NEW YORK (AP) — Few actors could register disbelief, exasperation or annoyance with more comic subtlety.
James Garner had a way of widening his eyes while the corner of his mouth sagged ever so slightly. Maybe he would swallow once to further make his point.
This portrait of fleeting disquiet could be understood, and identified with, by every member of the audience. Never mind Garner was tall, brawny and, well, movie-star handsome. The persona he perfected was never less than manly, good with his dukes and charming to the ladies, but his heroics were kept human-scale thanks to his gift for the comic turn. He remained one of the people.
He burst on the scene with this disarming style in the 1950s TV Western "Maverick," which led to a stellar career in TV and films such as "The Rockford Files" and his Oscar-nominated "Murphy's Romance."
The 86-year-old Garner, who was found dead of natural causes at his Los Angeles home on Saturday, was adept at drama and action. But he was best known for his low-key, wisecracking style, especially on his hit TV series, "Maverick" and "The Rockford Files."
His quick-witted avoidance of conflict offered a refreshing new take on the American hero, contrasting with the blunt toughness of John Wayne and the laconic trigger-happiness of Clint Eastwood.
There's no better display of Garner's everyman majesty than the NBC series "The Rockford Files" (1974-80). He played an L.A. private eye and wrongly jailed ex-con who seemed to rarely get paid, or even get thanks, for the cases he took, while helplessly getting drawn into trouble to help someone who was neither a client nor maybe even a friend. He lived in a trailer with an answering machine that, in the show's opening titles, always took a message that had nothing to do with a paying job, but more often was a complaining call from a cranky creditor.
Through it all, Jim Rockford, however down on his luck, persevered hopefully. He wore the veneer of a cynic, but led with his heart. Putting all that on screen was Garner's magic.
Well into his 70s, the handsome Oklahoman remained active in both TV and film. In 2002, he was Sandra Bullock's father in the film "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood." The following year, he joined the cast of "8 Simple Rules ... For Dating My Teenage Daughter," playing the grandfather on the sitcom — and helping ground it with his reassuring presence — after star John Ritter, who played the father, died during the show's second season.
He even scored in commercials. During the late 1970s, he was paired with actress Mariette Hartley in a popular series of ads for Polaroid cameras. Their on-screen banter felt so authentic that many viewers mistakenly believed they were husband and wife.
When Garner received the Screen Actors Guild's lifetime achievement award in 2005, he quipped, "I'm not at all sure how I got here." But in his 2011 memoir, "The Garner Files," he provided some amusing and enlightening clues, including his penchant for bluntly expressed opinions and a practice for decking people who said something nasty to his face — including an obnoxious fan and an abusive stepmother.
And when he suspected his studio of cheating him on residual payments — a not-unheard-of condition in Hollywood — Garner spoke out loudly and fought back with lawsuits.
They all deserved it, Garner declared in his book.
It was in 1957 when the ABC network, desperate to compete on ratings-rich Sunday night, scheduled "Maverick" against CBS's powerhouse "The Ed Sullivan Show" and NBC's "The Steve Allen Show." To everyone's surprise — except Garner's— "Maverick" soon outpolled them both.
At a time when the networks were awash with hard-eyed, traditional Western heroes, Bret Maverick provided a breath of fresh air. With his sardonic tone and his eagerness to talk his way out of a squabble rather than pull out his six-shooter, the con-artist Westerner seemed to scoff at the genre's values.
After a couple of years, Garner felt the series was losing its creative edge, and he found a legal loophole to escape his contract in 1960.
His first film after "Maverick" established him as a movie actor. It was "The Children's Hour," William Wyler's remake of Lillian Hellman's lesbian drama that co-starred Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.
He followed in a successful comedy with Kim Novak, "Boys Night Out," and then established his box-office appeal with the 1963 blockbuster war drama "The Great Escape" and two smash comedies with Doris Day — "The Thrill of It All" and "Move Over Darling."
Throughout his film career, Garner demonstrated his versatility in comedies ("The Art of Love," ''A Man Could Get Killed," ''Skin Game"), suspense ("36 Hours," ''They Only Kill Their Masters," ''Marlowe"), and Westerns ("Duel at Diablo," ''Hour of the Gun," ''Support Your Local Gunfighter").
