Garner Remembered for ‘Rockford Files,’ Environmental Passion

James Garner

Hollywood fans and local conservationists are mourning the death of actor James Garner, known for his role in the Malibu-based “The Rockford Files,” as well as his passion for the environment.

Garner passed away at the age of 86 on Saturday, July 19, at his home in Brentwood.

“The Rockford Files,” which ran from 1974 to 1980, helped propel Garner to stardom and put Malibu on the map, showing off beautiful landscape around Paradise Cove.

And, in the days since his death, news accounts have resurfaced that detail Garner playing a pivotal role in helping preserve areas of the Santa Monica Mountains. 

In addition to “The Rockford Files,” Garner lit up the small screen on the long-running “Maverick,” and starred in dozens of movies. Young people will probably remember him best as the elderly Noah in 2004’s “The Notebook.”

But according to those who knew him, Garner was much more than an actor.

Reports by the LA Times this week dug up a story from a Los Angeles City Council meeting that took place 50 years ago this month, during which Garner went toe to toe with Councilman Karl Rundberg over conservation of the Santa Monica Mountains.

According to the original article, which is available on the LA Times website, Garner was with a group of other concerned citizens, including notably Steve McQueen and Eva Marie Saint, who approached Rundberg after a meeting in July 1964.

As recounted in the LA Times’ July 30, 1964 edition:

“Garner then edged in from the fringe of the group and asked Rundberg if he represented the 11th district, which includes much of the mountain district. 

Rundberg said he did.

Witnesses said the actor, raising his voice, moved toward Rundberg and accused him of not representing the district and of being personally interested in ‘certain developments’ in the mountain area.

The councilman whirled in his chair.

‘You’re a liar,’ he shouted, his face blanching. ‘I will not be intimidated.’

Stepping still closer, Garner said, ‘I am not a liar and I am bigger than you.’

‘In height, weight or stature?’ the 65-year-old, 6 ft. councilman retorted, leaping from his chair.

Garner, the words tumbling out, said, ‘Remember, we are the people.’

‘You’re an actor,’ Rundberg shouted.”

According to Los Angeles County Supervisor and longtime friend of Garner’s, Zev Yaroslavsky, this is hardly where Garner’s environmental activism ended.

“If there was an environmental cause, James Garner was there,” said Yaroslavsky, who went on to praise his work against oil drilling off Will Rogers Beach in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

“Jim Garner was the man who did the television commercial for it on our side against the oil drilling,” said Yaroslavsky, “It was a 25-second commercial that won the election for us, we were able to repeal the Occidental Oil permit.”

According to Stephanie S. Pincetl’s 1999 book “Transforming California: A Political History of Land Use and Development,” Garner also was instrumental in founding a group called Friends of the Santa Monica Mountains. 

But that information was not backed up by spokespeople at the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC), who said there is no record of such a group.

“I don’t know what that group did,” said Dash Stolarz, spokesperson for the SMMC, adding, “even internally, we don’t know.”

However, Yaroslavsky said it is likely Garner stayed involved in conservation of the Santa Monica Mountains.

“I was not aware that he was involved, but it does not surprise me at all because he cared deeply about the environment,” said Yaroslavsky.

Garner is survived by his wife of nearly 58 years, Lois Clarke, their daughter Greta and Garner’s stepdaughter Kim.