Life is sweet for James Garner now.
For most of his professional life he has been successful and popular. But now, at the dawn of his golden years, he's relatively healthy and definitely happy.
"Yeah, I don't have a whole lot of problems," he said with a satisfied grin. Talking with reporters in Los Angeles recently about his new NBC series "Man of the People," Garner, who never minces words or holds back opinions, seemed uncharacteristically peaceful.
"I've lost 15 to 18 pounds since "Decoration Day" (the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie for which he earned an Emmy nomination this year)," the 63-year-old actor said. "I'm working out every day. I'm in very good shape. The legs will never be any good, but I won't be on my feet 10 to 12 hours a day like I was on 'Rockford.' "
The rigors of filming a weekly action series for many years, starting with "Maverick" and continuing through the Emmy-winning "Rockford Files," left Garner with severe knee damage that required several operations. He also had an assortment of bruises and broken bones during his "Rockford" years, which ended with a nasty legal battle with the studio over his share of the profits.
But all that is behind him. The only ripple in Garner's calm this day was the clicking of a string of Greek worry beads. He fingered them constantly during the interview in an effort to keep from smoking. He had "quit" a couple of days before but had slipped a few times since.
Smiling and clicking, Garner explained the circumstances that prompted him to return to series television after a lengthy absence.
"I've been playing golf for 10 years and my handicap's gone up instead of down, so I figured I might as well go back to work again," he said. "And I prefer to work more than I've worked in the past 10 years."
Not that the past decade has been idle. Garner has always been accepted as a light comedy, romantic lead. But a string of television movies, including "Promise" and "My Name Is Bill W" with James Woods and "Heartsounds" with Mary Tyler Moore, proved his strength as a powerful dramatic actor.
And after appearing in more than 40 feature films, he finally received an Academy Award nomination for "Murphy's Romance" in 1985.
When "Rockford" went off the air in 1980, Garner starred in the poorly conceived revival series "Bret Maverick" for one year. After that, he swore off series -- until "Man of the People" came along.
In the new NBC comedy, he plays Jim Doyle, a con artist and gambler who is appointed to fill the City Council seat vacated by his late ex-wife. He starts out fully intending to milk the situation for personal gain but winds up with a conscience, a flawed but sincere champion of the common man.
"A half-hour is much easier," Garner said. "An hour series is a killer. It's hard on you physically. 'Rockford' almost killed me . . . NBC sent me this script, and I liked it. I wasn't looking to do another series, but I liked the character and the steady work."
Garner has made a name for himself on television playing heroes that are tarnished and humorous. Bret Maverick was a wisecracking, less-than-courageous rogue who avoided danger whenever possible. Jim Rockford was an ex-con with a lazy streak and an assortment of low-life pals.
"I like the anti-hero," Garner said. "I think people like to see a little larceny in their heroes. I think Jim Doyle's got a lot of larceny."
Although the show's arena is politics, Garner insists the show will not take jabs at politicians or make political statements.
"I'm not going to tell the writers to do a story about saving the whales," he said. "I don't plan to use this for a platform. It's not in any sense a commentary on politicians. We're doing it with good humor."
The pilot was not available for preview because it is being re-shot. Kathleen Quinlan, who had played Doyle's assistant in the pilot, left the series over "personal difficulties with NBC," according to Garner. Corinne Bohrer will replace her. And a new role is being created for Garner's longtime pal Stuart Margolin, who played super-sleazy Angel Martin on "Rockford."
The dreaded "d" word (dramedy) has not been officially used, but "Man of the People" will not be a thigh-slapping sitcom. There will be no laugh track and no adorable moppets.
"Man of the People" will air Sunday nights opposite ABC's "America's Funniest Home Videos" and CBS' "Murder, She Wrote." The competition will be formidable, but NBC is likely to stick with the show.
"Let's put it this way," Garner said. "This is NBC Productions' only production this fall."