07/20/2014 03:51 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2014

FACE IT: A Real Maverick Remembered

I have interviewed hundreds of celebrated folks over the years and am often asked if I had a favorite. My answer has remained the same: James Garner. The first time consisted of a couple of days trailing him around the streets of New York City, where he was filming Barbarians at the Gate. He was funny and frank and somewhat embarrassed by the size and splendor of his trailer. I recall his co-star, Jonathan Pryce, knocking on its door once, looking around, and saying in that wry British way, "ah, so this is where the budget went." Garner guffawed.

The HBO trailer aside, James Garner was not only the most charming and honest of stars, he was the least interested in frills. He demanded only fairness, which is why he took a couple studios to court over the years to get the compensation he deserved. He is a hero to many a TV series star for doing so.

Everyone loved James Garner, even those who couldn't remember his name. I still recall a stunned, stuttering stranger across the street noticing him and yelling, "you''re.....what's your name?" "Garner!" the star responded. "Yeah, you look like him!" came the response.

"That's why!" he shot back. The exchange lasted about five seconds but I couldn't stop laughing. He told me similar stories like being in an elevator once when someone said he looked familiar, kept snapping his fingers and saying "don't tell me...". When Garner finally did, the person thought a few seconds and said, "no..."

The truth is, if you spent any time with Garner, you could not forget him. The next time I saw him was at the Bel Air Hotel, where I interviewed him for a cover story for TV Guide. I came in eight months pregnant and he was the perfect gentleman. He insisted on walking me to my car to make sure I was okay. By the way, he never came accompanied by a publicist or entourage. He would have probably been their nightmare come true, as he always told it exactly as he saw it.

I grew up in the fifties so perhaps the only show, besides The Mickey Mouse Club and American Bandstand, that I recall vividly is Maverick. I was too young to get the idea of anti-hero, but somehow it registered that here was a cowboy who was going to win with his gumption, not his gun.

Which brings me to The Americanization of Emily, one of the most perfect films never seen by millions. Garner told me he was shocked it disappeared so quickly, and confessed he was sure he and his co-star Julie Andrews would be up for Oscars. But he said the timing of its release was obviously wrong: "The country was just getting into Vietnam and had conflicted feelings about patriotism and war," he mused. Ironically, last year in my Columbia University class on World War Two and Narratives, we had to write a paper on one book or film. I chose that one. (My title was "When is a Coward a Hero?) It was such a pleasure to go back to watch Emily again and quote those amazing lines ("Cowardice will save the world." "It's not war that insane, it's the morality of it") from the pen of Paddy Chayevsky, spoken by Garner's self-satisfied Navy man whose goal was to remain combat-free.

James Garner told me so many wonderful stories: how if he had not found a parking spot in front of a Los Angeles producer's office, he likely would never have become an actor; how he learned more "watching Henry Fonda's back" during a year as a juror on stage in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial than in any acting class; how every bone and muscle ached each day he went to work on The Rockford Files.

He left behind a treasure trove of stellar performances, particularly in an unparalleled string of television movies. Mostly, he left behind the idea that one could be leading man handsome and yet self-effacing, funny, and relatable. He will be missed by viewers, fans, and by those who were privileged to have spent a little time with him.