In the 1966 racing film "Grand Prix" he starred as an American driver in the Formula One series. Garner, who loved auto racing, formed and owned the American International Racers auto racing team from 1967 through 1969, and drove the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 in 1975, 1977 and 1985.
In the 1980s and 1990s, when most stars his age were considered over the hill, Garner's career remained strong. He played a supporting role as a marshal in the 1994 "Maverick," a big-screen return to the TV series with Mel Gibson in Garner's old title role. His only Oscar nomination came for the 1985 "Murphy's Romance," a comedy about a small-town love relationship in which he co-starred with Sally Field.
He starred in a musical, "Victor/Victoria" (1982), and a romantic drama, "The Notebook" (2004).
His favorite film, though, was the cynical 1964 war drama "The Americanization of Emily," which co-starred Julie Andrews.
Unlike most film stars, Garner made repeated returns to television. The show he often cited as his favorite, "Nichols" (1971-72), and "Bret Maverick" (1981-82) were short-lived, but "The Rockford Files" proved a solid hit, bringing him an Emmy.
Among his notable TV movies: "Barbarians at the Gate" (as tycoon F. Ross Johnson), "Breathing Lessons," ''The Promise," ''My Name Is Bill W.," ''The Streets of Laredo" and "One Special Night."
He said he learned about acting while playing a non-speaking role as a Navy juror in the 1954 Broadway hit play "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial," starring Henry Fonda and Lloyd Nolan.
"I had no lines, and I had trouble staying awake," Garner recalled.
After "Caine Mutiny," Garner found work in Hollywood as a bit player in the "Cheyenne" TV series. Warner Bros. gave him a screen test and signed him to a seven-year contract starting at $200 a week.
The studio cast him in supporting roles in three minor films, followed by the important break as Marlon Brando's sidekick in "Sayonara." When Charlton Heston declined a war movie, "Darby's Rangers," because of a money dispute, Garner assumed the role.
"Maverick," which co-starred Jack Kelly as brother Bart Maverick, made its debut on Sept. 22, 1957, launching him as a star.
Garner was born James Scott Bumgarner (some references say Baumgarner) in Norman, Oklahoma. His mother died when he was 5, and friends and relatives cared for him and his two brothers for a time while his father was in California.
In 1957, Garner married TV actress Lois Clarke, who survives him. She had a daughter Kimberly from a previous marriage, and the Garners had another daughter, Gretta Scott.
In the late 1990s, the Garners built a 12,000-square-foot house on a 400-acre ranch north of Santa Barbara, California.
"My wife and I felt ... we'd just watch the sunset from the front porch," Garner said in 2000. "But then the phone started ringing with all these wonderful offers, and we decided, 'Heck, let's stay in the business for a while.'"
SACO, Maine (AP) — Many in the movie industry feared the need to convert to digital could be the death knell for drive-ins, but drive-in operators are finding creative ways to afford the switch.
Drive-in movie theater operators say more than 200 of the remaining 348 drive-ins in the country have made the expensive conversion from film to digital, which typically costs more than $70,000. Theater owners say conversions escalated quickly in 2013 and will help keep the drive-ins in business for now, promising news for an industry that peaked in the 1950s and '60s, then with more than 4,000 drive-in theaters nationwide.
Some drive-ins are raising money using crowd-funding platforms such as Kickstarter while others are taking advantage of financing programs or renting out their theaters as flea markets during off-hours.
Ry Russell, general manager of Saco Drive-In, launched a social-media campaign to win an $80,000 digital projection system in a contest sponsored by Honda. His drive-in theater in Saco is celebrating its 75th anniversary by welcoming hundreds of cars to its giant roadside screen to watch the latest films on a new digital projection system.
"We're just seeing Darwinism kind of take over," Russell said. "The ones that survive will prosper."
It's a story that's playing out at drive-ins all over the country, where conversion to digital is the key to survival, said John Vincent Jr., president of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. Studios are phasing out 35mm film prints as Hollywood moves toward all-digital distribution. Even older movies are difficult to obtain on film because many repertory companies have gone digital, said Vincent, noting that people in the industry expect this season to be "the last summer of film."
In Westbrook, 15 miles up the road from Saco, the owners of the 62-year-old Pride's Corner Drive In are struggling just to keep business alive — they can only show movies in 35mm film and have raised just $1,350 of the $100,000 they need to convert to digital.
