LOS ANGELES -- If James Garner's golf game had held up, he might not be the centerpiece of NBC's new Sunday night schedule.
"I've been playing golf for 10 years and my handicap's going up instead of down so I figured I might as well go back to work," Garner said of his return to series work in "Man of the People," a half-hour sitcom that will air Sundays at 9 p.m. in the fall.
Garner plays Jim Doyle, a con artist who becomes a city councilman when his estranged wife dies. He is appointed to take over her seat by the political leaders who figure such an unsophisticated type will be easy to manipulate.
"I like this character," Garner said. "It's a character I'm familiar with. He's a grifter and a hustler. I like the anti-hero and I think that's the main part of it.
"People like to see a little larceny in their heroes, and Doyle's got a lot of larceny. He looks out for himself first, but what happens is that he gets a little bit of conscience every once in a while and what he means to do for himself he ends up doing for other people."
All of which makes Doyle sound a lot like Garner's classic television roles in "Maverick" and "Rockford" that featured con men who were redeemed, in part because the people he conned deserved it, but mainly because Garner is such a naturally likable guy.
Although no complete pilot was available for preview -- the second lead part of Doyle's wife's assistant is being recast with Corrine Bohrer replacing Kathleen Quinlan -- the clips that were shown make Doyle look a bit sleazier than the characters Garner has made us come to love over the years.
"That's a thin, thin line," Garner said of the difference between the anti-hero and the villain. "We worry about it every day in the
"I tell the producer, 'No, I don't think I can get away with this line. This line, yeah, I can get away with this, we can make it work.'
"But it's a very difficult, hard line to play good and bad. I hope we can put some charm in the character so that we can get away with some of this. I'm sure we're going to offend some people, but maybe we can get them back by the end of the show."
R.J. Stewart, the series' co-executive producer, said that having Garner in the starring role gives the writers a wider latitude.
"Writing for this particular actor makes that thin line a little less intimidating because he is so likable and can redeem so much," Stewart said. "There is a point, though, and Jim and I have talked about this a lot, that even with Jim we have to be careful we don't go too far. I think we have to stick to this guideline, that even though he's always motivated by self-interest, he's not a mean-spirited character.
Of the character, Stewart says, "He just can't believe this appointment. This is the best thing he's ever stepped in. We just have to put him in circumstances where he has to be good in spite of himself."
Garner contrasted Doyle to the Angel character played by Stuart Margolin on "The Rockford Files."
"Angel would cut his mother's throat for a dollar," Garner said, noting that a character similar to Angel is being written for Margolin in "Man of the People."
It wasn't only the character that attracted Garner to "Man of the People," it was also the working conditions.
"The half-hour series, as opposed to an hour series, is so much easier physically and mentally," her said. "The hour series is a killer, particularly the hour action drama. It's hard on you physically. 'Rockford' almost killed me."
"Man of the People" will be filmed with one camera, like a movie, instead of taped before three or four cameras and a live audience. There will be no laugh track.
"I think that possibly the best writing is on TV these days," Garner said, giving another reason for doing another series. "I see motion pictures today as special-effects pictures. I don't see a lot of story content there, things dealing with people. There's a few, but very few.
"It's getting to be formula movies. You take this particular actor who's hot and this particular actress who's hot, you write a story around them, put in a lot of action and you've got a movie. They just don't interest me."
So, it was either another series or more golf. "You play golf four or five days a week and it can get boring. It really can," Garner said. "Some days you wish you were doing something else. So if you can't concentrate on it, I'd rather go back to work for a little bit.
As for that handicap, it is all the way up to a five, which got little sympathy from those at this press conference. "Listen, when you were down to a one and a two, a five is bad," he said.