James Garner remembered in Victoria as 'just an ultra-shy guy’

When James Garner died last weekend, many of us felt as if we had lost an old friend.

Whether he was playing hapless PI Jim Rockford in NBC’s The Rockford Files, sardonic gambler Bret Maverick in Maverick or roles that enhanced movies such as The Great Escape or Victor, Victoria, the guy was irresistible.

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However, it was an HBO crime flick Garner once filmed in Victoria — The Glitter Dome, based on Joseph Wambaugh’s 1981 novel — that found locals in his orbit waxing nostalgic this week.

Although he suffered from recurring back pain while shooting here in October of 1983, the star was clearly happy reuniting with the film’s director, Stuart Margolin, who then lived on Saltspring Island.

Garner was as loyal to the Emmy-winning actor and director as Jim Rockford was to hustler Angel Martin, the sidekick Margolin played to oily perfection in The Rockford Files.

Margolin, now based in West Virginia, was a paternal presence, presiding over a set with a family atmosphere.

No wonder. He had worked on the NBC series Nichols with Garner, who anchored The Glitter Dome as Al Mackey, an L.A. homicide detective investigating the murder of a sleazy movie mogul, and Margot Kidder, who played Willie, an eccentric actress.

Margolin’s wife, Pat, also did extras casting, and his children, Max, Christopher and Michelle, appeared on screen.

The film, which co-starred John Lithgow as Mackey’s partner and featured Margolin as the murder victim’s unctuous nephew, also involved many local showbiz notables, including the late actor Colin Skinner; its location manager, prolific B.C. producer Randolph Cheveldave; and Rob Cowan, a young production assistant who became a Hollywood producer (De-Lovely, The Conjuring) under Irwin Winkler’s mentorship.

The excitement The Glitter Dome generated here was not unlike the recent impact of Gracepoint. Palm trees suddenly appeared, a Paramount Pictures-type movie studio entrance was erected at Victoria High School, Oak Bay Marina doubled as Marina del Rey, Princess Mary Restaurant posed as a saloon and Harbour View School became a Los Angeles police station, as Victoria masqueraded as the City of Angels.

“James Garner was such a nice guy,” recalled David Wilson [Gracepoint], The Glitter Dome’s construction co-ordinator.

“I remember him complimenting me for ‘building such a great course,’ ” Wilson said with a laugh, recalling the avid golfer’s reaction when he walked onto the course at Victoria Golf Club.

Garner also praised Heather Day Jeliazkov for a disco dance sequence she choreographed for a scene at New York, New York (now Sugar), doubling as the smoky cops’ hangout of the title.

“I thought that was very kind of him, over and above what you’d expect,” Jeliazkov said.

Michael Woloshen, CHEK Media’s creative services director, savoured his experience appearing as a camera operator in scenes filmed at Memorial Arena.

“It was my first experience on a big production, so I was fascinated. I remember intensely this scene where they were getting reaction shots [from Lithgow and Garner] when Margot says something provocative, and he had a shy reaction,” he recalled. “They cut and Stuart walks up to Jim and whispers something, then Jim nods and they do another take.”

Garner’s performance was “so contained, it was a lesson in subtlety,” said Woloshen, noting while some might have assumed he was standoffish, “he was just an ultra-shy guy.”

While Woloshen made just $26, Pagliacci’s co-founder Howie Siegel made much more after a long day at Craigdarroch Castle, where he was to appear as a Hollywood agent in a party scene.

“My line was: ‘That’s the last F-ing hurricane movie I’ll ever do,’” Siegel said, flashing back to “the most lucrative day in my life and my biggest disappointment.”

Why? He originally thought he’d be interacting with the late filmmaker George P. Cosmatos (Rambo) and that “it would give me the chance to be chummy with him.”

When Margolin announced his scene would be with Garner, Siegel was elated — until they went into overtime and scrapped it.

“‘This was Maverick!” Siegel exclaimed. “Before Bob Dylan and Lenny Bruce I wanted to be Maverick. That’s why I played poker and didn’t watch The Ed Sullivan Show, because Maverick was on.”

While his $1,250 featured-player paycheque was sweet, getting to hang out with Garner at the Regent was better, he said.

“His back was torturing him and he didn’t want to go out, so I brought Pagliacci’s food to his hotel,” Siegel recalled. “You could see the pain in his face, but he was a real trouper.”

Siegel had encountered Garner before, during his childhood in L.A.

“He would hold up the fence for us so we could sneak in, back when the L.A. Open was held at Rancho Park. He was a lovely man.”

Patrick Doyle, a waiter at Chantecler (now Fireside Grill) in 1983, also experienced Garner’s earthy charm.

Before the wrap party began there, Garner’s assistant dropped by to ask if the restaurant had cable TV and was told it didn’t.

“An hour later he comes back with Garner, and a rental TV with rabbit ears,” recalled Doyle. “He wanted to watch the Los Angeles Raiders football team. He never missed a game.”

Doyle dashed into the kitchen when the TV malfunctioned, tuning a radio to the game out of Seattle and whispered “3-0 L.A.” to Garner while refilling wine glasses.

“Where are you getting this?” Garner asked, smiling. “I told him there’s a radio in the kitchen. He said: ‘Take me there.’ ”

mreid@timescolonist.com

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