Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.
(CNN) -- He was the logical synthesis of John Wayne and Jack Benny. Interlace the Duke's measured drawl and virile swagger with Benny's comic timing and shrewd use of wordless exasperation, and you have James Garner, who died Saturday night in Los Angeles at 86.
His persona: Laid-back pragmatist ... or, if you needed to be a tad more provocative about it, coolly principled coward. It endeared him to generations of moviegoers and television viewers.
Garner's most cherished roles shared, to varying degrees, a bent gallantry that saw little need to advertise or flaunt itself before others. In his entry on "The Rockford Files"-- the 1974-80 TV series in which Garner played a perennially, often unjustly besieged private detective living in a trailer -- Gene Sculatti's "The Catalog of Cool" summed up "Gentleman Jim's beat message: Very few expenditures of energy are worth the effort. Like Zen, man."
But Garner did not only embody this persona in "Rockford Files'" eponymous character Jim Rockford (for which he won a best actor Emmy in 1977), but also Bret Maverick, the well-tailored Texas card sharp and reluctant do-gooder from the 1957-62 Western series "Maverick." That star-making role represented something relatively new in the cowboy genre: A manly hero, able to take care of himself, who was nonetheless far more inclined to use his wits rather than his fists to get out of a jam. More often than not, Maverick's way was the winning way.
Same with Rockford.
If powerful gangsters leaned on him and told him to back off an investigation, Jim Rockford would weigh his options, consider the bruises on his face and decide the hell with it. Somehow things would turn out OK in the end without him losing any cred with his clients -- or his audience.
Then there were those back-to-back Burt Kennedy Western spoofs, 1969's "Support Your Local Sheriff" and 1971's "Support Your Local Gunfighter," in which he played separate versions of the slow-thinking, fast-acting wayfaring stranger who'd rather do anything than be a hero. If the local pokey had no bars on its cells, no problem: All Garner's character in "Sheriff" needed was a bucket of red paint and a couple of well-placed faux bullet holes to make sure his prisoner didn't leave without permission.
If these characters made skewed heroism look easy, it's because Garner made acting look easy, too. His was the kind of nonchalant grace that in the 1930s or '40s would have made him a major movie star, at home in comedy or drama as were Cary Grant or Clark Gable.
But things weren't always as easy for Garner as he made them seem. He was often beset with physical ailments during his long, grueling "Rockford" run. And at the peak of his earlier "Maverick" popularity, he left the series -- in its third season -- over a dispute with Warner Brothers and tested his luck with the movies.
For a while, the movies didn't quite know what to do with him, casting him as stoic action heroes (with mixed results) in such World War II epics as "Up Periscope" (1959), "The Great Escape" (1963) and "36 Hours" (1965). He was an effective foil for Doris Day in 1963's "Move Over, Darling" and "The Thrill of It All," but was miscast in "Grand Prix" (1966) where his best scenes were arguably behind a race car's wheels.
One picture, however, shines like a beacon from this period: "The Americanization of Emily" (1963), which Garner always cited in interviews as his favorite -- with most of his fans in agreement.
The lead role fit him like the proverbial glove: Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Madison, whose relatively cushy World War II posting as an admiral's aide-de-camp in London first repels, then attracts a prim British war widow (Julie Andrews) bemused by his staunch dedication to cowardice in the midst of war.
Charlie, speaking as if he were a lineal descendant of Brother Bret Maverick, insists throughout that cowardice is the only honest, rational response. (Because it's a comedy, he naturally ends up on Omaha Beach trying to get away from Nazi bullets.)
"So far this war," Charlie explains to the widow's widowed mother, "we've managed to butcher some 10 million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we'll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It's not war that's unnatural to us, it's virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved."
Such words were warmed to near-humidity by screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky -- by way of William Bradford Huie's novel. But it took an actor of Garner's innate charm, unassuming earnestness and modulated intensity to drive them home and let them resonate nearly 15 years into the new millennium.
Charm and modulation aren't Oscar bait -- and the closest Garner came to getting one was a best actor nomination for 1985's "Murphy's Romance" in which he played a liberal small-town pharmacist wooing Sally Field's overwrought, overburdened divorcee. But Garner won something in the long, fertile run of his life's work that other actors would covet even more: Abiding affection from audiences, so deep and wide that they were always glad to see him show up on big or small screens in any context, any role of any dimension.
In his later interviews, Garner insisted that all he ever wanted in life was for people to smile whenever they thought of his name. Done, and done.