LOS ANGELES - The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) paid tribute to James Garner, 76, last night by presenting him with a record third lifetime achievement award "in recognition of his continued excellence in crafting humorous but ultimately forgettable performances on stage, screen, and television."
"This man is a machine, and I don't mean because he's had both knees and his heart replaced," said SAG president Melissa Gilbert, who is no stranger to forgettable performances herself.
Garner was typically droll and self-effacing in his acceptance speech. "I'm not at all sure how I got here," he began. "No, I'm serious," he continued after the audience had interrupted him with rueful laughter. "I think it was by limousine, but I wouldn't bet on it if I were a betting man."
Garner won his first SAG lifetime achievement in 1964, the year after he had been nominated for-and lost-the Golden Globe's best-actor-in-a-comedy award for his work in "The Wheeler Dealers." He remains the youngest actor ever honored for lifetime achievement.
"We were impressed with the triviality of Jim's performances early on," said then SAG president Dana Andrews. "We knew he was going far but not too far in this industry."
For a time it looked as if Andrews' faith in Garner had been misplaced. The loveable lightweight actually took home an Emmy award for best actor in 1977 for his portrayal of genial, wise-cracking detective Jim Rockford. Then, in 1985, Garner was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of a genial, wise-cracking small town pharmacist in "Murphy's Romance."
Once again he lost, and the SAG responded with a second lifetime achievement award the following year. "Jim proved conclusively that he's still got what it takes to remain in the middle of the pack," said then SAG president Patty Duke. "That kind of mediocrity can't be taught."
Although no one in the acting community questions Garner's mastery of playful characters, the timing of his third lifetime achievement award caught some insiders off guard. Garner was nominated for the SAG's best supporting actor award this year for his role in the movie "The Notebook"; and though he wasn't given any real chance of winning-the award went to Morgan Freeman for his work in "Million Dollar Baby"-most people thought the SAG would wait until next year before honoring Garner again.
"We couldn't afford to wait," explained Gilbert. "We took a lot of flack for giving a lifetime achievement to Clint [Eastwood] last year. People complained that he wasn't qualified because he had actually achieved things. We were criticized for using the award to encourage achievement. Therefore, we knew we had to go with a safe choice this year, and what safer choice than Jim?"
In related news, Las Vegas odds makers have installed John Cusack as the 7-to-5 favorite to win next year's SAG lifetime achievement award. Cusack, who has been typecast from birth, has somehow been nominated for best actor awards twice but has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory both times.