With Winokur (The Big Book of Irony, 2007, etc.) Garner tells his life story with the same wry, self-effacing charm that characterized his classic TV characters: the laidback cowboy Bret Maverick and the down-on-his-heels gumshoe Jim Rockford.
Raised in Depression-era Oklahoma by an alcoholic father and abusive stepmother, Garner escaped to Hollywood, got his own hit show (Maverick) before he was 30 and made movies. He has stayed married to the same woman for over 50 years. Fate has, for the most part, been kind: “The only reason I’m an actor is that a lady pulled out of a parking space in front of a producer’s office.” Along the way, he also spent a hellish season in the Korean War and received two Purple Hearts in Korea—though he claims that he “didn’t save anybody but myself.” Garner praises mentors such as Henry Fonda and Marlon Brando and offers testier assessments of his late neighbor and competitor Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson (“a bitter, belligerent SOB”) and Charlton Heston (“stiff as a board”). He gives great inside dope on the technical demands of making of his racing hit Grand Prix (1966), the sheer physical toll action roles can take on the body and the equally brutal business end of Hollywood, where Garner has survived two legendary you’ll-never-work-in-this-town-again run-ins with the studios (“It was like being in business with the Mafia, only Universal didn’t need a gun, just a pencil”). The author is also full of contradictions. He doesn’t believe in glorifying the military but supports a memorial for Korean War veterans, calls himself a coward but continually points out that he never backs down from a fight and claims not to take acting too seriously (“I have to laugh when I hear actors talking about their art”) but clearly knows the craft and respects it.
Although he can go on too much about how unaffected and genuine he is, Garner comes across as likable on the page as he does on screen.