Feature: James Garner helped to put drive into classic racing movie 'Grand Prix'

15 September 2000

Posted By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel
INDIANAPOLIS-- James Garners movie and television acting roles have ranged from the gambler cowboy Bret Maverick to the Space Cowboy Tank Sullivan.

But to auto racing fans worldwide, he is best remembered for his portrayal of Formula One driver Pete Aron in the 1966 epic movie "Grand Prix." He was an American car cowboy racing on some of the great street and road circuits of Europe.

Thirty-four years, later Formula One is coming to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time, and Garner is excited about seeing the inaugural SAP United States Grand Prix on Sept. 24.

"I plan to be there," said Garner, who saw his first Indianapolis 500 in 1958 -- A.J. Foyts rookie race -- and drove the Pace Car in 1975, 1977 and 1985.

"Grand Prix" still is considered one of the best racing movies ever made. Directed by John Frankenheimer, in addition to Garner it starred Eva Marie Saint, Yves Montand, Toshiro Mifune, Brian Bedford, Jessica Walter, Antonio Sabato and Adolfo Celi. Also appearing in numerous scenes were many of the top F1 drivers of that era.

"Oh, my God, we had Jochen Rindt. Of course, Phil Hill was there, and (Bob) Bondurant and Richie Ginther, Peter Revson," recalled Garner, rolling the names off his tongue like they were still taking checkered flags today.

"Graham Hill worked on the picture, but I dont think he did much driving when we were filming. Those guys were really heavy into it. We didnt use (John) Surtees or (Jackie) Stewart. We used almost everybody else in scenes. But on the track, oh, my gosh, Mike Spence. What a sweetheart, what a nice guy. I really liked Mike.

"(Juan Manuel) Fangio came to Monte Carlo at the race, and we met him there, but I dont think he did anything in the picture."

Its easy to tell that Garner holds these drivers, many of them Hall of Famers, in high esteem. And also that he feels the same way about the movie, one of 46 he has made during his stellar career. But he almost didnt get the role.

Frankenheimer came up with the idea for the script after reading a book about Grand Prix racing authored by a New York Times writer. Garner, a Purple Heart recipient from the Korean War, spotted mention about casting for this movie in the Hollywood trade magazines and went after the Aron role.

"I told my agent, go find out what thats all about, which he did," Garner said. "And MGM wanted me. Frankenheimer really didnt want me."

Garner said that the director wanted an unknown to play the key role. He also sought out foreign actors so the film would have an added attraction to the international audiences. By then Garner already had played Maverick on TV, made a number of movies, including a couple with Doris Day, and played "Hendley The Scrounger" in the 1963 hit "The Great Escape."

"Frankenheimer wanted somebody who didnt have much of an opinion, he wanted him to do what he said," Garner said.

"He worked with Burt Lancaster for so long, and Burt had an opinion. Actually, Frankenheimer had talked to (Steve) McQueen, and they didnt get along the first 10 minutes. So they were looking for somebody else, and I was fortunate enough to get the picture."

Born in Norman, Okla., Garners only racing experience was driving hot rods on the streets in the 1940s. He never had any money to buy a machine so he always drove somebody elses car.

Two months before the filming of "Grand Prix" began, Garner was hooked up with Bondurant, still competing in F1 and sports cars at the time, and given a quick course in race car driving at the Willow Springs road course located in the southern California desert. Later, he completed a week-long course at the Jim Russell driving school but was way ahead of the other students because of prior instructions under Bondurant.

Then it was off to Europe to commence filming. First it was at Monte Carlo, then to Spa in Belgium, to England and Brands Hatch, back to Belgium, then to France and, finally, to Italy.

"So by the point I got there, I could drive a little bit, but, you know, I was a little nervous," Garner said.

"I was driving these cars on great circuits with great drivers, and so I was a little apprehensive. But by the time we got through, I felt very comfortable with all the drivers. And they did with me, I think. They gave a lot of respect, and I appreciated that."

Garner lost 20 pounds for his Grand Prix performance so he could fit into the car. His height was a problem, too. His head extended above the roll bar and necessitated removal of the seat.

"I was sitting on a cloth or something, right on the gas tank," he said. Garners most exciting scene in the movie was one at Brands Hatch where his car exploded in flames as he crossed the finish line. It was Garner who did the scene, not a stunt man, and afterward Lloyds of London canceled his insurance for the final two months of filming.

Actually, Lloyds threatened to cancel the policy earlier when one of its agents caught Garner driving overly fast in the rain at Spa.

Garner, later star of the popular TV detective series "The Rockford Files," volunteered to do the fire scene when it became a rush job because the helicopter had to be back in France the next day.

The car was rigged with a smoke bomb and two butane tanks. Each tank was rigged with a hook and pull rope that Garner had to tug at the appropriate time to initiate the flames. He released the smoke bomb as he entered the final turn and opened the butane tanks as he raced at about 100 mph toward the finish line.

"I started shutting everything down," Garner said. "By the time I got stopped, I had set those butane tanks off, and what happened was that everything that was in the line gushed out and made that huge fireball.

"We didnt know what happened. I got out of that thing (car) in a hurry, because it was a lot bigger than I thought it would be. I bruised the inside of both of my thighs down to my ankles on that steering wheel getting out of there."

He chuckled at the recollection and added, "It really got hot in a hurry." No one was seriously hurt during the filming, but F1 veteran Jo Siffert did stage an unplanned crash at Brands Hatch.

"We thought for sure he did himself in, but he just got out and said no," Garner said.

The story of the crash has a funny twist. It seems actor Montand didnt adapt to racing speeds as well as Garner and was always saying, "Were going too fast," so everybody slowed down when he was involved. Scenes were filmed through three or four turns at one time, the cars stopped, and then all of the drivers, including Garner, would race pell-mell back to the starting point.

Siffert crashed in one of these reverse dashes trying to beat the others back.

"He hit some signs, knocked off three wheels and whatever, and when I got up to him I said, What happened?" Garner said. "He said, It was too fast for me."

The movie was a big hit and can still be purchased in VHS format. Garner continues his long association with racing by attending the Indianapolis 500 whenever his schedule allows. He was on hand for the 2000 race and spent time in the garages chatting with friends like two-time winner Rodger Ward.

"Thats one of the reasons I come back every year," he said, "to talk to the guys, see em all. I dont get to see them in between. But its fun. Parnelli (Jones, 1963 winner) and I are good friends. We play some golf every now and then. And then youve got Lloyd Ruby and (Jim) McElreath. Its always good to see those guys."

During his most recent visit to the Speedway, Garner was impressed by the changes and, naturally, took a tour of the new Formula One circuit that includes part of the oval and then winds through the infield.

"I dont know how they fit that son-of-a-gun in there," he said. "Theyve got I dont know how many miles (2.606 miles), but its quite a track."

"Space Cowboys" is Garners latest movie. He shares star billing with Clint Eastwood, who also directed, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland. Instead of racing around racetracks Garner is racing through space in this one.

"Oh, we had such fun," he said about making of the movie. "Good people. Clint just directed a great movie. Its a tremendous movie, it really is quite good."

Race or space, James Garner put a special touch to the movies hes made.

Text Provided By Paul Kelly

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot racing photos and art, visit The Racing Photo Museum and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.

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