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Why James Garner Was a “Game” Changer

July 24, 2014

Skin GameAs I mourn the passing of my favorite actor, James Garner, I watched one of his films I’d never seen before: the 1971 Western comedy Skin Game. What a revelation! It’s a bold, ballsy farce about race, class and gender in the Civil War era. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was made by Garner’s Cherokee Productions (the actor’s maternal grandfather was a full-blooded Native American). Off-camera, Garner bravely blazed trails in the arenas of civil rights (he helped organize Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington) as well as actors’ advocacy (he sued Warner Bros. and Universal for unpaid profits on Maverick and The Rockford Files, bettering the lives of many of his colleagues). And though it’s little remembered today, Garner’s Skin Game prefigured at least five major pop-cultural landmarks.

1. Django Unchained. Quentin Tarantino has acknowledged that his slavery-themed dark comedy was inspired by the tale of a con man (Garner, flashing his Maverick charm) and a free black man (Lou Gossett) who ride from town to town swindling would-be slave buyers. While not nearly as blood-soaked as Django, Skin Game does feature a daring scene in which Gossett guns down a brutal slave trader (Ed Asner) and keeps on shooting, even after his target is dead.

2. 12 Years a Slave. Many moviegoers were shocked to learn the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free man from New York who was captured by slavers in Confederate territory and forced into bondage. But they might not have been if they’d seen Skin Game‘s story of Jason (Gossett), a highly educated African-American from New Jersey who’s befallen by the same fate. While in captivity, Jason falls for a beautiful young black servant (Brenda Sykes) who bears more than a passing resemblance to Oscar winner Lupita N’yongo’s Patsey.

3. All in the Family. Okay, this one’s a bit of a stretch, but Paul Bogart—who had previously directed Garner in the supercool 1969 private-eye drama Marlowe—made Skin Game before going on to direct 97 episodes of the classic sitcom, which broke ground with its frank depiction of racism. (Go ahead, call me a Meathead!)

4. Blazing Saddles. While its comic tone isn’t nearly as wild as in Mel Brooks’ 1974 Western spoof, Skin Game laid the foundation for the story of an African-American sheriff (Cleavon Little) with its blackfish-out-of-water premise. Working under the pseudonym Pierre Martone, screenwriter Peter Stone—the scribe behind 1776—wasn’t afraid to use the n-word, just as Brooks did. Not to mention Tarantino again…

5. Roots. It’s not just that Gossett plays a slave, like he did as Fiddler in the milestone miniseries, or that Asner (who won an Emmy as slave-ship Capt. Thomas Davies) plays a sadistic trader. The scenes in which Garner is stripped and whipped, and Gossett is threatened with death if he ever dares to speak proper English to his “owner,” are every bit as potent as the indelible image of Levar Burton’s Kunta Kinte being tortured into accepting his slave name of “Toby.” That was no game, but there’s no question Skin changed the racial rules.

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