I have been one of the lucky guys who met and befriended a great guy: James Garner, actor, racecar driver, humanitarian, damn good all-around guy, and a guy who loved off-road racing. Well, he’s gone now! He has gone to a place that we all strive to go to (I think), by living life to its fullest, but always with a twinkle in his eyes, a big smile, and a wonderful laugh. A lifelong racing enthusiast who could’ve had a big career behind the wheel of a racecar, but his acting career kept getting in the way. I hope he was sleeping peacefully, like in the movie, “Murphy’s Romance,” when he died in Los Angeles last Saturday, July 19 at age 86. Garner had suffered a stroke in 2008, and had quintuple bypass surgery in 1988. I had my five-way bypass in 1995.
Garner is best-known to the public for two popular roles on TV, and a bunch of movies that everyone seems to remember. He played Jim Rockford, the wise-cracking private eye, and as Bret Maverick in the early-’60s TV western series. But, he’ll always be best-known, to race fans, as the talented American driver, Pete Aron, taking on the Europeans in the movie “Grand Prix.” In that movie, Garner got to work with the best F1 (formula-One) drivers of the day, including Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Fangio, Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, Dan Gurney, Ritchie Ginther and Bruce McLaren. Unlike some of his co-stars who couldn’t drive at all, Garner did much of his own driving in the movie — and fell in love with racing as a result. Subsequently, some of the real drivers in the film, including Graham Hill, reportedly told him he could have done well as real driver.
I first met Jim when he decided to get dirty by racing in the 1970 Mint 400. He had formed his own racing team by this time, and was going to drive a very fast, and slightly wild, Vic Hickey-built Olds 442 4×4 car, which was eventually dubbed, “The Grabber,” with another wonderful nickname, “The Banshee.”
In 1969 the race had been moved to the Mint Hotel Gun Club (now named Floyd Lamb Park, or better known as Tule Springs to some of old timers), where the hotel got a temporary gaming license for the races. The desert was pristine that first year. Nothing but desert turtles, rabbits, etc., used the area. The 1969 race was four laps of 100 miles, as was the 1970 event. Garner started the race about in the middle of the first few rows of cars. Like most of the racers entered, he finished the first lap and headed out for the second. Un-known to most of us (yes, I was racing too) was how quick the silt was building up to a depth unexpected near the 50 mile marker. There was a spot where we had a choice (I was driving a dune buggy with a Volkswagen 1600 cc engine), go through a slim gully (slot), or jump over the silt, by using a dirt ramp to jump the slot, and hit the other side full out. James decided (he later admitted) that he felt it would be wiser to take the slot route, rather than do the jump the second time, having landed pretty hard the first lap. What he didn’t know was that the silt was so deep he would get stuck right at where the jump site was. His cars roof made for a perfect bridge. For the next hour he was a bridge to the other side of the jump. “I thought the roof of the car was going to collapse on me, so I got the hell out, and watched and waved at the buggies, as they drove over my car,” Garner said later at the Gun Club. Garner stayed interested in racing his whole life, driving two more times in the Mint 400 and in the Baja races a few times, even teaming up with the great Parnelli Jones in a specially built Bronco. He also drove the pace car at the Indy 500 three times, in 1975, ’77 and ’85, and also appeared in TV commercials for Mazda and Chevrolet.
Another real short story: We were racing in a short course race at a location outside of Riverside, California. It was a course chopped out of a small forest, with a not too deep of a river (creek) that we had to plow through. During his time to race, he was driving some kind of a buggy, (leaving the Olds at home), and wouldn’t you know it, the buggy bogged down in the creek and quit running. Garner climbed out, got on the roof of the buggy, and did a belly flop in the creek. The crowd roared. He stood up, took the helmet off, and with a smile so big you could’ve seen it from the Moon, bowed to the crowd.
James Garner was one of the good guys! He loved life and the common person. James never turned down a request for an autograph, and kids were very special to him. They have a good guy up there now. James Garner has arrived, refreshed, and ready to race. Go with Speed my friend!
