02/07/2005 at 01:00 AM EST
Sure, James Garner was flattered when Screen Actors Guild president Melissa Gilbert phoned to tell him he had been chosen for this year's Lifetime Achievement Award. But at first, he declined it. "I don't like to speak in public," says Garner, 76. "It scares the devil out of me." Lois, his wife of 48 years, helped change his mind. "How long does the speech have to be?" Garner asked Gilbert warily. Some are longer than others, she said. Declared Garner: "Well, this will be shorter than others."
His speech at the ceremony on Feb. 5 may be short, but few in Hollywood history have had a more enduring—and endearing—career. In fact, it's the first time in the 11-year history of the SAG Awards that a Lifetime honoree is also nominated for an acting award. (He's up for supporting actor for his performance in The Notebook.) Says his old friend Clint Eastwood: "He deserves whatever accolades they can give him."
Raised in Oklahoma during the Depression, the Korean War veteran began his career in 1956 as a contract player at Warner Bros. Some 80 movies and a couple of hit TV series later, he's still at it. He stars on ABC's 8 Simple Rules, having stepped in after John Ritter's death. Says costar Katey Sagal: "He's not a frilly guy. He's old Hollywood."
Ten years ago, Garner built a home on the range he planned on retiring to at 70. "Never stayed one night in it," he says. Here, he looks back on five decades of adventures on and off the screen.
Reflecting on the movie's theme, Garner (with Gena Rowlands) says of his own marriage, "We'll be there for each other forever."
•MODEL PHYSIQUE, LOS ANGELES, 1946
Garner was going to Hollywood High when his gym teacher recommended him for a job modeling Jantzen bathing suits. "I made 25 bucks an hour!" he says. "That's why I quit school. I was making more money than the teachers. I never finished the ninth grade."
•SHIPPING OUT, BURBANK, 1951
Garner poses with his dad. Weldon Baumgarner, a construction worker, before heading off to the Korean War, where he was awarded a Purple Heart. "Off I went to be cannon fodder," he says. "I was wounded twice, once with shrapnel, then later I got shot in the butt by our own planes. It's the forgotten war. We lost as many men in Korea as we did in Vietnam. When we came home, there were no parades."
•THE GREAT ESCAPE, MUNICH, 1962
"Now here's a bad group," Garner says of James Coburn (seated) and Steve McQueen. "Steven would drive that motorcycle with the swastikas on it all over Munich. People would yell. They didn't think that was too good, and I didn't either." Back in L.A., McQueen was also his next-door neighbor. "He looked at me as an older brother."
Garner wed Lois (with daughter Gigi) two weeks after meeting her at a rally for Adlai Stevenson. "We went to dinner every night for 14 nights. I was just absolutely nuts about her. I spent $77 on our honeymoon, and it about broke me."
The TV western was a massive hit, but Garner clashed with his Warner Bros. bosses. "It was on for five years, but I left after three," he says. "They really stuck it to me. I was young and dumb. I said a couple things about being under contract that they didn't like, like that I felt like a ham in a smokehouse. They were waiting to get back at me by laying me off. We went to court and got out of my contract. I didn't want somebody in an office guiding my career. If I had a failure, I wanted it to be my failure. If I had a success, I wanted it to be my success."
"After Grand Prix  I formed a racing team," he says. "I didn't drive for the team except in off-road races because of insurance purposes. I could drive in off-road races because they had checkpoints. The insurance companies thought if you had checkpoints you couldn't go fast. I think they learned better after a while because we lost a couple of guys when they crashed or flipped. But I had a ball."
•8 SIMPLE RULES
Garner, who joined the show in 2003, never studied acting. "I'm a Spencer Tracy-type actor," he says. "His idea was to be on time, know your words, hit your marks and tell the truth. Most every actor tries to make it something it isn't [or] looks for the easy way out. I don't think acting is that difficult if you can put yourself aside and do what the writer wrote."
•THE ROCKFORD FILES, 1974-80
"It's just a six-year blur," says Garner (with costar Noah Berry Jr.). "I wore myself out, my brain out. It was hard work. I had six or seven knee operations during that time. Every hiatus I had one or both knees operated on, then I didn't have enough time to recoup, and I'd be back working on them and they'd give again. I finally had both knees replaced five years ago. They don't give me any trouble anymore. Now if I could get my feet replaced, my back replaced and my brain replaced, I'd be all right."
•GOLFING BROTHERS, 1994
"I took up golf in the late '50s to see if I could beat him," Garner says of older brother Jack, a retired golf pro. "Took me about 30 years." Says Jack: "If I could go out in the world and choose a brother, I'd choose him. He's so goodhearted. He helps everybody, in the family and out. Many people have benefited from his success."