"When they stop making film, that's it," said Andrew Tevanian, operator of Pride's Corner. "Then you're out in the cold."
These days, moviegoers in 44 states can take in a drive-in movie from the comfort of their own vehicles, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania have the most drive-ins, with nearly 30 each; Indiana has 20 and California, 17. Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, North Dakota and Wyoming are the only states without them.
In Rhode Island, Rustic Drive In in Smithfield sometimes welcomes 500 cars on a Saturday. It needs to because the company that owns the theater spent more than $200,000 on three new digital projectors for its three screens. The company is taking advantage of an offer from Los Angeles-based Cinedigm Digital Cinema Corp., which arranges flexible loans and reimbursements from studios, a representative said.
The conversion means the 63-year-old drive-in is in it for the long haul, said Deborah Belisle, vice president of the company that runs the theater.
"That is saying we're staying," Belisle said. "The ones that are left now, they're not going anywhere."
NEW YORK (AP) — Elaine Stritch, the brash theater performer whose gravelly, gin-laced voice and impeccable comic timing made her a Broadway legend, has died. She was 89.
Joseph Rosenthal, Stritch's longtime attorney, said the actress died Thursday of natural causes at her home in Birmingham, Michigan.
Although Stritch appeared in movies and on television, garnering three Emmys and finding new fans as Alec Baldwin's unforgiving mother on "30 Rock," she was best known for her stage work, particularly in her candid one-woman memoir, "Elaine Stritch: At Liberty," and in the Stephen Sondheim musical "Company."
A tart-tongued monument to New York show business endurance, Stritch worked well into her late 80s, most recently as Madame Armfeldt in a revival of Sondheim's musical "A Little Night Music." She replaced Angela Lansbury in 2010 to critical acclaim.
In 2013, Stritch — whose signature "no pants" style was wearing a loose-fitting white shirt over sheer black tights — retired to Michigan after 71 years in New York City and made a series of farewell performances at the Carlyle Hotel: "Elaine Stritch at the Carlyle: Movin' Over and Out."
She said she suffered from diabetes, a broken hip and memory loss — all of which she nakedly and unapologetically documented in the film "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me," a documentary released in February.
"I like the courage of age," Stritch said in the film, one she participated in grudgingly. One scene captured her in a hospital bed, reflecting: "It's time for me, and I can feel it everywhere."
Stritch's death immediately sent shockwaves through Broadway and entertainment. Lena Dunham said on Twitter, "Here's to the lady who lunched: Elaine Stritch, we love you. May your heaven be a booze-soaked, no-pants solo show at the Carlyle."
Stritch was a striking woman, with a quick wit, a shock of blond hair and great legs. She showed them off most elegantly in "At Liberty," wearing a loose fitting white shirt, high heels and black tights.
In the show, the actress told the story of her life — with all its ups, downs and in-betweens. She frankly discussed her stage fright, missed showbiz opportunities, alcoholism, battle with diabetes and love life, all interspersed with songs she often sang onstage.
"What's this all been about then — this existential problem in tights," Stritch said of herself at the end of the solo show, which opened off-Broadway in November 2001, transferred to Broadway the following February and later toured. It earned her a Tony Award in 2002 and an Emmy when it was later televised on HBO.
"I think I know what I have been doing up here tonight. I've been reclaiming a lot of my life that I wasn't honestly and truly there for," she said. "It almost all happened without me but I caught up."
In "Company" (1970), Stritch played the acerbic Joanne, delivering a lacerating version of "The Ladies Who Lunch," a classic Sondheim song dissecting the modern Manhattan matron. Stritch originated the role in New York and then appeared in the London production.
Among her other notable Broadway appearances were as Grace, the owner of a small-town Kansas restaurant in William Inge's "Bus Stop" (1955), and as a harried cruise-ship social director in the Noel Coward musical "Sail Away" (1961). She also appeared in revivals of "Show Boat" (1994), in which she played the cantankerous Parthy Ann Hawks, and Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" (1996), portraying a tart-tongued, upper-crust alcoholic.
