What is it about some actors that their passing from this life makes me pause?

In 2014 when James Garner passed, I actually wept a bit. Sigh. I loved James Garner since seeing the first Maverick when I was a kid, enjoying the first Rockford Files with that great cast, from the little known, but entertaining flick, The Pink Jungle. Part of Garner’s allure, I’m sure, had to do with how he reminded me of my dad. With his gravelly voice, dark curly hair, soft brown eyes, and large frame, he was a Gilbert lookalike. And with Garner’s frequent anti-hero roles, he was very much like my dad in his quiet but direct right and wrong approach to living life.

Gilbert as a bandit

Still, what difference could Mr. Garner’s death possibly make in my life?

Among other stars, I continue to love Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, and Pennsylvania son, Jimmy Stewart. (Did you know he wrote poetry?) I could watch their films repeatedly, and have. My DVD collection contains dozens of their assorted movies.

Bogart died before I was born but left such a legacy of work that goes far beyond The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and Philip Marlowe. He made some truly important films that touched on deep subjects at the time—perhaps needed now—such as, Deadline – USA.

Cary, well, was there ever a man who epitomized debonair quite so well? The dictionary should replace the defining words with a picture of him in a tuxedo. Whether he was underplaying his handsome self in Arsenic and Old Lace or being the refined gentleman in The Philadelphia Story, Cary shined every time. He made chaotic-me long for a calm composure.

Jimmy’s extreme versatility was always underrated. He went from cowboys you admired to a man you didn’t like in Vertigo, to a man it was easy to fall in love with in Rear Window. Did he and Grace Kelly work that chemistry or what? They conveyed more passion in a single kiss than we see these days with too much skin and sex on the screen.

And Katharine. Well, I am still convinced that someday I will grow up to be her. Bringing up Baby with Grant is an all time favorite—as is every film they made together. They always looked like they were having the absolute best fun. Choose any movie Kate made with Spencer Tracy, starting with the comedic Desk Set. Move on to the epic The Sea of Grass, and let’s not forget her foray into the Dark Continent with Humphrey in the utterly wonderful The African Queen. (Watch the flick for sure, but also pick up her book, The Making of The African Queen, or: How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Nearly Lost My Mindyou will laugh out loud.) Hepburn made John Wayne shine in Rooster Coburn and always lived life precisely on her own terms.

I grew up with these stars and loved watching them with my mother, who got me addicted. It was one joy we shared throughout our lives—a topic where we could always meet and talk and laugh. The actors were larger than life, did a lot without special effects, nor sometimes even with technicolor. They gave a country girl a peek into worlds truly fanciful, causing me to plague Mom with questions: Did women really dress for mornings at home in kitten shoes and floating peignoirs and talk with a precise upper class, not quite British accent even though they were in Los Angeles? Did they, each one of them, wear elbow length gloves for dinner, and smoke cigarettes firmly wedged into elaborate holders?  It was fascinating for this kid and led us into fun conversations.

For the most part these matinee idols lived for us only on the screen in their various roles, playing characters we could believe in, support, get mad at, fall in love with. Their personal lives were their own. Hepburn’s other book, Me: Stories of My Life, make it clear that there was a time when Hollywood respected this privacy—everyone knew about the love she shared with Tracy, but no one blurted it out into the public domain. Classy.

Maybe that’s it. It’s that admiration for the public/personal selves that they had. As everything in our world is out there these days spewed across social media, perhaps it is the refinement I feel they had that makes me sad when one more Hollywood icon passes from our view.

James Garner was born in 1928, six years before my dad and died five years after Gilbert. When the others listed above passed, I felt a moment of sadness that someone quite possibly great had left the earth. But when Garner departed, the grief of Dad hit again—as if it had ever stopped hitting. Their marriages each lasted 58 and 57 years, respectively. Do I truly know if they shared any other characteristics? It’s reported that Garner, like Dad, was full of self-deprecating, wise-cracking humor—and anyone who knew Dad knew that was a large part of his make-up. 

We’ll go with that and say that when we have grief inside us, whether it is buried deep or riding along the surface of our brains, when we’re prompted to, it’s okay to let it spill out at whatever provocation. So, me shedding tears when James Garner passed away led to me crying anew at how much I miss my father. The star was still inspiring me to think, to feel, and even years later, to explore my emotions.

**

Revised and updated.