THIS AND THAT QUICKLY:
Went to the Starbright Theater in Summerlin, Sunday afternoon to see and listen to a group of young ladies and one guy do a lot of singing. The show is one of the many that are produced by Mistinquett Productions in the theater, and this particular show featured baritone Grant Griffin and his Diva’s, comprised of Jeneane Marie, Elisa Furr, Marisa Johnson, Dian Buckley, and Janit Paige. The show also featured dancer, Enrique Lugo and his dancers.
Unfortunately, the budget at the Starbright Theater is not enough to support an orchestra, so each singer was singing to a track, accompanied on a live piano by Joey Singer. But, believe me, it works O.K. for this group of pros. Griffin, who is also the producer of the show, is out first attired in a sharp white tux, and proceeds to have each Diva presented as they sing, “Stepping Out.” Jeneane Marie is first out and nails her two solos, “Simply the Best,” and “Once Before I Go.” The near capacity audience showed their appreciation with a rousing round of applause. The show was off and running. Grant sings a fabulous,” By Myself,” and then introduces Dian Buckley, who belts out, “Natural Women,” and “Songbird.” Grant next brings a fairly new singer to the Diva’s, Marisa Johnson, on stage. Now, all I can say about this young lady, is she has a fabulous future in show business. The second she starts singing, “Amigos Para Siempre,” the audience seems to freeze, as they hear the voice of a future star singing the song made famous by, Sarah Brightman, for the 1995 Olympics. This was followed by a beautiful, “The Laughing Song,” and “Because We Believe,” created by and sung by the Italian Pop singer, Andrea Bocelli. It was a standing-ovation that had to last a full minute or two. Only one person could follow that performance, and that was Grant, who sang two wonderful numbers, “My Cup Runneth Over” and “I Believe.”
Enrique and his dancers performed a difficult and wonderful eight-minute dance routine to the music of “Latch,” by Sam Smith. Griffin sang another favorite, “This is My Life,” before introducing, Elisa Furr, who performs to perfection, “New York, New York,” followed by a fantastic Barbra Streisand medley. Two of my favorite songs, “Music of the Night,” and “Memories,” were powerfully delivered by Grant. The ending was near as, Janit, entered the stage and sang, “Sway,” and “Through the Fire.” My friend of more than 35 years, Jeneane, was asked to present a very special song in a salute to the men and women who defend our shores, “Stand Strong,” The closing minutes were used to perfection, as Grant finished singing, “Dream,” he thanks everyone, and begins a patriotic medley with a song written by Irving Berlin, and made famous by Kate Smith, “God Bless America,” with each of the Divas slowly walking on stage in a solo spot, singing a verse of the song, to join Grant. With the entire cast on stage, they finish by singing, “America, the Beautiful.” It was an afternoon well spent with a cast of great voices and song selections.
Chicago native John Caponera has honed his act over a 30-year career, performing for audiences all over the world. Caponera will be headlining the Laugh Factory at the New Tropicana Resort on the Las Vegas Strip alongside, Denny Johnston, and host, Frazer Smith, beginning Monday, July 28, through Sunday, August 3, with show times at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.
John is considered a comic’s comic; a true professional offering a mix of material from topical to impressions, from characterizations to stories, and one-liners. You may recognize him as the star of his own sitcom, “The Good Life,” or as host of Comedy Central’s “Jocks,” and ESPN’s “Talk II.” His other credits include guest star appearances on “The Tonight Show,” “The Dennis Miller Show,” “L.A. Law,” NBC’s miniseries “Drug Wars,” and the ESPY Awards, among a long list of appearances.
Armed with a guitar and a suitcase full of crazy props, comedian Denny Johnston has been entertaining audiences for years. Starting out in the LA club scene with comedian pal, Steve Martin, Johnston has opened for a long list of superstars, and was the winner of “The Big Laff Off.” Denny has appeared on “The Tonight Show,” “Late Night with David Letterman,” “The Crew,” and most recently, The ESPY Awards. Frazer Smith is one of the best known comics in all of California. When you think of the biggest clubs in Hollywood, you’re sure to find Smith. “The Green Room,” is Smith’s hot new show on, “All Comedy Radio,” which is aired in over 160 markets nationwide. The Laugh Factory is located on the mezzanine level of the New Tropicana. Tickets, priced at $34.95 and $44.95, may be obtained by calling 702-739-2411.
Well, gang, this is a long column this week.
I’m outa here!