Each generation found her relevant and hip. She was parodied in 2010 on an episode of "The Simpsons" in which Lisa Simpson attends a fancy performing arts camp. One class was on making wallets with Elaine Stritch and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Stritch got a kick out of it. "That's worth being in the business for 150 years," she said with a laugh.
Stritch's films include "A Farewell to Arms" (1957), "Who Killed Teddy Bear?" (1965), Alain Resnais' "Providence" (1977), "Out to Sea" (1997), and Woody Allen's "September" (1987) and "Small Time Crooks" (2000). She also appeared in many American TV series, most notably a guest spot on "Law & Order" in 1990, which won Stritch her first Emmy.
Back in 1950, she played Trixie, Ed Norton's wife, in an early segment of "The Honeymooners," then a recurring sketch on Jackie Gleason's variety show "Cavalcade of Stars." But she was replaced by Joyce Randolph after one appearance.
More than a half-century later, Stritch was back at the top of the sitcom pyramid with a recurring role in "30 Rock," winning her another Emmy in 2007 as best guest actress in a comedy.
She was also well known to TV audiences in England, where she starred with Donald Sinden in the sitcom "Two's Company" (1975-79), playing an American mystery writer to Sinden's unflappable British butler. Stritch also starred in "Nobody's Perfect" (1980-1982), appearing with Richard Griffiths in this British version of the American hit "Maude."
She starred in the London stage productions of Neil Simon's "The Gingerbread Lady" and Tennessee Williams' "Small Craft Warnings." It was in England that Stritch met and married actor John Bay. They were married for 10 years. He died of a brain tumor in 1982.
Born Feb. 2, 1925, in Detroit, Stritch was the daughter of a Michigan business executive. She attended a Roman Catholic girls school and came to New York to study acting in 1944 with Erwin Piscator at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research.
Stritch made her Broadway debut in 1946 in "Loco," a short-lived comedy by Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert. She was first noticed by the critics and audiences in the 1947 revue "Angel in the Wings." In it, she sang the hit novelty song "Civilization," which includes the immortal lyrics, "Bongo, Bongo, Bongo, I don't want to leave the Congo."
The actress understudied Ethel Merman in the Irving Berlin musical, "Call Me Madam" (1950). Stritch never went on for Merman in the role of Sally Adams, vaguely modeled after Washington party-giver Perle Mesta, but she did take over the part when the show went out on the road.
Stritch then appeared in revivals of two Rodgers and Hart musicals, "Pal Joey" (1952), in which she stripteased her way through "Zip," and "On Your Toes" (1954).
The actress won good notices for "Goldilocks" (1958), a musical about the early days of movie-making, but the show, which also starred Don Ameche, was not a success.
She became good friends with Noel Coward after appearing on Broadway and in London in "Sail Away," playing that harassed cruise-ship social director. The performer brought down the house by warbling a deft Coward ditty called "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?"
But Sondheim songs became her specialty, too.
Stritch sang "Broadway Baby" in a historic 1984 concert version of Sondheim's "Follies," performed at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall. The concert, which also featured Lee Remick, Barbara Cook, Mandy Patinkin and George Hearn, was recorded by RCA.
In "At Liberty," she delivered "I'm Still Here," Sondheim's hymn to show-business survival, a number she once described as "one of the greatest musical theater songs ever written."
In 2005, after nearly 60 years in show business, Stritch made her solo club act debut, appearing at New York's posh Carlyle Hotel and was brought back frequently. She lived in the Carlyle's Room 309 for a decade.
A documentary, "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me," premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival the week before she left New York, showing a feisty Stritch as she reacted with anger, frustration and acceptance at her increasingly evident mortality. Asked what she thought of the film, she replied: "It's not my cup of tea on a warm afternoon in May." The film was released in 2014.
In the recent Broadway revival of "A Little Night Music," Stritch played a wheelchair-bound aristocrat who offers dry and hysterical pronouncements in her half-dozen scenes, and mourned the loss of standards in her big song "Liaisons," in which she looked back on her profitable sexual conquests of dukes and barons. She might as well have been speaking of theater itself.
"Where is skill?" she asked. "Where's passion in the art, where's craft?"
"You know where I'm at in age?" she said backstage, in her typical wit and sass. "I don't need anything. That's a little scary — when you know that the last two bras you bought are it. You won't need any more. I'm not going to live long for any big, new discovery at Victoria's Secret."