What’s going to happen when I pass on to that great movie theater in the sky? (Or find myself cast into the fiery pits of hell?) Will you look back fondly on Robert Matzen as a writer who once entertained you with Fireball—and other great books I have yet to write? As a friend or acquaintance? A co-worker? I wonder if you’ll read my obituary and find something that makes you say, “That’s pretty damn cool.”
It’s ironic that the only time we stop to take stock of a life is when it’s over. There are exceptions of course, in the case of a “lifetime achievement award” or a snapshot-in-time memoir or biography, but usually, we honor people, pay attention, appreciate as they pass out of our world.
While reading Martha Hyer’s obituary the other week I exclaimed, “That’s pretty damn cool!” Martha Hyer was a dependable-enough actress of the 1950s and 60s who worked with big stars in some A and B pictures, but overall her career was a near miss. I hadn’t a clue that Martha Hyer was an art collector who lived on an obscure stretch of Hollywood Boulevard. I thought Hollywood Boulevard ended at Laurel Canyon but son of a gun, it doesn’t. It snakes impossibly on through the hills—if you haven’t been there and driven in them, you can’t imagine those hills.
I had no idea that Martha Hyer epitomized Hollywood class in the early 1960s, with her posh home and its spectacular view of the L.A. basin and her stylish clothes and expensive art collection until I read about it in an article linked to her obituary. She was one of those stars I took for granted; a competent actress who succeeded mostly on her curvy blonde looks. Then I paid attention to Martha Hyer in an airing of The Carpetbaggers in a supporting part as a starlet-hopeful and was reminded how good-looking she was, and how winning she was, and now I knew about her swanky lifestyle as a bachelorette prior to her marriage to producer Hal Wallis. I thought to myself, what an interesting person! I should have contacted her and asked for an interview, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and now she’s gone.
The depth of the national reaction to the passing of James Garner surprised me. He’s another one who was roaming the earth when I was born and so I’ve never known life without James Garner as part of the popular landscape. I knew of Maverick, although Maverick was before my time. I knew that James Garner was groomed for stardom by Warner Bros. and shot to prominence during their heyday producing TV westerns. Then Jack Warner leveraged Garner’s popularity by lending him to the features unit to make Darby’s Rangers and other pictures. He was a very big star in 1960 and managed to remain relevant for the next 54 years so that when he left us, we had just seen him in something, somewhere.
I bought James Garner’s autobiography, The Garner Files, upon its release to get his take on Jack Warner. The straight shooter took aim at J.L. and plugged him right between the eyes: “Jack Warner treated everybody the same: lousy. He didn’t spare his wife, his son, or his mistress. He hated writers, he hated actors, and he was cruel to his employees.” Garner went on, “Warner was rude and crude—the most vulgar man I’ve ever met. He had terrible taste in most things and a filthy mouth. The first time Lois and I went to the Oscars, we sat at his table and listened to him tell one dirty joke after another. He actually thought they were funny. We got up and moved to another table. I told Bill Orr [WB exec and J.L.’s son in law]: ‘Don’t you ever . . . don’t you ever get me invited anywhere where he’s going to be.’”
James Garner shot from the hip about others in The Garner Files as well, like Steve McQueen: “Like Brando, he could be a pain in the ass on the set. Unlike Brando, he wasn’t an actor. He was a movie star, a poser who cultivated the image of a macho man. Steve wasn’t a bad guy; I think he was just insecure.” And of another co-star in The Great Escape, Garner said, “Charlie Bronson was a pain in the ass, too. He used and abused people, and I didn’t like it.”
To me, James Garner’s insights on these actors, people we think we know, are precious. Actors didn’t always like one another, and it’s interesting to keep in mind what they were thinking as cameras rolled. We see the end result preserved on celluloid, which in some cases proves the talent of the individuals, overcoming their feelings or channeling those feelings into the character.
With Garner, there were no scandals to look back on. I recall that he had bypass surgery in the 1980s and wondered then if he would survive. But he did. I remembered when he took over 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Daughter for John Ritter after that star’s sudden death by aortic aneurysm in 2003 and stabilized the sitcom’s devastated cast and crew. James Garner came in and took charge because that’s what the situation required. I wasn’t a fan of that show but I well recall watching the first Garner episode when his character walked on set and very publicly comforted the characters and the actors playing them. To hurting humans he lent strength; to actors worrying about their next paycheck he conveyed, We’ll get through this. It will be OK. That’s pretty damn cool. And with his help they survived, and James Garner carried 8 Simple Rules on his 75-year-old shoulders, completing the second season and then a third full season.
This scenario sat in my head unprocessed since Ritter’s death. It took the news of James Garner’s passing for me to stop and think about how admirable he had been in that circumstance. I can only hope that when I go, there’s something in my obit to say, “That’s pretty damn cool” about.