James Garner died July 19, 2014. He was one of my favorite actors. I appreciated him more after reading about his friendship with African-American sculptor Richmond Barthe, in A History of African-American Artists from 1972 to the Present by Romare Bearden (pages 144 -145). Bearden was an African-American artist, musician and historian. Bearden’s description of Garner’s friendship with Barthe was several paragraphs in length but it warmed my heart.
By the 1970’s Barthe’s health and finances had severely declined. He couldn’t collect Social Security because according to Social Security rules he wasn’t employed (he was an artist) and lived outside of the country for decades. Barthe and Garner were introduced to each other by a reporter, working on a story about the artist. The two men hit it off and became friends.
Bearden’s description of the Barthe-Garner friendship revealed that Garner was protective and very respectful of Barthe’s privacy. “Garner quietly paid Barthe’s rent and with friends tried again to get Barthe’s Social Security funds, but without success.” According to Bearden, when Barthe became terminally ill in 1986, “Garner paying for all Barthe’s medical expenses, kept his role private, known only to Barthe’s close friends.”
Barthe modeled a bust of Garner, which might have been his last sculpture. He also willed his work to Garner. Garner then followed his friend’s suggestion, and passed the collection to Samella Lewis, founder of the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles, California.
Garner also joined Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in August 1963. One of my favorite Garner stories was about his role as an astronaut in the 1985 CBS miniseries Space. In the script, Garner’s character was to be a Republican, but by the time the movie debuted, the character was a Democrat. Garner’s explanation: “My wife would leave me if I played a Republican.”
James Garner really was a maverick.
Janet Cormier is a painter, writes prose and poetry, and performs comedy. JC prefers different and original over pretty. She loves collecting stuff, but cleaning not so much. Janet also talks to strangers… a lot. Her column appears weekly on Oddball Magazine.