The world learned Sunday that actor James Garner died Saturday night of natural causes at age 86. That makes me sad. So very sad.
For not only was he a fine actor whose work I immensely enjoyed in the old "Maverick" and "Rockford Files" TV shows but he genuinely seemed to relish what he was doing at all times. A man's man, he shared an obvious sense of humor with a wink and a nod that he didn't take himself too seriously.
Besides all that, he was always one of my go-to guys when I share stories about covering the Indianapolis 500.
Somewhere among the mementoes of my life here at the BannerGraphic is a faded black-and-white photo that I shot, developed and printed in our old darkroom after my first venture covering the big race in 1977. In that photo, Garner, dressed in tight white Levis and long-sleeve striped shirt unbuttoned to his chest, was chugging down the last of a can of Miller High Life beer (more on that later).
I also remember it as the year we learned there were actually rules at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
For it was the year my sport editor wore shorts (cutoff jeans, as I recall) to the race, and thus was banned from entering the pits or going onto the track for pre-race media coverage that humid, 90-degree afternoon. So instead of me being the second triggerman on the grassy knoll, I suddenly became the one-and-only option for BG race-day photos.
I had to think fast. An old photographer friend of mine always advised that if you weren't fortunate enough to be issued a "99" badge (an otherwise all-access pass to take photos at the track), get smart (like Agent 99 back in the day) and act as though that "9" badge you were stuck with was a "99" until someone found out otherwise.
Long story short, I stayed out on the yard of bricks until the 32 gentlemen and Janet Guthrie started their engines. Got a nice shot of eventual winner A.J. Foyt giving the thumbs-up to his crew after his engine roared to a start.
Garner, driving the pace car that day in one of the three times he did so, then took the 33 racers on the parade lap as I wandered toward the first turn to take up photo position.
Stopping to snap some shots along the way, it wasn't long before I found myself walking alongside James Garner as we approached the yellow shirts (aka security crew) manning the gate that allows only authorized personnel into the first turn (mind you, there were no stands inside the track then, only the snake pit, separated from the grassy area by a high fence).
Sauntering all too Rockford-like, Garner was carrying that can of Miller High Life as we neared the gate when the guard whose yellow shirt was stretched mightily to accommodate his ample beer-infused gut, called out in our direction.
"You can't take that beer in here, sir," he hollered, oblivious to the fact the man he was admonishing was James Garner. Bret Maverick. Rockford. The pace car driver, for crying out loud. Like he was going to kill that beer and hurl the can onto the track like some kook from Kokomo.
Garner responded with one calm word, "Certainly," before raising the beer to his lips, taking one last big swig and setting the can down next to the fence.
We made eye contact at that moment and shared a smile and silent laugh over what had just transpired.
A simple gesture. Simple consideration for others and for the rules.
Celebrities, in case you haven't noticed, aren't always like that.
And because of his reaction that day, I have admired James Garner even more ever since.
That's why I feel sad, so sad today.
R.I.P., James Garner, R.I.P.