hat was never blocked quite right, but I thought he was the most successful man in the world because he was content with what he had. And he had something many men never get: self-respect, and the respect of everyone who knew him.”
For the most part, the young Garner found issues of character to be as clear-cut as the harsh conditions of the Oklahoma landscape. “Sure, we had hustlers, but they were so few and far between that you could spot them a mile away,” Garner said. “Most people were honest, and they took care of each other. Not like L.A. People here — at least those in the entertainment business — will look you right in the eye and lie to you. They lie even when there’s no reason to. I’ve never understood that, and never will. Out here, I’m a lead sinker in deep water.”
Actress Julie Andrews said of her friend Garner, “(B)eneath the talent, charm and a healthy dose of bravado, one senses that he’s been hurt — more than once. So he’s stubborn, a bit reclusive … defiant, too. Don’t mess with Jim when he’s fighting for a cause he believes in.”
While as a child he dreamed of being rescued by rich relatives, Garner knew that wasn’t in the cards, and he was happy to light out on his own at age 14. He earned his own living from then on.
“While other kids my age had chores and allowances and curfews, I was holding down grown-up jobs because I had to feed myself and put clothes on my back and a roof over my head. It was simply a matter of survival. People have said it’s right out of Dickens, but I didn’t think I had it tough, because it was all I knew.
“Looking back, I think I was better off to do it earlier than later. Tell you what: You want to put pressure on somebody, live through the Depression. In Oklahoma. In the dust. After that, studio executives don’t bother you at all.”
Source: “The Garner Files” by James Garner and Jon Winokur